Lessons Learned in a Pandemic—Supporting Students Who Are in Distress while You’re Teaching Remotely

Colleges across the nation have put a significant amount of effort into helping students be more resilient. This effort, as well as need, has only grown since COVID-19 struck. How can faculty support their students’ well-being and resilience while teaching remotely? 

Dina Radeljas is an associate professor of sociology at Mohawk Valley Community College, in Utica, New York.  She came to Utica with her family as a refugee in 1995. Dina is from Bosnia, which was war torn during the early 1990s. During these years Dina and her family were refugees in Croatia and Pakistan before resettling in the United States. Dina has been teaching at a community college level for 14+ years and also adjuncts at the State University of New York—Polytechnic Institute. Dina has done several public speaking engagements, including a TedX talk in 2018, and several keynotes, including at the Human Rights Convention by the Model United Nations of Upper Mohawk Valley.

Dina Radeljas
Image Credit: Sharon Zohne

Teaching at a community college has made me realize that education is much more than academic work. Even before the pandemic, colleges and universities prioritized holistic student support services on their campuses, such as suicide prevention, mental health counseling, and overall self-care. When students are in an overall healthy state of being, they can focus on their academic work because other facets of their life are in order and they feel a sense of belonging on campus. These holistic services are not just important for students’ academic success, they are a vital part of an overall healthy campus and a positive faculty and student climate. A resilient student is a student who has developed positive approaches to their learning and academic work. A student who has more confidence in their abilities, which has an effect on better focus and academic achievement in the classroom. Additionally, a resilient student is a student who can apply themselves to their academic discipline and/or their academic work.

Never was the importance of these holistic services so evident than in the spring of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic brought a significant amount of uncertainty to most students as well as faculty across the nation. This uncertainty has turned into an ongoing challenge as we continue to battle this “new normal” one day at a time. Many colleges across the nation are still offering classes in a virtual format, and even for those who are not, being on campus in a classroom is not like it was prior to March 2020. The currently available wellness programs are effective in helping some students readjust and become more resilient, but others continue to suffer. Regardless of the situation, colleges across the nation are seeing an increase in anxiety, depression, and behavioral disorders (Coughenour, Gakh, Pharr et al, 2021).

These significant changes and challenges facing my students have prompted me, like many of you, to adjust my classroom as well as teaching philosophy to better support my students’ resilience and overall wellbeing. Here are some things that I have done:

Sharing support services: I have always focused on support services that our college offered in connection to housing and food insecurities—these conversations became more important as more students experienced a loss of employment and/or fear of working during the early days of the pandemic. I tried to educate myself and share with my classes about the services that existed both on our campus as well as in our community. Most services needed became our counseling center and our student support advisors. It became evident that students needed more help than just that of academic nature; the help that students needed was more personal and geared toward everyday stressors that the pandemic and remote learning has brought upon all of us. 

Flexibility around assignment formats: Flexibility and choice have always impacted student success, but this connection was amplified during the pandemic as many students who aren’t familiar or comfortable with remote learning ended up in remote modalities. I recognized this very quickly as my students scrambled to produce and adjust to the new modality. In the world prior to the pandemic, I asked students to submit in the form of a Word document in class (unless the student reached out beforehand to set up an alternative). This quickly became an issue in the world of remote learning as the technology gap was even more pronounced than before the pandemic. As a result, alternative solutions became the norm. I accepted assignments in formats outside of a Word document and/or Google Drive. Students could email me their assignment in the body of the email or take pictures of the assignment that they had written in their notebook. Once I offered multiple nontraditional avenues for submitting course work, I noticed my students’ completion rates improved significantly. Having these options and providing this flexibility not only ensured completion of assignments, but also provided a more-equitable pathway for success in the course.  

Flexibility with office hours: While I used to conduct my office hours in person, I realized that simply moving them online wouldn’t suffice in this new normal. I therefore added phone calls, video calls, and texting. By offering these alternatives, I saw the stress and anxiety in my students start to reduce. It became ever so important to “speak the students’ language” in regard to how office hours were held and how connections were made. A majority of the students chose to check in via text message or phone call. Some students would ask questions about assignments via text message and indicated that they found this interaction most helpful and influential in their success in the classroom. Through flexibility and offering a variety of ways to hold office hours and offer support, students’ anxiety and stress were reduced. Many indicated these changes were an important factor in their continued success in the classroom as well as their overall success in the semester. 

Wellness checks: I started incorporating a regular “well-being check” with my students. I used email, text, or a phone call to check in with students on a monthly basis. This would be either an all-student email or an individualized email to a particular student. The choice depended largely on the needs of the students and their own individual stories. For example, check-ins might happen around major assignments and tests. Additionally, judging from their involvement in the discussion boards and/or engagement in the overall class, I would send follow-up emails to particular students to initiate the conversation of why they might not be as present in the course and if there was anything I could help with. I found that these check-ins were welcomed and often sparked more intensive conversations. 

Promoting a sense of belonging: Even before the pandemic, educators recognized that a sense of belonging was a key part of keeping students enrolled and successful. As a result of the pandemic, fostering a sense of belonging became harder but even more important. Leveraging on what I previously knew and experienced, I focused on teaching students the tools that are necessary for a positive dialogue on campus as well as helping them form connections with the college community. I emphasized connections with faculty, student support advisors, and tutors on campus. I also emphasized connecting with peer mentors, who understand the stress students are under firsthand. I did this through several different formats and modalities: I spent more time discussing these avenues in the classroom and in Zoom sessions; I promoted the services that are available on campus; I shared stories of previous experiences with both students and faculty; and I brought representatives from these support services to my virtual classroom to discuss their area of expertise firsthand. In addition to these suggestions, there are many resources widely available on creating a sense of belonging in the classroom, such as this recorded workshop from Bryan Dewsbury (Florida International University).

These are just some of the lessons and changes I have experienced and implemented in an effort to form better connections with my students, as well as to help them build their resilience and enhance their academic success. Through these efforts, I have experienced healthier and more successful students—students who are apt to ask for help and seem genuinely engaged in their studies.

Coughenour, C., Gakh, M., Pharr, J.R. et al. (2021).  Changes in Depression and Physical Activity Among College Students on a Diverse Campus After a COVID-19 Stay-at-Home Order. J Community Health 46, 758–766. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10900-020-00918-5

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