Faculty of Education units rise to the challenge of COVID-19 closures

We saw it looming on the horizon for weeks in North America, as it shut down entire cities in China and proliferated rapidly through Europe. Then, suddenly, it was here. The global coronavirus pandemic became, seemingly overnight, a very local public health emergency across Alberta. We’re all still living through what came next: a major disruption in social functioning as schools, businesses, entire economic sectors shuttered in an effort to prevent a spike of infections that might overwhelm the healthcare system.

As the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Alberta rose, the University of Alberta announced that in-person classes were suspended in mid-March. Students were told to stay home. Instructors quickly amassed the technology and knowhow to deliver their courses online. Staff locked up and headed home to set up remote offices, not knowing when they’d be able to return to campus.

In the Faculty of Education, accommodating the needs of students meant much more than figuring out how to share a PowerPoint over Zoom. As of March 13, more than 400 education undergraduates were halfway through their advanced field experience (AFX) placements, and 500 more were poised to start their introductory field experience (IFX) placements in 61 school districts and divisions. On March 15, the Alberta government officially closed all K-12 schools in the province to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Building the best alternative for student teachers

For the Faculty’s eight field experience associates (FEAs), there was at least finally some clarity. After days of trying to respond to snap decisions and sudden reversals to the status of the student teachers they supervise, they knew they had to devise a way for their charges to complete their academic year. For IFX students, it meant creating an instructional experience at least roughly equivalent to working in a classroom.

“The minute that we knew field placements were over, the FEAs locked themselves up for a week and wrote extra modules for IFX students,” says Roberta Baril, the field experience lead in Undergraduate Student Services.

“It was an unbelievable amount of work from those folks. The difficulty was that they wanted it to be authentic to an in-school experience. In the end, they took the new Teacher Quality Standards, the six competencies, and based the course on that. Most IFX students had completed three days of orientation in the schools prior to their closing which provided some context and added authenticity. It was not a substitute for being with students, but it was the best solution given the constraints.”

With the support of Dean Jennifer Tupper and Associate Dean - Undergraduate Student Services Maryanne Doherty, six two-hour modules were developed for IFX students, who had until April 24 to complete them. Baril says the ways some of the IFX students responded to these less-than-ideal conditions actually helped their supervisors get through the tough early days of the pandemic.

“The FEAs would call me in the day wanting to read me these assignments, and they’d be in tears,” she recalls. “These introductory students, some of them are going into their final year, they’ve put in all this time, they’re excited to go into a classroom, then that’s taken away. And in spite of all that they write these beautiful, rich, reflective pieces about sticking with it and becoming the teacher students need. It was pretty uplifting.”

In the end, almost all 500 of the IFX students completed the course, with a few students deferring based on extenuating circumstances.

AFX constituted a different challenge, one that required extensive consultation with Alberta Education, school districts and the Alberta Teachers’ Association. While the combined IFX and AFX hours in the classroom were deemed adequate for interim teacher certification by Alberta Ed, there were still concerns about the evaluations by mentor teachers that constitute part of the final marks.

“Student teaching is a trajectory and five of their nine weeks into it, they’re just hitting their stride, so we had to have some conversations about whether this is the evaluation they wanted,” Baril says. “We called the districts because it’s a big ask of our mentors to say ‘will you be able to write a report when this has come to a complete halt?’ So we spent a couple of days rewriting the whole evaluation process.”

Baril adds that strong relationships and transparency were key to navigating what could mildly be called an unprecedented situation.

“The students having a connection with their FEAs really helped pull them toward the finish line,” she says. “We didn’t always have solutions, but they felt heard and supported. The news wasn’t always good, but at least there was news.”

Supporting mental health and mental health professionals

The Faculty’s Clinical Services, School and Child Psychology Program (SCCP) and Counseling Psychology Program had a slight head start in facing the reality of the pandemic, in that a client at the clinic had reported being tested for coronavirus in early March. After closing the clinic offices in Education North for disinfecting, clinic supervisors Karen Cook and Kevin Wallace consulted with the clinic and program teams and quickly saw stronger measures might be needed to protect the health of clients, staff and students alike.

But with a cohort of counseling students who had five to eight clients each, two full-time interns with busy schedules who needed to complete 1,600 training hours, a number of psychoeducational assessments in progress, simply ceasing operations wasn’t an option.

“Many clinical and counselling programs stopped and sent their students and interns home. That was a common response across Canada,” says Wallace. “Our general strategy was we wanted to emphasize continuity of training for our students and continuity of care for our clients, and deal with the possible risks. As long as the risks aren’t great, we will proceed with care but we don’t want to just drop our clients.”

Continuing to provide care entailed a steep learning curve for everyone involved, as there was little precedent at the clinic for working remotely with clients. With the support of the Dean’s Office, Educational Psychology chair George Buck, the clinic’s de facto directors Christina Rinaldi and Bill Whelton, and director of training for the SCCP program Damien Cormier, and in consultation with the College of Alberta Psychologists, Cook and Wallace went to work compiling the necessary resources and protocols.

In a matter of days, students and interns were equipped with ‘telehealth’ professional development resources, ethics and security guidelines, and a statement of informed consent that reflected their new work environment. Initial counseling sessions were delivered by phone, but a move to remote meeting platforms like Zoom and Doxy.me soon followed. Registered psychologists who volunteer with the clinic even provided student supervision online.

“The clinic was super supportive with us and they really hit the ground running. Lots of places were maybe slower to adapt and I think the clinic was at the forefront of this, so it was really great to be a part of it,” says Carley Hoyle, a doctoral candidate in School and Clinical Child Psychology, and one of the clinic’s senior associate interns.

“Not once did they say, ‘we’re going to have to stop.’ It was a collaboration and a conversation about how to move forward. People need these services and certainly we can be creative and work with the college to find safe and effective ways to do this. That’s been huge for me and taken a lot of stress off my plate.”

While assessments have been completed and graduate students have finished their year, the clinic’s interns continue to provide counseling to clients, most of whom opted to continue their sessions online. Senior associate intern Mikaela Burgos Cando, a doctoral candidate in Counseling Psychology, says having the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in telehealth has actually proven a bonus in terms of professional development.

“To have experience doing telepsych is quite ideal in our profession, and that’s not something we’ve been taught in the program, so to have this kind of opportunity and for our supervisors to be so flexible in allowing us to have that opportunity has been great,” says Burgos Cando.

“Clients have been very relieved and grateful that the clinic has been so accessible and so willing to support them. If anything, I feel like therapeutic work has been able to continue and clients have been able to continue to see degrees of progress in their own work.”

Cook and Wallace say the sudden transition to providing client care online points the way to improving access to services post-pandemic and providing training for future mental health professionals.

“We often have families that travel long distances to the clinic, so our accessibility will increase through this. There will be pieces that can be completed through telehealth, so it would limit the amount of travel required and make us more accessible,” Wallace says. “If we can learn to do this remotely, and be able to help rural communities across the province. I would love to see that.”

“I think there will be developments in how this gets integrated into training and preparing for events like this in future, how to quickly make this shift to remote delivery if we need it,” Cook adds.

‘These challenges push you forward’

Uncertainty continues to hang over the 2020-21 school year for K-12 and post-secondary institutions as the pandemic continues to unfold. Baril says the Field Experience team is looking at numerous scenarios based on whether or not K-12 schools are able to operate in-person classrooms.

“Our top question is will the schools accept student teachers or not, whether they’re open, whether they’re remote? Our major planning is, if schools are accepting student teachers and they’re on remote delivery, how can we fit into that model?” she says.

“We’ve got such strong relationships with the field and the U of A has such great respect from the field, so if there’s anything we’re sure of it’s that they’ll do whatever they can to work with us. We just have to decide what the best decision is for everyone involved.”

Whatever happens next, Baril says she’s encouraged and inspired by how a global health emergency has brought out the best in her Faculty of Education colleagues and students.

“The challenges that have been presented have started the created juices flowing in the people I work with and some of the ideas that have come forward are brilliant,” Baril says. “Even if we’re back to normal in the fall, the ideas that have been generated, there is the possibility we will use some of them anyway. In some ways, these challenges push you forward.”

Feature image: Kevin Wallace.