Lessons from Katrina

April 6, 2020
Teaching & LearningSean Hickey

Foreword by Julia Winter

My husband, Chuck Winter, is a faculty member at Wayne State University. When the word came in early March, that Spring Break was going to be extended a week until March 23, and that classes thereafter would be conducted online due to the Corona Virus pandemic. Sean Hickey, recently hired as a lab instructor, sent a very thoughtful note to the chemistry faculty at Wayne State with a message of putting the focus on attending to student needs. Chuck told me about the email from Sean, and I asked Sean if we could share his important message through a blog post. We are now in week number three of stay-at-home, learn-from-home, work-from-home, and the message of keeping an open line of communication to our students is even more important as the end of this “disruption” does not seem imminent just yet.

Lessons from Katrina

 Hello. My name is Sean Hickey. I have been a Senior Lecturer at Wayne State University since August 2019. Prior to that I taught at the University of New Orleans (UNO) and Xavier University of Louisiana for twenty years. During my tenure at UNO, we had the unfortunate experience of Hurricane Katrina. UNO was the first university to reopen after Katrina. We were back and “running” in less than a month. We were forced to move almost all of our classes from face to face (F2F) to online. In other words, I have experienced first-hand what we are all experiencing now. In one word, CHAOS. So, I want to offer some words of encouragement and hopefully wisdom to you about the overall situation, not specifically about working from home or converting your class to online (there are tons of articles about that and I will be happy to lend my 2 cents in a future post).

 I belong to a number of education groups and every group has multiple posts about converting your course from F2F to online (as expected); but I have also seen a few (just a few) on our student’s psyche. While, I am sure many (if not all) of you have already started planning and implementing changes to your course to convert it from F2F to online, you may not have considered your student’s psyche. In this post, I hope to give you some insights on how to help your students. 

Helping Your Students and TAs

First and foremost, they need to know about the counseling resources, food pantry, internet support, anything and everything that your university has available to them and you all need to remind them of this. Hopefully, your university has one link (probably a Coronavirus link) to help your students out. For example, the administration at Wayne State has done an admirable job of communicating to students what is going on and continually updating the main Coronavirus web page and the student information topic on that web page.

 With respect to how to communicate with your students: Don’t just give them platitudes, give them concrete information and DIRECTION.

 As much as we are concerned about how we will make it through the next few weeks (months?), our students are going through all this and more.  Many have to worry about financial situations(loss of income from school jobs or the service jobs they work at not needing them as much), or maybe they work in the “gig” industry and are getting swamped with calls to deliver food and groceries. Our students are very, very anxious and they want us to tell them what to do. They really want to know what they need to do.

 When the first word came out that campus was being being shut down, I sent out a couple of the platitude emails got maybe one or two thank you responses. I then sent out a lengthy email listing out all their deadlines for the rest of the semester. Not only was I giving them a list of assignments, I had actually accelerated the due dates.Instead of having labs do once a week (when they were doing F2F labs), they are now doing two labs a week. I explained to them why I was doing the accelerated labs (so they could finish up their lab work in 2 weeks and have time to focus on their other courses).

 By the following morning, I had already received over a dozen responses. Many of them were just thanking me for keeping them informed and giving them direction on what they need to do. Others were asking questions about the first pre-lab quiz. Others just said they were so glad to hear from one of their professors. Granted, these responses only represent about 3% of my students. But in reality, I am sure each one of them represent a large portion of my students. I am also seeing chatter in their WhatsApp groups from those “silent” students who we never hear from. I am just one of their maybe 5-7 courses they are taking. They are craving and need this support from us. They are in turmoil and in many cases we are in loco parent is to them.

 Don’t forget to communicate and offer support to your graduate students, TAs, undergraduate student workers, peer mentors. The TAs are often even more vulnerable than our undergraduates,because many of them coming from other countries and don’t have any support other than each other. Most of my TAs are first year graduate students and are just starting in a research group and have looked to me for support more than their research advisor. Make sure they are safe, secure, have what they need to get by and then involve them in your plans for the rest of the semester. They need a diversion from reading research papers or writing up data (if they have it). They will welcome the chance to be involved.

 Helping your University

How does this help the university?

From experience, I can let you know that strong leadership and hard work can make or break a university after a crisis like this. After Katrina, our university went from an all-time high of 17K students during fall 2005 (when Katrina hit) to under 7K students. Only in the past couple of years did they finally stop the bleeding and see an increase to near 8K students. Imagine losing 10K students (or close to 60% of your students). Imagine what that does to a budget that depends almost entirely on tuition. Over twenty research faculty in chemistry down to six. Over 100 graduate students down to twenty. Meanwhile, the community college and another suburban four-year college (primarily undergraduate) had record enrollments (so much so that the community college had to turn away students because they just didn’t have the physical space to teach any more students). This is a real possibility that could happen to your school.

The most vulnerable population is not your graduating seniors or juniors (they are committed to your school); it is your freshmen, sophomores, and incoming students that are most likely to be lost.  If you and your university acts as a leader during this crisis, you can make sure you don’t lose those students. The research shows that when those vulnerable students leave college, they very rarely every come back to your university or any other university. Enrollments for future years were expected to go down anyway for the next few years, we need to make sure that this crisis does not contribute to the further eroding of our Higher Education institutions. Whether that happens or not, is mostly out of our hands; it is up to the leadership, marketing,external affairs of our university to make those connections. But there are things we can do.

So what do we (as chemistry faculty) need to do? We lead as chemistry faculty have always led. We drive our College and University by doing what we always do, we give our students the absolute best education we know how to do. But we need to make sure our students know we are there for them and we will be working hard for them. It is amazing what open communication can do when talking with our students. It is a cliché, but in times like this, people want to be given direction. Give your students the direction they crave right now. Make sure they know you are working hard to provide the best possible education in these trying times. Let them know that you understand their concerns and your course is being modified to get through these last few weeks of the semester. Give them something to do, something they can accomplish and put in the “win” column. Most of all, just communicate with them, empathize with them and be there for them.

Co- Author
Julia Winter