Spring on the York College campus

Course Correction

In the face of an unexpected public health crisis, faculty and students adapted with grace, style, and impact.
An illustration shows canoes carved from pencils, being rowed synchronously by a number of illustrated people

YCP Pivots & Innovates

York College is no stranger to the pandemic, having endured a mid-semester campus closure and a sudden transition to remote learning. That transition upended the learning environment and altered the content of classes as it produced examples of York faculty and students digging deep and finding ways to not merely adjust to difficult circumstances, but to triumph over adversity in inspiring ways. Here are a few of their stories.

Community Commitment

The Department of Education has been partnering with the York Area Down Syndrome Association (YADSA) for six years. For the last two years, Molly Milam, PhD, Assistant Professor of Education, has partnered with YADSA to host two on-campus events per semester with support services for parents of children with Down syndrome and crafts, story time, and dancing for kids. Through those face-to-face events, Milam’s students learn about issues affecting the Down syndrome community. Forced to cancel the second event of the Spring Semester, Milam pivoted online where she recreated the parent support group environment via Zoom. She also started an online app, Padlet, for discussions where her students can submit questions anonymously. Milam then shares them with parents. Milam’s soon-to-be teachers then reviewed and reflected upon parent responses. “It was my most successfully adjusted assignment during the transition to online instruction,” Milam says. She has since learned that her slate of fall events has been canceled as well, but she’s confident she can close the gap online. 

Art Rises Above

COVID-19 has left no aspect of the York experience unchanged. Art professor Ry Fryar, MFA, had to rework his figure drawing class, which involves frequent one-on-one interaction between him and his students as they discuss the nuances of intent and approach that are the lessons of any art class. “Normally, it’s a typical figure drawing class, everyone working from a live model, and me helping students to draw it right. It’s a very, very hands-on process, really difficult to teach in a remote way,” Fryar says. 

The move online was new to Fryar, but aided by software that helps him offer visual ideas and the familiar Zoom video conferencing app, he managed the transition as well as can be expected. The software allows him to observe the student as they draw and for the student to share control with the instructor who offers suggestions in real-time. 

“If a student shares a digital image, I can literally draw with a pen tool on my tablet and have it show up digitally,” Fryar says. 

With the technical challenges resolved, Fryar began to work COVID-19 into his lessons, each of which begin with a written prompt ranging from the straightforward (“draw your despair at this turn of events”) to the whimsical (“draw the four horsemen of the apocalypse and include a pudding cup”). Fryar has been impressed by the students’ response and has assembled the best of the best in a 40-page graphic journal called Apocrypha Zine (“ZYn” as it is pronounced). 

“We call it ‘Apocrypha’ plural, as in multiple apocalypses,” Fryar says, emphasizing the personal toll the disease has had on each student. “They have been really passionate about it.” 

Modern Microbiology

Some teachers faced the challenge of duplicating the first-person work that usually transpires in lab in an online environment. David Singleton, PhD, is Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences. His courses are hands-on. His students learn by getting in the lab and doing the work themselves. Singleton realized that replicating certain experiences in an online setting was not going to be possible, but in other ways the transition online actually made it easier to reinforce lessons from his lab. 

His students are often Nursing students. Where once he taught classic microbiology—staining slides and observation under a microscope—he’s seen his course transition over the years to a more analytical approach. “Only a small fraction of my students needs to learn how to stain slides,” Singleton says. “Instead, they need the interpretive and communication skills necessary to understand a disease and to effectively communicate precautions and therapies to patients.” 

One exercise that Singleton does in the lab involves background research, which the students do in their lab pods on laptop computers. In the online environment, Singleton asks the students to visit the CDC website and choose a transmissible disease among the many catalogued there. The students learned to analyze a disease’s key characteristics—how common it is, how contagious it is, how it is spread, and what treatments work best.

“COVID-19 gave us this great, real-world opportunity to learn how epidemiologists track, analyze, and interpret diseases,” Singleton says. “We were able to move that portion of the class online pretty seamlessly.” 

New Territory for Tele-Health

Kelli Masters, DNP, who teaches nursing, found herself having to completely rethink her course mid-semester. She was teaching future nurses, criminal justice professionals, and victim advocates how to care for victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault or human trafficking, skills which usually happen in a person-toperson environment. Developing that keen eye requires these professionals to spot physical injuries and pick up on subtle non-verbal cues from the patients, who are often afraid to speak of their abuse. 

In the pre-pandemic world, these skills were ingrained through role-playing simulations in which the students examine trained actors in makeup, known as “standardized patients.” 

“We were told, ‘No more live stuff. You have to go online,’ ” recalls Masters, who remembers thinking: “How are we going to do this by computer?” 

In a pinch, Masters adapted her course to a telehealth environment in which the students interviewed the specialized patients via Zoom. It was not ideal, but Masters, her students, and, especially she says, the actors, transitioned beyond her expectations. “I had to sneak in and watch,” Masters says. “The standardized patients were great. They were so real.” 

Things went so well, in fact, that Masters is considering working tele-health simulations into future classes when things return to the new normal. 

Asynchronous Education

Mike Mudrick, PhD, teaches in the Sport Management program, whose students are generally familiar with online courses. In the Sport Management program, students in their final semester complete an off-campus internship, supplemented by an online course involving ethics and current issues in the sport industry. However, Mudrick was teaching sophomores and juniors in the spring for two communication-based classes in the program. When the shutdown started, Mudrick solicited students’ input on how they would like the class structured, either in formal, regular online classes with set times where all students would be required to attend, known as a “synchronous classroom.” Or, as less formal, video lessons prepared by Mudrick that the students could watch at their convenience and demonstrate proficiency through online quizzes, known as an “asynchronous classroom.” The students voted for the asynchronous route. 

“There were some hiccups in the early stages, but once we got rolling, it worked really well,” Mudrick says. 

A Period of Adjustment

Adjunct Professor Susan Schrack Wood divides her time between a job with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and as a teacher of scientific writing at York College. When the campus closure was first announced, she moved her science communication class online. Wood says that COVID-19 forced her to leapfrog her Plan B entirely, which anticipated a short shutdown, and jump right to her long-term Plan C. She structured her online class as a series of individual mini-projects that students would complete on their own time, from home, supplemented by office hours like Zoom meetings where the students could run their ideas and findings by Wood. 

Not only did Wood pivot quickly to the online environment, but she also began to weave real-world, pandemic- inspired scenarios into her course content. One assignment involved the students placing themselves at the center of a contact tracing exercise in which they had to recall every person they had been in contact with within the previous days to learn firsthand the value— and the challenges—of such efforts during a pandemic.

Wood teaches mostly Nursing students. She says it is a critical skill for them to communicate complex medical and public health information to patients. “There’s this huge disconnect between science and communication. Nurses can bridge that gap. Often, they are the primary conduit between the scientific community and the patients,” Wood says. 

Faculty and students had to act quickly to ensure they continued to teach and learn under rapidly changing and stressful circumstances. In some cases, they were well positioned to transition from face-to-face to virtual learning, while others faced more of a challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic not only affected the YCP educational experience, it sometimes became part of the coursework. As the College community looks forward to returning to campus, lessons learned by faculty and students will not be lost as they do their best to prepare for the new normal.