The Best Laid Plans: One Professor’s Response to the COVID-19 Global Crisis

During the spring 2020 semester, I was teaching undergraduate accounting courses in hybrid format to a traditional, main campus student population. The semester was progressing well and we were preparing for spring break. Then, the world seemed to stop. On March 12, 2020, my institution announced its first step in responding to the COVID-19 crisis: spring break would start early and span more than two weeks.

The plan was for campus-based classes to resume on March 30, but we would not come back to campus. Instead, we, the faculty, were to transition all face-to-face and hybrid classes to Remote Instruction to complete the rest of the semester. 

Having taught fully online courses in our Division of Online and Professional Studies, I had significant experience teaching online and hybrid courses. I actually set up the Learning Management System, Blackboard, for my hybrid courses very similar to a fully online course. From Day 1 of the semester in January, I supplied my students with all of the course material in Blackboard including chapter PowerPoints, fill-in lecture handouts, and my personal step-by-step lecture videos on YouTube to accompany those handouts. Since I had already set up the course in Blackboard to use all of the online tools, materials, and resources that I would have included in an online course, students were familiar with the Blackboard course layout and comfortable with navigating the system to get course material and information.

Since I laid the foundation for the online material in my courses up front, I thought it would be straight forward to “flip the switch” and convert the course from a hybrid to a fully online format. After all, the technological components of the course were already in place, ready to go, and familiar to the students. This meant the technology component of the transition was seamless. I taught extensively online and knew how to navigate online learning so the teaching component of the transition was seamless for me. The learning component of the transition, though, was not fully seamless.

In fact, students had varying degrees of engagement and success with the transition to Remote Instruction. Some students had no problem with the transition and continued to learn the material, complete assignments, email questions, and perform well. On the opposite end of the spectrum, other students did not log in to Blackboard after March 12, did not complete assignments, and did not respond to emails. These were the students that needed extra help and support.

Going into the first few days of our response to the pandemic, I quickly realized that this was not simply about flipping the switch to change the learning modality for my students. My students were experiencing substantial trauma and I needed to provide help, assistance, and support well beyond the course material.

Some students had housing difficulties because the dorms and student housing were shut down. Some students did not have compatible devices to access coursework at home. Other students were frozen by fear and anxiety and could not bring themselves to focus on course material. Still other students worked 40 plus hours a week as front line workers to support their household when their family members were laid off or furloughed. My students were experiencing substantial stress and uncertainty.

Even though I am a very engaged professor under normal circumstances, I felt compelled to go above and beyond the norm. My students were silently hurting. I needed to help them. My driving force during the semester was to truly meet my students at their needs.

I reached into my online teaching toolkit and got started. I knew I needed to provide more substantial personal outreach to help my students during this unprecedented time. To do that, I employed five themes for outreach and strategic intervention. 

My first method of outreach was extra course communication. Not only did I communicate more frequently with my students via Blackboard announcements, but I also provided different types of communication. My announcements were not just about instructions, assignments, and due dates pertaining to the course. I also offered more heartfelt thoughts and feelings including my personal experiences and inspirational passages to encourage them.

Second, I scheduled several virtual meetings each week to answer students’ course-related questions on specific theoretical concepts, assignment instructions, and specific homework problems. I wanted them to know that I was still there to help them and they were not alone in the transition, in the course, or in the pandemic. I had a varying degree of attendance at these scheduled meetings, but I recorded them and distributed links to the videos so everyone could access to the information when it worked within their own schedules. I also let them know that I was open and available to schedule individual phone calls or meetings if they did not feel comfortable asking questions in a group setting or if the designated meeting time did not work for their specific schedule. This let students know that I was available for them and flexible to meet them on their terms.

Third, I reached out to students regularly as individuals beyond the course-wide communication. When I saw a student’s homework scores go down week-on-week, I sent a personal email. I let the student know the impact on their grade but, more importantly, I offered help with the course and asked how I could support them, thereby leaving the door open for more communication. When students responded to my emails, more often than not, the student understood the material. The issue was personal in nature. Once I knew how to help them, I did.

Another important email I sent out regularly was to acknowledge and praise students for doing well or improving their performance from the prior week. Especially during the uncertainty of the pandemic, students were reassured by this positive affirmation and saw that I was (still) an actual person on the other end of the computer who noticed their hard work, effort, and progress and, more importantly, who cared about them as people not just as students.

Fourth, I wielded abundant grace and patience. As an accounting professor, neither of those characteristics come naturally. I am usually quite strict with homework due dates. This is important not only because the course material builds upon itself throughout the semester, but I am also very aware of the professional implications of being able to meet deadlines in the workplace. During this semester, I was much more lenient on due dates. If students communicated that they needed an extension for any reason, I gave them extra time. If they still had issues, I gave them more time. I essentially took the stance that students could get as many extensions as they needed for any assignment during the semester but I always offered them a phone call or virtual meeting so I could personally help them work through any conceptual issues they had. This flexibility provided a bit of relief during uncertain times and allowed students to reduce their stress, at least as it related to this particular course.

Finally, all of this goes hand-in-hand with understanding and empathy. I knew this semester was going to be unique and the status quo was not going to work. Some students had personal tragedies and did not have an outlet or any way to process their trauma, pain, and grief. Other students just needed an ear and a shoulder to vent or process their experiences. While many media outlets and celebrities touted, “We’re all in this together,” it was important for me to acknowledge that we all go through difficult circumstances differently. I wanted my students to know that I was there for them and committed to help them through their course and the pandemic as much as I could and in any way I could.

Regardless of whether it was subconscious or deliberate, I believe many professors used one or more of these strategies in some form to engage their students. For me, these techniques are not new or novel. They are staples in my teaching toolkit and I use them in every course. The main difference was the degree to which I used them and the intensity of my intentionality.

These students did not intend to take an online accounting course when they enrolled for the semester. Because of that, I felt a greater responsibility to shepherd them in their journey. I monitored every student every day. I reached out to students daily. I created a virtual open door policy for students to get the help they needed. Anecdotally, I saw a very positive relationship between these strategic interventions and student outcomes during the pandemic. My students learned a lot despite the pandemic and so did I. Moving forward, I plan to use and expand on these strategies. My hope is that I can show students how much I care for them as people and not just as students.