Three Faculty and Staff Members Adapt to COVID-19 Changes

We interviewed faculty and staff members Ms. Kristy Davis, associate dean for student wellness, Dr. Rebecca Burris, department head and professor of nursing [retired June 2020] and Dr. Sandy Smith, department head and professor of emergency management.

What are some of the ways your staff members have helped students during the COVID pandemic?

Davis: The staff members in Student Wellness have helped students tremendously during the pandemic and have continued their excellent work of supporting students. Our team has provided direct support to students while working remotely. This has included providing telehealth visits to students seeking medical care, offering telephone sessions to students with disabilities who may be struggling with new challenges of virtual learning, counseling students virtually through the use of WebEx, working with testing companies to administer student admissions testing virtually, reaching out to students to check on their wellbeing and offering weekly virtual workshops and support groups aimed at helping students cope with the pandemic.

Burris: I have two faculty members, Dr. Laffoon and Dr. Darnell who are working one or two days a week in the COVID triage center. Students are working hard to finish graduation requirements. Most already have jobs and the hospital really needs them. Also Dr. Laffoon has planned a virtual activity for the seniors who are missing their senior recognition ceremony.

All of the nursing faculty have excellent online teaching skills, so moving lecture content to online was only difficult in the sense that there was so little warning and not much time to get it done. Clinical/practicum is a different story. Several faculty members taught three and four days of 12 to 16 hours in the clinical setting trying to get finished. Most of the hospitals in the Little Rock area barred students from attending clinical in their facilities. We were lucky our local institutions allowed us to stay, and we were not only able to finish the majority of the clinical experiences, but the seniors, thanks to Dr. Laffoon’s tenacity were able to finish their 72-hour clinical preceptorship. We used simulation and online scenarios to fill some of the gaps.

Smith: The Department of Emergency Management’s faculty, staff, students and alumni have been very involved with various aspects of caring for the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two of our faculty, Bethany Swindell and Chris Sheach, and one of our current students, Liam Turner, voluntarily gave of their time and expertise to assist and manage UAMS’s EOC (Emergency Operations Center) during April and May.  Dr. Jamie Stacy has served as a faculty representative with Tech’s COVID Task-Force. Lyndsay Simpson, DEM Administrative Specialist, has served as Pope County Office of Emergency Management’s Public Information Officer (PIO) since mid-March. As PIO she manages OEM’s social media posting COVID-19 information for the community. Additionally, she is part of the county’s daily informational meetings/briefings and continues with their twice a week calls.

A number of our current students are involved with COVID preparation, response, and recovery as firefighters, essential workers stocking stores, volunteering, raising funds and assisting with the state’s Department of Health.

And of course, our alumni are deeply involved with this pandemic from assisting small businesses with writing grants to obtaining protective items for employees (masks, gloves and hand sanitizer), to preparing COVID-related policies, to leading county emergency management offices, to leading the state’s efforts to combat the virus as employees of the Arkansas Division of Emergency Management and Arkansas Department of Health. I do not know of one alumnus/alumna who isn’t involved with some aspect of mitigating the effects of or responding to the COVID pandemic.

An underpinning of our discipline and field is to be part of the solution. To that end, our faculty, staff, students and alumni have been a repository of information for others regarding how to protect and care for oneself or others. Many of us are constantly reading articles for evidence-based science to share with other humans to help all of us make the best decision regarding our collective future.

How has the COVID pandemic affected your field?

Davis: COVID-19 has sequestered us indoors, and wellness has become a common theme of our daily lives. We have been focused on how to stay well and safe from COVID-19, which has likely inspired many to prioritize their wellness in various aspects of life. People have made efforts to exercise daily, practice good self-care, improve hygiene, get plenty of rest and cook healthy meals at home. I’m hopeful that during this pandemic, many have refocused on being the healthiest versions of themselves. In terms of wellness-related professions, there has been notable spontaneous action to take care of patients. We have quickly shifted to a telehealth model of care in order to continue caring for those who need us most during this time.  We have been creative in how we deliver care, and we have found that being available to patients can happen in new and productive ways.

Burris: With the restriction of elective procedures, many nurses were furloughed. The hospitals have lost significant amounts of money and these effects definitely impact the nurses. The nurses on the front line, in the ICUs with COVID-19 patients, work long hours, many at a significant risk to their own health and the health of their families as the supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) are limited in some areas.

Smith: The COVID-19 pandemic has most likely created a “sea-change” or a paradigm shift for the world, including the emergency management field. Comprehensive emergency management takes an all-hazards approach to all the “phases” of emergency management (mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery). Thus, for the emergency management field, pandemic planning is included in a comprehensive emergency management plan. However, as Sam Cockrell, December 2019 Master of Science in EMHS graduate, discovered through his thesis, most counties in Arkansas and New Jersey were not prepared for a pandemic. Successful pandemic planning, similar to other hazard planning, takes diligent coordination and communication with many community entities, particularly with the health department. Sam’s findings indicated most counties and local health departments were not in communication.

Within the emergency management community there is a renewed commitment to comprehensive emergency management planning, as well as, a sharpened focus on attending to partnerships and stakeholder communication. As television stations’ public service announcements have broadcast, “We are all in this together.”

The paradigm shift I see occurring is a new interest in what both public health and emergency management bring to local communities and businesses. Graduates of our baccalaureate and master’s programs are equipped to lead the discussions among and between all community partners for all-hazards planning. Our students know the value of understanding public health issues and how the public health of a community affects all aspects of a community (as has been vividly displayed by COVID-19).

An example of this understanding of the value of public health to emergency management is from one of our graduates who is a business continuity specialist for a large corporation. She went to the corporation in October 2019 with all the data to show how an investment of $7K for gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer for all frontline employees could save the business $1 million if 20% of the employees were out sick for 2 weeks with the seasonal flu. Her corporation denied the expense. In February, the corporation came back to her and requested she purchase the protective items she had suggested in the fall; it cost the company over $30K for the same items in February 2020.

What is the most surprising development you’ve observed since the pandemic began?

Davis: I’ve been most surprised by the role of digital technology during the pandemic. While many of us were already quite tied to our phones and other technology before the pandemic, technology has become more important than ever. Faculty, staff and students have all come together with creative digital solutions to keep the mission of Arkansas Tech University alive. We’ve challenged ourselves to learn new ways of teaching and supporting students using technology. In a very short period, we’ve learned how to utilize and maximize WebEx, Jabber, Adobe Creative Cloud, Kaltura, OU Campus and the list goes on and on. I’ve been so proud of my team for stretching themselves and adapting quickly to new technology that has helped us do our work. And I’ve been amazed by how our ATU Office of Information Systems has quickly assisted us in getting this technology under our belts. We couldn’t have done this without them!

Burris: Until the recent protesting of stay-at-home orders, the oneness, the “we are in this together” sentiment that our country has been lacking in recent years. I believe the proper word is sacrifice. Many have been willing to sacrifice their time, their money, their ability to go wherever, whenever they want, among other things for the common good. I have watched the nursing faculty pull together, committed to do our best for our students regardless of the circumstances. Many of these faculty are also having to home school their children while teaching from home. They have also developed a support network on Facebook where they can share their frustrations, challenges and their wonderful senses of humor. That part has been refreshing.

Smith: Initially it appeared that we were focusing on the public health crisis this pandemic is; however, over time we have allowed it to become more of a political discussion rather than a public health crisis which is no respecter of politics. I continue to be shocked that so many adults are uninformed about viruses and how COVID-19 spreads and infects people. And I do not understand the motivation to politicize or debate a public health crisis.

Describe a silver lining you’ve observed as a result of the pandemic situation.

Davis: While I hate that there has been such devastation to our world, I do recognize that the pandemic has delivered some silver linings. A personal silver lining has been reconnecting with people I love. I’ve embraced the extra time with my husband and daughters, enjoying a slower pace that has helped us appreciate the company of one another. I have reconnected with high school friends through Zoom happy hour, texted my extended family more frequently and I’ve been in more constant communication with loved ones than ever before. I’ve done live yoga workouts with my favorite home yoga instructor, checked out books from my local virtual library and even completed coloring pages of my favorite campus ambassador, Jerry [the Bulldog]. The slower pace of life and the connections with others has been the silver lining for me.

Burris: More oneness and less division. Also, I think some people are learning healthy habits that they will continue after the COVID days.

Smith: A silver lining I have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic is the increase of interdisciplinary communication amongst all sectors and the increased appreciation for all sectors of our economy. Prior to this pandemic, the “spotlight” was on sports and the entertainment industry. It seems we all have a renewed appreciation for “essential workers” (healthcare workers, grocery store and pharmacy employees, sanitation workers and emergency responders) and for K-12 teachers. As well, it seems that people value the knowledge and education of others outside their own field or expertise; and I find this very refreshing. Another “silver lining” common with other disasters as well, is our students are able to synthesize what they are learning in the classroom with what is occurring in the world around them as this pandemic unfolds.

In what ways has your previous career experience prepared you to handle the changes brought on by the pandemic?

Davis: The relationships I’ve formed with my ATU co-workers has best prepared me to handle the changes brought on by this pandemic. Because we had such a great team spirit and a family-like atmosphere, we were prepared to come together and make this transition to virtual work happen. We all quickly contributed our strengths to help one another prepare to do this work and we continue to support one another daily. It has also helped that Counseling Services had already begun the transition to offering virtual counseling for our online and Ozark students. So we had a head start on learning telehealth and adapting our processes to fit the need. A big thanks to Dr. Melinda Wilkins in Health Information Management and alumnus Stephanie Tanner for their roles in leading us to offer tele-mental health for students a couple of years ago. I’m so thankful they encouraged us to do this and supported us along the way.

Burris: Nurses always have to “roll with the punches.” Same for nurse educators. [But], it has been a shock. I always had thoughts about my last weeks of working [before retirement in June 2020]. I roam around quite a bit in our department, and it is always interesting to see what faculty are doing. That all ended very abruptly. [I had] no time to tell faculty how truly wonderful it has been watching their careers develop and being a part of that.

Smith: As a registered nurse and a former nurse educator, my mantra has been “be prepared,” “be flexible” and “monitor and adjust.” And these mantras are foundational to the emergency management field as well. As a nurse and as an emergency management professional you must assess, assess and assess–you have to be vigilant to assess the environment and think at least two steps ahead (if not ten steps ahead) for whatever is occurring. You must be prepared, and you must be able to monitor and adjust quickly. Thus, in January 2020 I was keenly aware of the possible dangers lurking for us in North America as the novel coronavirus was spreading in Asia. I watched in sadness as I saw photographs and videos of Americans in Wuhan, China, in isolation due to the city’s “lockdown”; it made me know I needed to update my “tornado bucket” with fresh supplies in case I had to go into quarantine.

The changes brought on by the pandemic have not been a shock to me. I am just truly saddened by the devastation of this epic disaster. I know that this pandemic will have lasting effects for years. It is my desire that our emergency management students will continue to be prepared by their education to be world changers.

What is your advice to others regarding this pandemic?

Davis: It’s important to focus on what we can control. We can’t control what may happen in the future. And we can’t always control our feelings, especially during a time that can be so anxiety-provoking. But we can control what we do in each moment and this can make a huge difference for ourselves, our families, our communities and our world.  For me that looks like making time for exercise, being in nature, staying at home, practicing mindfulness meditation and engaging in spiritual practices. Whatever brings us peace and helps us to engage in the present moment can be helpful.

Burris: Hang in there. This will end. This too will pass. Enjoy your extra time at home.

Smith: I encourage everyone to be patient regarding meeting, greeting and congregating with others. I am so ready to be with others, especially loved ones. However, the thought that I could be asymptomatic and spread the disease to others is frightening; I would never willingly/knowingly harm someone else. Therefore, I am choosing, even with the easing of restrictions, to not visit my grandson, to wear a mask when I am shopping for groceries, to not associate with others within 6 feet even when I am outdoors – all because I do not want to contract the virus or give the virus to another.

My public health science education leads me to believe this pandemic will not be the only pandemic to disrupt our lives in this 21stcentury. This is an epic disaster and, unfortunately, it is not the only such disaster that will affect us. However, I believe we can and will find a vaccine for this virus. Until there is a vaccine, in our desire to care for others we must “social distance” and continue to maintain good hygiene practices.

Selected Quotes from EAM/EMHS Students and Alumni:

Bogdana Sardak EAM/EMHS alum @ Fusion Risk Management, based in Chicago: I’m focused on engagement with senior leadership and advising them about what to do next.

Right now we are focusing on a return to the “new normal” plan and procedures. How we will determine new policies and procedures we are going to follow from now on and then what is our plan to open a plan?

Also, we did a company-wide absenteeism planning effort to make sure each department knows how to operate if they hit 30% to 50% absenteeism due to corona or taking care of the ill.

We are dealing right now with people burning out and not working as efficiently and how we can help with that – So HR policies, etc.

We actually created a free toolkit for the public to access with free resources on pandemic response and now moving to recover/restoration phase!

Sam Cockrell EAM/EMHS alum: [Putting the grant class knowledge to work] I’ve helped a few small businesses navigate the grant and loan process. Totaled out to around $19k between them for payroll.

Smith: Also, he’ll present his fall 2019 thesis [note the date] on AR County Pandemic Preparedness at FEMA Higher Ed conference in summer 2021 since there will only be a few virtual presentations this summer.

Emily Campbell (EAM Student who was in her Internship with AR Dept. of Health this semester, now hired): When our internships were suspended, I got hired on as extra help. I answer phone calls in the Emergency Communication Center and help Christie [maiden name Minner] with her EOC position. I’ve pretty much worked 6 days a week since we got the first case in AR, but I worked the first 14 days straight after the first case. But like I told the Secretary of Health on Saturday, I wouldn’t trade this internship for the world.

Hannah Liam Turner, current EAM student: Working as an EOC manager at UAMS. Also, wrote a continuity of operations plan for the Camp Robinson DPS.

Clint Bagley current EAM student & his THREE jobs: At the fire department we are wearing masks and gloves to all calls and if it’s a possible COVID-19 related call we are wearing suits too. Also, “deconing” after every call. With rescue, we are in charge of dividing all shipments that come from the state and federal levels for the county. Rescue has also partnered with a local Decon company to Decon after different events and things.”

Smith: Clint Bagley’s response is a classic example of our students who are “really not doing all that much special.”

Jace Baynon, current EAM student: I’ve been volunteering – delivering groceries to people who depended on school lunches or were at risk to leave their house.

Haylie Van Dusan, current EAM Student: Red Cross training and recovery response!

Susan Sonia, graduating EMHS student (May 2020): Raising funds for helping the people in need and providing masks for public health related people back home in Bangladesh.

-By Brandi Easterling Collins
for the Tech Action, Fall 2020