Persevering through a pandemic: COVID-19 presents an unexpected crisis, but the School of Education is up to the challenge


Even after UW–Madison announced March 11 that it planned to halt face-to-face classes immediately following spring break — from March 23, when students were set to return to campus, through at least April 10 — few immediately grasped the magnitude of the disruption that the COVID-19 virus would bring.

In an effort to start planning how best to overcome potential obstacles the coronavirus might present, Dean Diana Hess assembled a “Tiger Team” of leaders from across the School of Education to start meeting on a daily basis. At that first gathering on March 13, about 15 people crammed into a conference room, sitting around a table, elbow-to-elbow.

Andy Cunningham, the project manager for the Tiger Team, started the meeting by stating: “This is the last time we’ll be meeting in-person like this.”

Photo of the School's Tiger Team meeting via videoconference
A “Tiger Team” of leaders from across the School of Education met daily via videoconference during the first several weeks of the pandemic. (Photo: Sarah Maughan)

While such a statement seems obvious now — on that day, in that moment, and before anyone had heard the term “social distancing” — it was a reality check of sorts. The School’s day-to-day operations were about to change. For many, the pace and significance of that change due to the COVID-19 pandemic would be jolting.

The Tiger Team immediately moved its daily meetings to the Webex videoconferencing platform. Less than a week after the university’s original statement that classes would be moved online through April 10, Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced such efforts would last through at least the spring semester and all but essential workers were told to stay off campus. In the School of Education, faculty, staff, and some graduate students worked tirelessly to move more than 400 courses to alternate delivery modes in just more than a week, while nearly 1,000 employees figured out how to work remotely.

Said Hess: “Prior to COVID-19, if anyone had asked me how long it would take us to move nearly 1,000 employees in the School to telecommuting and to transition more than 400 classes to a virtual format, I probably would have said something like this: At least a year and it would cost a fortune. Crises often cause us to do things we could not have imagined possible. I am so proud of how hard everyone worked to make this semester a success.”

Following are just a few examples of the efforts the School of Education took to persevere through a global pandemic and this one-of-a-kind spring semester.

Shifting 400-plus classes online

From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hess and the School focused their efforts on four priorities: safeguarding the health of students, faculty, and staff; ensuring students complete their classes; maintaining when possible the university’s research and other operations; and joining in the national effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Front and center in these efforts was figuring out how to move classes from traditional, face-to-face settings to alternate delivery modes from a distance.

“This was an extremely heavy lift,” Hess said of shifting the more than 400 classes serving some 2,500 different students to remote learning environments. Most of this work was done in just more than a week, with the bulk of these efforts taking place over spring break.

Anna Lewis
Anna Lewis helped lead the School’s efforts to transition more than 400 classes from in-person to remote environments in March.

The School’s Senior Associate Dean Carolyn Kelley, associate deans, 10 department chairs, and Anna Lewis spearheaded these efforts. Lewis, the School’s co-chief information officer and co-director of MERIT (Media, Education Resources, and Information Technology), quickly assembled a 15-person instructional support team that included staff from MERIT, in addition to people with IT and instructional design experience from elsewhere across the School of Education — including from WIDA and the office of Professional Learning and Community Education (PLACE). Each department across the School was assigned an instructional support team member to work with.

Lewis highlights Maria Widmer, MERIT’s instructional designer, for playing an instrumental role in helping make the transition a success. Overall, Lewis notes that the instructional design team fielded more than 400 requests for assistance that ran the gamut from, “How do I create breakout sessions in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra?” to hour-long consults about redesigning particular lessons for the online environment.

“Our faculty and instructors were the biggest stars of this transition,” says Lewis. “They were ultimately the ones responsible for making it work. Not only were they teaching — but like everyone else, they were learning and adapting to a new environment. Over time they built competencies in videoconferencing and connecting with their students in new ways.”

The School also utilized “TechTAs” — MERIT student employees who provided support while courses were being delivered in real time, allowing faculty members to focus more on delivering the content of their course.

Overall, the quick transition to distance learning that was brought about by the global emergency is viewed as a major success. That doesn’t mean it was perfect. And certainly, some courses were easier to convert than others.

But when life gives you lemons …

Li Chiao-Ping
Li Chiao-Ping, a Vilas Research Professor with the School of Education’s Dance Department, taught two online classes this past spring from her office at home.

“I’ve been trying to focus on a ‘let’s make lemonade’ attitude as much as I can,” UW–Madison’s Li Chiao-Ping, a Vilas Research Professor with the School of Education’s Dance Department, said in April. “This situation can be a great lesson in resilience.”

The day after everyone learned they would need to move classes online, Professor Kate Corby, chair of the Dance Department, scheduled a meeting for faculty members with Assistant Professor Natalie Zervou, who Li calls an “in-house, online expert.”

“Spring break was spent coming up with a plan to transition my classes online,” said Li, who moved the two in-person and advanced-level, studio dance classes she taught during the spring semester to alternate delivery modes. Li used the Blackboard Collaborate platform through Canvas to continue meeting with students during the originally scheduled class times. The biggest challenge, noted Li, was that she couldn’t see all of her students while teaching.

“I am used to observing them throughout class and can feel what is working or not working by being in the room and walking around them,” she said, adding that online communication is also clunky and less natural.

Several students shared how coursework for dance majors depends a great deal on connecting with others, sharing space, social interaction, and feeding off of each other’s energy — all things that are challenging to reproduce without meeting in person.

“The toughest part about meeting for these classes online and not in person is the shift out of the wonderful community that exists in Lathrop Hall,” student Bailey Seymour said during the spring semester. “In our department we often work on partnering, so navigating this shift at times can feel lonely.”

Despite such issues, Li said that over time she became more comfortable teaching from a distance — and she is driven to continue finding the most effective ways to connect with her students.

“This is an opportunity for me to innovate pedagogically,” she said. “I’m obsessed with this now and can’t stop working on it.”

Said Hess: “I am especially appreciative that so many individuals spent what was originally going to be a relaxing spring break working hard to change classes in significant ways that virtual instruction requires. Moving all those classes was remarkable. We know from the conversations we have had with students that they felt that faculty, staff, and graduate students worked really hard to create good learning experiences. They recognized how much time it took and appreciated the obvious care everyone had for both their learning and their overall well-being.”

Wellness check-ins with students

Following the initial flurry of efforts needed to get courses moved online and employees working off campus, leadership across the School of Education was able to start thinking more deeply about a range of other issues brought about by the coronavirus.

In an effort to deal with what initially and conservatively was estimated to be a $100 million hit to its budget, UW–Madison announced in April expense reductions and a campus-wide policy that utilized a graduated, progressive program of unpaid furloughs for workers from May 15 through Oct. 31. This tapered program requires employees earning more than $150,000, for example, to take six furlough days during that period, while employees earning less than $50,000, for example, are required to take three. Other cost-cutting measures UW­–Madison has taken include freezing travel, imposing a partial hiring freeze, drawing on its limited reserves, and pausing some construction projects.

While the financial impact to all corners of campus wasn’t pleasant, it was understandable as the costs associated with the coronavirus grew. What was much less clear was how students were handling their new normal due to the pandemic.

Lesley Bartlett
Under the leadership of Lesley Bartlett, a professor with the Department of Educational Policy Studies, a team of 10 faculty and staff created a Community Wellness Check-in project to connect with all students during a three-week period in April.

In an effort to gather information on this important issue, the School of Education launched an ambitious plan to reach out to all of its undergraduate and graduate students to see how everyone was doing.

Under the leadership of Lesley Bartlett, a professor with the Department of Educational Policy Studies, a team of 10 faculty and staff created a Community Wellness Check-in project to connect with students during a three-week period in April. There were four primary goals of this work: to provide human connection and emotional support; to provide students with information about resources; to identify students who were experiencing significant need in the areas of connectivity, emotional well-being, academic concerns, and financial hardship — and offer them the chance to connect to a “student help team”; and to document challenges faced by students so the School could develop policies and garner resources to help meet students’ needs.

First, nearly 200 faculty and staff from across the School contacted 2,653 degree-seeking students from their departments who have their primary major within the School. Initial contact was made via email, followed by a short (10-minute), voluntary telephone call to discuss items such as: adequacy of access to internet and devices needed to complete coursework; potential delays in progress toward graduation due to the COVID-19 virus; financial and/or food insecurity concerns; and requests for additional information or support from the School.

Callers then logged each student conversation via a survey, noting students who requested follow-ups.

According to responses collected, many students reported that their summer employment had been canceled during a period when there was already widespread and high levels of unemployment, leaving them uncertain as to how they would support themselves through the summer. The survey indicated that 17 percent of School of Education domestic students requested information about financial supports or food insecurity — while that number jumped to 46.5 percent for international students. Similarly, while 13.7 percent of white students requested information about financial supports or food insecurity, students of color were much more likely to request this same information, including 27.2 percent of American Indians, 23.6 percent of Asians, 29.5 percent of Black students, and 33.7 percent of Latinx students.

In addition, more than a quarter of students reported they were unsure or already knew that they will need to extend the length of their academic program to graduate. This was especially the case for international students and graduate students.

“The information that we collected from the wellness check-ins certainly confirmed what I think we all knew — the pandemic has created financial need for our students as well as caused some students to extend their time to degree,” says Francesca Rodriquez, a strategic program coordinator with the Dean’s Office and a member of the School’s Student Help Team that designed and supervised the Community Wellness Check-in project. “The check-ins also showed us that international students and students of color were often disproportionately affected by COVID-19.”

While some schools and colleges emailed students information and surveys, the School of Education is believed to be the only college or school on campus that made such an extensive effort to check in with its students during the spring semester. As a result of the survey, all students across the School were emailed a curated list of sources of support, including from the financial aid office. The School also learned about its students’ access to quality internet, how they experienced their courses, and what supports they want going forward — information that was utilized to help plan for the summer and fall semesters, and beyond.

In an effort to further support students experiencing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 crisis, the School established the Bridge to Success summer scholarship program.

“Our goal was to make sure our students had the resources they needed to continue their academic program and make progress this summer,” said Hess.

In all, 374 students applied for the scholarships — which were funded via a legacy gift to the School that was matched via other donor funds, plus an additional contribution from the UW–Madison Graduate School. Through June, the School had distributed more than $1.26 million to those 374 people, which included both undergraduate and graduate students.

Trang Diem
Trang Diem, who is pursuing her master’s degree from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, utilized a Bridge to Success scholarship this summer.

“I want to express my sincerest gratitude to the generous donors who made the Bridge to Success summer scholarship program possible,” says Aaron Kinard, who is pursuing his bachelor’s degree in education studies and history. “I am truly humbled to be a recipient of this scholarship and I appreciate your support towards achieving my goals. As a first-generation college student, my journey has been a long one. After starting at a community college, I eventually found UW–Madison, where I have been challenged academically and guided with the care that I longed for. This scholarship will allow for my academic journey to continue. By receiving this scholarship during these trying times, I’m able to continue to pursue my education without a heavy burden on my back.”

“I am deeply appreciative of this support from School of Education alumni and friends, and especially for your empathy and dedication to help students in these challenging times,” said Trang Diem, who is pursuing her master’s degree from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. “The financial assistance provided will be of great help to me in paying my summer educational expenses as my daughter and I are facing the financial hardship brought on by COVID-19. This scholarship will allow me to concentrate more of my time on studying.”

In late July, the School plans to launch a similar Bridge to Success scholarship program to help students during the 2020-21 academic year. The vast majority of awards for the program range from $500 to $5,000, although students who can demonstrate additional need may be considered for further funding.

“It was interesting to see the Community Wellness Check-in project figure out where our students most needed help — and then work hard with our financial strategy team, the UW Office of Student Financial Aid, and with our generous donors to deliver this scholarship support,” says Hess.

Finishing the spring semester strong, looking ahead

Following the April Community Wellness Check-ins and before many on campus had a chance to catch their collective breath — the spring semester was quickly coming to a close.

Due to the ongoing public health concerns, UW–Madison’s May Commencement ceremony at Camp Randall Stadium — and the School of Education’s annual Pre-Commencement celebration at the Gordon Dining and Event Center — were not possible.

Nonetheless, it was important — perhaps more important than ever — to show the spring 2020 graduates how proud everyone was of their accomplishments during such unusual circumstances. At the campus level, UW–Madison conferred nearly 8,500 degrees on May 6 during a during a virtual commencement ceremony that was released at wisc.edu/commencement. The ceremony was pre-taped, not live, and available to the public.

“The Class of 2020 has been resilient and adaptable, finishing their schooling in the midst of a global pandemic,” said UW–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “I hope they will celebrate their accomplishments. “Their diplomas from this great public institution tell the world they are ready and able to help build a future that will prevent such tragedies.”

Dean Hess commencement video
The School of Education launched a special commencement webpage to recognize and honor its graduates. One element was a video message from Dean Diana Hess (view it here via YouTube).

Similarly, the School of Education launched a special commencement webpage to recognize and honor its graduates.

“It is my honor to celebrate the more than 550 students who are graduating from our School of Education with a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree,” Hess said in a video message to students. “The COVID-19 crisis has presented many challenges over the last two months. While we are not able to have an in-person commencement, we celebrate your accomplishments.”

Hess added: “You are the embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea, of the conviction that our work should have an impact beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Your efforts in schools, health care, and the arts will play a key role in helping our communities, our state, and our world get through this crisis.”

The School’s commencement page also included links to graduation slideshows highlighting many of the School’s graduates, downloadable and printable programs, plus featured quotes from some grads. Additional coverage was shared out via the School’s FacebookInstagram, and Twitter accounts.

Immediately following commencement, Hess held three virtual “Town Hall” meetings during the week of May 11 with various groups across the School — first for people working within the Wisconsin Center for Education Research; then for those within various service units; and, finally, for faculty and staff across the 10 academic departments.

In all, about 350 people heard from Hess via a Webex videoconference, where she shared updates about the School’s initial responses to the COVID-19 crisis, the current situation, and plans for moving forward. Similarly, the Town Halls provided a chance for people to ask Hess questions.

“Many people have told me that the last nine weeks have been the hardest they have ever worked,” Hess said at the time. “We have made it through this very challenging semester and graduation. I want to think you for your flexibility, creativity, and patience during the past few months. I have always been proud of the faculty, staff, and students of the School of Education. At this time, I couldn’t be prouder of how everyone has moved through this crisis.”

As the School looks toward the future, Hess remains hopeful but there remain many unanswered questions.

Smart Restart logo
To learn more about UW–Madison’s Smart Restart plans, visit: smartrestart.wisc.edu

While all courses over the Summer Term remained virtual, in June the campus announced a Smart Restart plan, which is designed to bring students back to campus as scheduled for the start of the fall semester on Sept. 3.

“The priorities are to keep our community healthy, while continuing to provide a world-class educational experience,” said Hess, noting that the current plan is to hold classes face-to-face, virtually, and in some cases, a hybrid of both.

The School’s goal is to have 50 percent of its classes face-to-face, with courses that enroll more than 50 students being held online. Masks will be required in campus buildings, with physical distancing in classes and commons areas.

“Senior Associate Dean Carolyn Kelley, the academic associate deans, the department chairs, and Lindsey Honeyager, our director of facilities, have been working for weeks planning how we will fulfill our academic missions this fall with the health and safety of faculty, staff, and students as one of our highest priorities,” said Hess.

Students will remain on campus through Thanksgiving — but then finish up the final nine days of classes plus final exams online. (For the latest news in this realm, visit the Smart Restart website).

“There remain many unknowns,” says Hess. “This isn’t going to be like a light switch — where we just flip it back on and everything is back to the way it was before the crisis began. We will not go back to normal. Instead, we need to create a new normal — and we will.”