COVID Lessons from the FDMAC

Although the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world of PA education on its end, both challenges and opportunities for growth and innovation have been the result.

Below, members of PAEA’s Faculty Development Mission Advancement Commission (FDMAC) share powerful stories about how they were able to overcome challenges in scholarly work and professional development, service and leadership, and teaching and educating students.

Scholarly Work and Professional Development

The world of academia seemed incredibly alluring during the height of COVID. There were a handful of challenging days in urgent care in which I struggled to find the “silver lining.” I recall one day where I thought, “I have seen 70 patients today, but at least it appears I will get out on time.” My heart sank to my stomach, defeated, just minutes later when I heard the doorbell at 7:58 p.m., two minutes before closing. While the challenges in PA education are vastly different, they are just as significant as the challenges in urgent care.

Has PA education always been this challenging? What challenges did COVID create? And finally, have we identified any silver linings?”

Lavette Shirley Elee

I began my academic work in May of 2021, so I was not working in PA education pre-COVID. However, I recall during the first few months while preparing to lecture for the first time, learning the language of academia, and transitioning to this exciting new world, when I began to sense this familiar feeling of enervation. Unfortunately, this feeling wasn’t unique to me. I noticed that my colleagues were feeling the pressure as well. This led to questions about the impact of COVID on the world of academia. Has PA education always been this challenging? What challenges did COVID create? And finally, have we identified any silver linings?

Beginning my career in education at the height of COVID was particularly challenging as my colleagues and leadership were, “in survival mode from the pandemic.” As a leader in my program stated, “Faculty development and scholarship were put on hold,” as programs tried to navigate the many challenges and frequent changes throughout the pandemic and protect the program. Another significant impact on faculty development and scholarship was the decrease in togetherness and collaboration, as a colleague noted. She stated that she missed sitting in a room with colleagues laughing, smiling, and seeing the emotions on everyone’s faces behind the masks. However, she did say that some faculty members were able to be more productive at home without the distractions of others.

While there were many unfavorable outcomes related to faculty development and scholarship as a result of COVID, one faculty member said that it forced us to be more creative, increased our flexibility, and we “learned how to pivot quickly and effectively.” Additionally, she asserted that COVID allowed us to determine what courses can effectively be conducted online and which ones absolutely need to be in person. As an example, healthcare topics is a course that, pre-COVID, was conducted in-person. As a program with a satellite campus, there was a disconnect between campuses at times with our small group discussions taking place on different campuses. Now that we conduct this course via zoom, as a result of COVID, students from both campuses can work together and have a more equitable experience.

Lavette highlights a COVID-related challenge that I am sure many of our colleagues have shared—beginning their career in academia during a time when programs were struggling to function at all, much less onboard, mentor, and effectively orient new faculty members. I can’t count how many times I tried to assure a similarly new colleague that “it’s not always like this,” and “it will get better,” knowing that I wasn’t really sure it would get better! Those first few months were, for all of us, an exercise in focusing on the most imminent threats, planning when we could (knowing these plans might, and likely would, change at a moment’s notice), and doing our best to prop each other up, while making sure that when we faced our students, we were calm and confident. I personally felt completely unable to be a mentor to new faculty during those early days; half the time I couldn’t get my technology to cooperate, and I felt disorganized, ineffective, and frankly incompetent. How in the world could we possibly support this incredibly valuable addition to our team and help them make the transition to teaching without a deep sense of regret? Not to mention mentoring them as they sought opportunities for scholarship. Of the many things that suffered during COVID, I feel like our collective inability to devote time to fanning the “spark” of inquiry in our new faculty, and perhaps setting our own scholarly pursuits aside, during those early days may be one of COVID’s most profound, yet perhaps underrecognized, consequences.

That being said, it’s in our nature to reflect on the lessons we’ve learned to create new opportunities for growth. Every one of us was challenged to think in new ways and take new approaches to educating PAs, and this need translated into practices that have opened up a whole new opportunity for scholarly inquiry. How did we do it? What did we learn? What were the outcomes? And how will these outcomes, not to mention the ways in which healthcare delivery itself has changed, affect the traditional PA training model going forward? Despite COVID’s many challenges, it has provided us with an incredible opportunity to analyze our COVID-era practices. So, while scholarship and professional development may have stalled while we focused on surviving the day-to-day, we now have a whole new body of information waiting to be explored.

Now that we are sensing that we’re on the “other side” or emerging from the impacts of the pandemic, what are the silver linings you have experienced? We look forward to discussing this topic further at the PAEA Education Forum in San Diego.

Service and Leadership

I started as a founding program director at a developing program three weeks before the pandemic hit the Philadelphia area. I had been highly integrated into service at the institution that I had just left, serving as a member of the Faculty Senate, University Curriculum Committee, and multiple other university-level and department-level committees. Service to the institution is an amazing way to network with colleagues outside of your home department and a way to be more involved in the overall workings of an academic setting. It was something that I had found personally rewarding and integral to my role as an academic PA.

The pandemic provided opportunities to serve the world of PA education and the community in ways that I had not previously thought to or had the capacity to explore.”

Amy Baker

However, as I was new to the institution when the pandemic shut down the world, I struggled to find a place where I could contribute to service. Committees were either not meeting, meeting via Zoom, or meeting with unclear charges or direction; faculty were struggling to make it through the day teaching in a new format while juggling childcare, positive COVID tests, and the fear of what was happening in the world. I recognized that the institutional service I was accustomed to was not in the cards for me at this time. I simultaneously realized how important it was to me to feel like I was helping in a time where we collectively felt very helpless. I knew that I needed to find a place to serve that might be outside of what I had previously done in the past.
The pandemic provided opportunities to serve the world of PA education and the community in ways that I had not previously thought to or had the capacity to explore.

The large network of PA programs in the Philadelphia area fortuitously banded together to reignite the Southeastern PA program consortium during the pandemic. I was able to forge new relationships with faculty and program directors as we both vented about our challenges related to the pandemic as well as strategize solutions. This provided an opportunity to network with and mentor faculty in a way that may not have arisen outside of the need to form connections that were lacking during the pandemic. Additionally, I was both recruited and sought out opportunities to share my expertise as a medical professional with community groups, helping organizations such as the local soccer league and swim clubs create and refine COVID protocols and vet COVID + cases. I also volunteered time with my local public health department. These opportunities have opened new doors, and I to continue to be recognized as an expert within my community as a result.

Finally, an opportunity to serve that has been extremely rewarding for me over the last two years is the work that I’ve done with PAEA. I applied to and was selected to serve on the Faculty Development MAC after applying unsuccessfully in the prior cycle. For the first time, I was interacting with multiple faculty on a national level with the goal of mentoring faculty. This has opened other doors to volunteer with PAEA, such as serving as a New Faculty Jump Start facilitator, as well as multiple professional development opportunities. It is an opportunity that I should have explored much sooner in my career and would encourage each of you to consider.

At the end of February 2020, I had just completed an ARC-PA site visit and was visiting family back East. The TV was on in the next room, and I heard “Solano County….” I jumped up and ran in to listen. The first case of COVID-19 had just been identified in California, in the county where I live and where our PA program is located. Within a week, some clinical sites stopped taking students, and the University decision was to not send any students to clinic. Didactic classes were moved online a week later when campus closed. What a learning curve — for all of us! Institutional officials, faculty, staff and students.

Like most educational programs, we had to pivot quickly. We went through and problem-solved similar issues to other programs. PAEA-sponsored events and our friends and colleagues aided our survival. I was forced to learn technology that I had been fine not knowing. I’m not a luddite — but definitely not a technology early adopter.

During those early days of the pandemic, I questioned my ability to successfully lead the program. How do I support the faculty, staff, and students? How do I get the resources that we all need? Also, at the same time that we were dealing with a pandemic, we were also dealing with power outages, wildfires (poor air quality and displacement of students, faculty, and staff), the murder of George Floyd, violence against the Asian and Pacific Islander community, etc. At one point, I joked (because what else could one do?) that the only thing that had missed us was an earthquake. We just kept on keeping on.

The following are some of my lessons learned/relearned, in no particular order:

  • There is no place for egos, and our campus leadership team can come together and problem-solve effectively.
  • A pandemic will open lines of communication across campus. Once open, ideas continue to flow.
  • A faculty team that supports one another is priceless, and I am truly blessed to be able to work with such an amazing group of people.
  • Everyone hits bottom at some point, so it’s great that there is always at least one person who isn’t at that point and can take the lead.
  • A safe space for venting is invaluable.
  • Humor is good.
  • Students who are stressed are unreasonable; don’t take it personally.
  • Working from home can be difficult for extroverts, people with ADHD, and procrastinators.
  • There is the potential for some interesting cross-institutional research opportunities looking at COVID-related effects on SSR components (e.g., admissions, C grades, remediation, attrition).
  • We need reminders that changing curriculum based on one cohort isn’t necessary. Continue to observe and adjust based on trends.
  • Integrating the university with the community through participation in MassVax events and Back to School drive-through vaccination clinics was extremely rewarding.
  • And, yes, I can learn new technology.

Teaching and Educating Students

I missed the horror that was the rapid transition from in-person to virtual learning that occurred during the early part of March 2020. I had just moved into a new role as a program director at a developing program and had no students during that time. However, being very involved in the Philadelphia-area PA consortium, I heard about the challenges that my colleagues were facing. I was able to assist my previous PA program with setting up a virtual pediatrics rotation while hoping that real clinical experiences would open up and allow students to lay their hands on patients rather than what we were preparing to have them to do through virtual experiences and group sessions.

My major challenge during this time was to try to create a new program in the midst of all of this. I had to consider if and how we could deliver a new program with the uncertainty of virtual or face-to-face instruction being the norm, whether students would be prepared for the rigor of PA education having finished their bachelor’s degrees in an online format, and whether students who had become comfortable taking classes in their pajamas in their bedroom would be willing to come to class every day dressed in business casual.
I quickly realized that PA faculty and PA students are flexible, adaptable, and resilient. Our faculty and administration prepped for multiple scenarios by outfitting our classroom with microphones, cameras, and a large enough Zoom account to enable us to teach online. We changed attendance policies to allow for students and faculty to stay home when sick.

We were able to start our first class in person, in pods, masks, and face shields. We went fully online a few times during our first couple of semesters as students, faculty, and community transmission rates increased and decreased. Concepts such as telehealth, personal responsibility, and the importance of public health are lasting components of our curriculum. We ended our first didactic year, seemingly back to normal, but a bit older and wiser.

Our program, like others, also needed to consider how to recruit new clinical partners to allow our students to have clinical experiences that would support our application to ARC-PA and allow the students the supervised clinical experiences that would prepare them for clinical practice. We identified new ways to collaborate, became experts in fit-testing, and evaluated changing COVID exposure protocols.
We are grateful (we think) that we’ve had the opportunity to have been shaken up and challenged the status quo by proving to ourselves, by necessity, that we don’t have to do things the way we’ve always done them. Zoom is not the devil — though it sometimes feels like it is — and students can learn in ways that we didn’t.

In March of 2020, I was serving my program as director of didactic education. As a January-start program, our cohort of students had just begun matriculating a few months earlier. They were still adjusting to the rigor of life as a PA student, living in a new city, and working to develop connections with their new peers. They were still navigating these exciting and expected changes when the unexpected happened. Suddenly, screens replaced classroom tables, zoom sessions replaced social gatherings, and uncertainty replaced excitement. We, as a faculty team, were determined to support our students and each other. Today, we are better because of this. Our collective response to these challenges focused on three goals: prioritizing wellness, embracing change, and modeling our professional identity as PAs.

We chose to prioritize wellness for ourselves, our students, and our colleagues. We hosted regular cohort check-ins over zoom during which we communicated important operational information, but they also provided opportunities for social engagement sometimes in the form of displaying unique virtual backgrounds, pet cameos, or sharing new pandemic-inspired hobbies. These regular check-ins continue, but now in person. We developed attendance and class recording policies to allow individuals who are ill to miss class without fear of penalty or of missing valuable content. These policies remain in effect. We continue to offer the option of virtual office hours to better fit the schedules of students and faculty. This flexibility gives people the opportunity to better manage their professional and personal obligations, allowing them to hold space in their lives for wellness behaviors.

We chose to embrace change. We are grateful that we are in an institution that provides robust teaching and technological support for faculty and students. We quickly adapted to the technology that supported teaching and learning in a setting that was as organic as possible. We disseminated information to our students and supported each other as we learned how to teach, record, assess, and connect in ways that were effective and aligned with best practices. We continue to offer a zoom option for all meetings, record classroom sessions when appropriate, and explore new pedagogical approaches. Our department has branched out by creating new degrees, programs, and post-professional educational offerings. We are secure in the knowledge that informed change attempts are necessary and lead to growth.

Throughout the challenges of these pandemic years, we couldn’t control the curriculum or the circumstances under which we had to deliver it, but we could control our attitudes and behaviors. We could choose to prioritize wellness, embrace change, and live out our professional identity as PAs.”

Mary Allias

We chose to increase our efforts to model our professional identity. Despite the challenges before us, we were still charged with developing our learners into competent and compassionate professionals. We demonstrated teamwork, resourcefulness, resilience, and courage. We were transparent in our communications; we were open to learning and improving; and we maintained the standards necessary for effective education.

Throughout the challenges of these pandemic years, we couldn’t control the curriculum or the circumstances under which we had to deliver it, but we could control our attitudes and behaviors. We could choose to prioritize wellness, embrace change, and live out our professional identity as PAs. Moving forward, we can allow the best parts of these past few years to persist and to improve the circumstances in which we all teach and learn. We can use the lessons learned during this time of adversity to encourage and strengthen ourselves, our students, and each other.

Mark your calendar for the FDMAC Forum makerspace session “On the Flip Side: Advancing Education, Scholarship, and Service in the COVID Era” on Saturday, October 15, 3:30-4:50 p.m. PST.