Texas Programs Catch Up After Storm Disruptions

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PA programs across Texas were deeply affected by the winter storms and plunging temperatures that affected much of the country in early February. Texas was especially impacted, with widespread power outages and loss of water service caused by freezing and burst pipes resulting in several deaths as well as tens of thousands of people left without heat, light, and sometimes even food for several days. Program directors at PA programs across the state described closed university buildings, food and fuel shortages, and faculty and students stranded out of town and even sleeping in their cars.

“Texas has really gotten hit by the storm; we were totally unprepared,” said Frank Ambriz, program director at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley PA program in Edinburg, Texas, where students and faculty had already endured two to three days’ of no power during Hurricane Hanna last summer. Ambriz’s program is in southern Texas, just north of Mexican border, and freezing temperatures are very unusual. “We usually only have two days of cold weather,” he said.

“You could have never predicted or planned for this,” said Christina Robohm-Leavitt, director of the Texas Tech University PA program in Midland. “They just don’t have the equipment here. We usually don’t plow roads here, we just wait for it to thaw,” said the Colorado native, who moved to the West Texas town seven years ago.

No Power, No Learning

The storms affected student learning significantly at several programs. At the Baylor College of Medicine program in Houston, the university closed for several days, said program director Katherine Erdman. “About half of our students had issues with power or water or both; the same with faculty and staff,” she said. “When Baylor closes, not even online classes can happen. We had to postpone exams. We could not even ask students to look at recordings asynchronously, because of the loss of power. We’ll need to catch up.”

Clinical year students also faced disruptions. “Some facilities were not allowing students to come to the rotation site due to water issues,” Erdman said.

The statewide crisis in Texas comes, of course, on top of a global pandemic that has required programs to adapt normal program activities for nearly a year now. To some extent, this meant that programs were more prepared to continue teaching despite the weather disruptions; on the other hand, the pandemic added an additional wrinkle to efforts to tend to the needs of stranded students and faculty.

“Students are already somewhat isolated, said Erdman. “This cohort has been remote since June. This on top of the pandemic has been tough on them. Some of our students I have never met one on one.”

UT Southwestern PA Program Director Temple Howell-Stampley added: “The word ‘resilience’ comes up a lot and although we probably get tired of hearing it, resilience definitely describes our faculty and students. Faculty and students who are living through one major ordeal and are now living through this — it has definitely required all of us to dig deep and practice patience and flexibility. We must continue to be nimble and present for those who need to express their feelings of anxiety, frustration and sadness.”

PAEA data from our series of Rapid Response Reports have shown that the majority of programs report an increase in student stress and mental health challenges since the pandemic, as has been the case for so many Americans and around the world.

Rallying Around and Catching Up

The freezing temperatures left many people in Texas struggling to meet their basic needs, program directors said. “People were burning everything they could,” Ambriz said. “Stores stopped selling firewood. There was no electricity for gas pumps. Panic buying struck and all the shelves were basically empty. We couldn’t even buy a loaf of bread. People were bringing charcoal grills into the house. Some houses burned down; there were cases of carbon monoxide poisoning.”

“We had to switch our priorities from what does education need to what do people need,” said Robohm. “It was Maslow’s hierarchy: we needed heat, food, water.”

“People had to be pioneers for a few days and learn new skills during a week without power or water,” said Howell-Stampley.

As might be expected, communities rallied around to help out their neighbors, colleagues, and students. Many program directors commented on the spirit of community and resilience manifested by the storm events. Ambriz noted that their student class president took in five other students to stay in his house.

“It’s been encouraging to see the humanity in others during this time of crisis,” said Howell-Stampley. “You get to see another side of people as you witness their ability to care for and support each other. We need that now more than ever. In many ways, it has been refreshing and gives me hope.”

“Students form a tight bond with each other and with us,” said Erdman. “Everybody rallies together and we get through it. Faculty and students know they are supported.” The Baylor program set up a Google doc for students to share their needs.

All the program directors we spoke to said that they expect to be able to catch up for the time lost fairly quickly, using online cases to make up for lost clinical time, through extra shifts at clinical rotation sites, weekend lectures, or tapping into extra days built into the schedule. Ambriz hoped that his university would not have to cancel spring break, as has been mooted.

An email of support to Texas program directors from President Michel Statler and CEO Mary Jo Bondy was well received. “These have already been trying times for PA programs, and we can appreciate how difficult it must be to have to tackle this additional challenge,” they wrote. “We hope that the remarkable resilience we have seen demonstrated from so many programs this year will help see us through this challenge as well.”

“We thank our PAEA colleagues from across the nation for their concern and support,” said Ambriz.