The dedication of our teachers to our learning really showed through their hard work in the transition to online. They made sure all of our activities were comparable to the real thing and always did their best to answer any questions outside scheduled class time.

– Manny DeJesus, DVM Class of 2023

COVID College and the Pivot to Online Learning

By Allison Hammerly

It was a cloudy, cold March morning in East Lansing when Michigan State University announced that, effective at noon that very same day, face-to-face instruction in lectures, seminars, and classroom settings would be held virtually the rest of the 2020 spring semester.

One might think the response to such short notice would be panic. But that’s not how things were at the College of Veterinary Medicine, according to Dr. Bo Norby, associate dean for Academic Programs—Preclinical Education.

“I’m not sure we even had time to go through those emotions,” Norby says. “If anything, I was just really amazed at how fast everybody on the team, including faculty and teaching staff, accepted that this was how things were going to be. They were like, ‘Okay, here’s a new problem; how are we going to solve it?’”

The shift was not out of the blue; already, the College community had been discussing the possibility, alongside travel restrictions and other considerations as COVID-19 made more and more headlines. But the College’s faculty and staff still had their work cut out for them. They had to identify effective virtual course delivery and exam facilitation. Perhaps most importantly, they had to answer a critical question: what will virtual learning mean for veterinary medical students who rely heavily on practical clinical experiences?

The Power of Connecting

A chat with Silvia Leija, MS, Embedded Therapist

In the middle of a very challenging time in history, many are depending on the expertise and help of mental health professionals. Silvia Leija, the College’s embedded therapist who also works for Michigan State’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services, joined the College on June 1. She has served students as they navigate a world where their personal goals, career aspirations, and daily lives have shifted wildly.

What is a common response to the pandemic that you are seeing from students?

Across the board, anxiety and depression. What I’ve been telling students is that our anxiety stems from our preoccupation with the future—the fear of the unknown. What’s going to happen next? Our feelings of depression happen because we are stuck in the past. The ability to achieve peace is to be present in the here and now, which can be hard to do. It’s easier said than done, but I think it’s important to lean into our anxiety and discomfort and just own it. Things are unknown. That’s being present. Fear leads us to say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” but the other part is owning it, saying, “That’s correct. Things are unknown.”

We also can find comfort in knowing that we are in this together. A lot of people may be saying, “I don’t know why I can’t handle what’s happening,” but collectively, people can’t handle what’s happening because it’s unprecedented in many ways. We are so disconnected, and sometimes it’s helpful to know that others are going through similar things too. That’s the power of connecting. There’s power and healing in knowing that you are not suffering alone.

What general advice do you feel most people would benefit from during this pandemic?

It’s important to have a space with boundaries and a schedule for working. When it’s time to end work, you end work. If you’re at the kitchen table, you’re probably also doing the dishes, or cooking—there’s really no “off” button. We’re so “on,” especially now, with technology. Everything is technology. So maybe after five, don’t answer emails. Don’t do work after hours.

Take a walk. Nature helps us. We know that just 5 to 10 minutes of walking in nature helps to alleviate some of the anxiety and depression we feel. Take a minute outside and look at all the colors of the trees. Because all those things bring us to the here and now.

Show compassion for yourself. We’re in such a space of productivity. We measure our worth and value in productivity. But productivity is going to look different—and that’s okay. The more compassion we practice for ourselves, the more compassion we can pour into others.

Photo above: Silvia Leija. Photo at the top of the page: Shaun Goulet, DVM Class of 2022, and his cat, Erwin, study together.

The College announced that didactic learning would move to a virtual format, while students in clinical instruction, off-site clerkships, and graduate programs would continue to report to their normal, in-person schedules. On Monday, March 16, less than one week after the College announced its plan, many things changed. Many in-clinic experiences were cancelled or modified. Graduating seniors were moved to virtual rotations. The MSU Veterinary Medical Center reverted to emergency appointments and walk-ins only. The next day, Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued a “stay-at-home” executive order.

“Clerkships continued in a virtual format, and the clerkships were limited to the required clinical clerkships needed to complete graduation requirements for the Class of 2020,” explains Dr. Helene Pazak, associate dean for Academic Programs-Clinical Education and director of Accreditation.

A world online

Liz Richie and Cocoa
Liz Ritchie, DVM Class of 2021, studies at home with her canine companion, Cocoa.

In one sense, the transition was easier for students at the College who learn under the DVM Program’s reinvented curriculum, for which many lectures are already pre-recorded and consumed online and followed by in-person exploration the next day in the classroom. That’s not to say there were no difficulties. True to form, the veterinarians-in-training called upon one of their most critical qualities: resiliency.

“Doing our curriculum through Zoom was tough, as was losing anatomy lab, but we adapted and learned how to do it. Now, we’ll be able to use those skills in the future to more easily communicate and work with our colleagues and clients, be it in-person or online,” says Manny DeJesus, DVM Class of 2023.

As a first-year student, DeJesus’s favorite part of learning was anatomy lab, and he worried whether a virtual lab could be as educational to him as an in-person one.

“The dedication of our teachers to our learning really showed through their hard work in the transition to online. They made sure all of our activities were comparable to the real thing and always did their best to answer any questions outside scheduled class time,” he says.

The way in which students adapted to online learning was no surprise to Dr. Hilda Mejia Abreu, associate dean for Admissions, Student Life, and Inclusivity.

Dr. Hilda Mejia Abreu
Dr. Hilda Mejia Abreu

“This generation of students is digital-native,” she says. “Most of our students knew how to handle it. I attend events with them via Zoom and they are adapting to the new normal. While this is not a good situation, students have been creative about how they interact within their clubs, faculty, and with their fellow students from other veterinary colleges. MSU CVM students are resilient humans. Further, I am confident students completing the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Veterinary Nursing Programs at MSU will bring additional and important tools to their future employers because they are highly adaptable. They are high-level problem solvers, which employers seek in these resilient humans. The modality of course delivery was new, but I knew they were very versatile, and they could do it.”

As the modified semester wore on and kinks in the new system were worked out, the objective for all faculty and staff decisions was clear: preserve an excellent learning experience, no matter what.

“There were some innovative things done with the students, or that courses managed to do, regardless of being online,” says Norby. “Some of them still had group presentations, just in Zoom rooms. On one course, we mailed out lab materials—a syringe, for instance—so a student could practice syringe handling.”

For clinical clerkships, though, meeting the needs of students, patients, while following health and safety protocols has been challenging. Clerkships have transitioned to a partial online, partial in-person format.

“The pandemic has inevitably impacted my clinical schedule,” says Liz Ritchie, DVM Class of 2021. “However, I’m grateful that at MSU, we start clinics a semester early as compared to some other schools. Some of my colleagues at other universities have yet to step onto the clinic floor, whereas I had some rotations pre-pandemic.”

Where some opportunities had to be modified, new ones were introduced to keep the learning going. Dr. Birgit Puschner, dean of the College, taught a course on small animal pharmacology. Students could take basic and advanced courses for Life Support Certification for dogs and cats, thanks to a partnership between The Reassessment Campaign on Veterinary Resuscitation, the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society, the American College of Veterinary Emergency Critical Care, and Cornell University. DVM students were eligible for online courses offered by the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, including small animal dentistry and imaging anatomy.

The DVM Class of 2020 graduated under unusual circumstances, but was able to meet its requirements and move on, out into the real world as veterinarians. The Veterinary Nursing Class of 2020 graduated fully eligible to sit for the Veterinary Technology National Examination.

Students at the College wear face coverings to protect themselves and each other both inside and outside.

Supporting Students

As the pandemic hit, students faced challenges far beyond changes to their education, and the College had to take these obstacles into consideration as well.

This meant offering support for certain day-to-day student needs. College staff from the Office of Admissions, Student Life, and Inclusivity connected students to the MSU Food Bank, which transitioned open-air distribution to decrease virus exposure risk. The Office also provided students with information to find discounted or free Internet access and flights home.

The University provided all students, staff, and faculty with a plethora of webinars and resources on physical and mental wellbeing during challenging times. It also hosted an event called #GivingTuesday as an emergency response to support students during the COVID-19 crisis. Generous donors supplied the College’s Student Emergency Assistance Fund with $7,300 to help DVM and Veterinary Nursing students who may have lost their jobs be able to afford essentials like rent, food, and medicine.

The College also is pleased to offer a tuition reduction to out-of-state students. The tuition reduction begins with the Class of 2024 this fall.

To support mental health, the College deployed its team of Wellness Advocates. This team, which existed before the pandemic, reached out to a number of students to offer support, a kind ear, and resources to those who needed them. MSU’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services offered additional support until the College’s new embedded therapist, Silvia Leija, was able to begin serving students.

“The most important factor for me was the health and safety of our students because they are our future,” says Mejia Abreu. “That’s what guides our work—being caring, compassionate, and trying to make the best decisions for them.”

Dr. Bo Norby, associate dean for Academic Programs—Preclinical Education, gets creative with his work-from-home office.

Looking Back and Ahead

The COVID-19 chapter of history has posed extreme and unpredictable challenges to all sectors including higher education. Yet the College has remained resolute in its commitments to top-tier veterinary education powered by a supportive, cooperative community.

“The most important way the pandemic has impacted my life is that it’s given all of us a novel obstacle to overcome, and with that, new strategies and solutions to experiment with,” says DeJesus. “My friends and classmates also helped me get through the changes by giving me new study strategies and ideas, being backboards to bounce ideas off of, and just overall being supportive and caring.”

As life goes on during and after the pandemic, the lessons learned—which range from the scientific and instructional to the individual and interpersonal—will continue to inform the College community’s decisions. But perhaps the most important lesson is not a new one: There is strength in numbers.

“COVID-19 will change higher education forever,” says Mejia Abreu. “We have opportunities to do things differently, and to have scalability of the work we do. There is strength in numbers, and we’re all working together to continue the realization of the College’s mission. I am inspired that we will be leveraging innovation and creativity more in the work that we do.”

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