COVID-19: How the School Responded and What's Next

Life changed.

On Friday March 6, 2020, University of Minnesota students, faculty and staff took off for spring break. By the following Wednesday, March 11, President Joan Gabel made the decision to temporarily keep students away from campus due to COVID-19. Faculty and staff in Murphy Hall—and across the University—had until Tuesday, March 17, to update class formats and syllabi and prepare for classes to resume on March 18 via distance learning.

The actions taken immediately by the School included:

Telecommuting. All faculty and staff started working from home on March 16, and continued to do so over the summer.

Moved classes online. Instructors (with the help of staff) spent many hours building their classes to work virtually for students. The School had already planned for several classes to be offered online during summer 2020. Many instructors of the largest classes had received online training; for those who didn’t, the College of Liberal Arts and the School offered training during the University’s spring break.

Canceled events. Spring is a busy event time for the Hubbard School. Based on the recommendation of the Minnesota Department of Health, the Governor, and the University, the School canceled or rescheduled a majority of its spring events, including the annual Spring Showcase.

Moved events online. Many scheduled events, including commencement, were moved online. Many new online events were created for the moment.

Maintained student support and office hours. The School’s student services office, technical support staff, and instructors maintained virtual office hours each week so students never felt alone during this time of uncertainty.

Suspended travel. All University-funded or business-related travel was suspended until further notice.

Once the logistics were in place, the School, faculty and staff worked to keep disruptions to a minimum, assisted students with emergency funds, stayed flexible for those in different time zones and answered questions quickly. Classes were taught either synchronously or asynchronously, depending on the instructor’s preference and the class structure. The feedback from students throughout the semester was positive, and the creativity, resilience and drive demonstrated by all who work and learn in Murphy Hall was an inspiration.

Advising Students from a Distance

All Hubbard School majors have a set program plan that guides them to graduation. Oftentimes that plan includes studying abroad or hands-on lab classes. Moving to distance learning became a huge adjustment not just to sophomores and juniors, but to those studying around the world and those who were set to graduate as the Class of 2020.

Rebecca Rassier, Christine Mollen and Kassie Snyder make up the Hubbard School advising team. Shifting from being available in person during business hours to online availability only was an adjustment. Rassier offered “walk-in” hours on Zoom every day, but ended up spending most of her time answering student questions via email. Students had questions about summer courses, finishing earlier, and back-up scenarios in case something fell through. She also worked quite a bit with students who had to come back early from studying abroad to realign their plans.

“I was pleasantly surprised at how well students adapted to being at home and taking courses virtually,” Rassier said. “They seemed very pleased with our instruction and they seemed to be going with the flow of their new lives. Given how much we had heard about how stressed students were, I was happy to see that some students, at least, seemed to be doing OK.”

The advising team was also getting inquiries about the major application far earlier than usual. The once in-person application is moving online for Fall 2020. “We had to post it earlier than we ever have because students wanted to apply,” said Mollen. “I hope this means our fall numbers look good!” Transfer student orientation also moved online during summer 2020, and instead of meeting students in person, Mollen created a video to share with students about the major.  

Lectures Shift Online

Large lectures, like Jour 3004: Information for Mass Communication, which serves around 80 students, moved online asynchronously. Assistant Professor and Assistant Director for Curriculum and Instruction, Susan LoRusso, found it most challenging to reconfigure the lecture schedule in just a few days. She also had to create short, recorded lectures that were different from what she would’ve presented in the classroom.

However, Jour 3004 students were already used to taking quizzes and exams online and submitting assignments through the classroom portal. For in-class assignments, LoRusso instead created independent activities that corresponded with the lesson of the day.

She measured engagement through analytics on lecture views, the number of assignment submissions, and quiz and exam completion. “Overall, students were more engaged with the content than when class was in-person,” LoRusso said. “The quality and scores for assignments after the online shift was higher than previous semesters.”

Helping Students in Need

The Hubbard School gave out $9,000 in emergency scholarships to undergraduate students and $22,500 to graduate students during COVID-19. This money helped students with technology needs from having to move home for distance learning. Through funding collaborations between CLA and various campus-level offices, the College of Liberal Arts gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to CLA students in need. 

Clients and the Virtual Classroom

Mark Jenson was teaching three strategic communication classes during spring semester, including one that was working with Best Buy as its outside client. He made the decision to teach all three classes synchronously. “I wanted to bring some normalcy to the students by having the class meet at the same time so that we would still be together as a class, albeit online,” he said. “At the end of the semester, the feedback from students in all three classes was that they liked having our classes meet at the regular time as an in-person class.”

Jenson would cover the same material as he would’ve during a normal semester. He had his scheduled guest speakers join them via Zoom, too. They continued their class discussions virtually and he had students use the Zoom breakout rooms for small group discussions. “All the students had their videos on so we could all see each other and we used the ‘raise the hand’ feature to have the vibrant discussion that you need with our assignments,” Jenson said. All three classes required group projects as well. Students would meet virtually on their own time and present their work to the class on Zoom.

In his Campaigns class, the final project was for Best Buy. Usually the client would come to Murphy Hall at the end of the semester to attend the group presentations. Instead, the students presented via Zoom. “They had to think about their room background, lighting, sound, the camera quality, and of course how they would project themselves on camera,” Jenson said. “All the groups did a terrific job of sharing their work and presenting online.”

Sam Heitke, manager of brand advertising at Best Buy, commended the class as well. “It was such an amazing opportunity to have this group of bright individuals take a look at our brand from an objective POV and apply learnings and recommendations in such thoughtful ways,” he said. “With the target audience of this project being Gen Z, this group of students provided an incredibly valuable point of view.”

Students Tell COVID Stories

During the Spring 2020 semester, Hubbard School students had to improvise when it came to their hands-on courses, which were now being administered from a distance. Many students chose to use this time to tell stories about COVID-19. The School is proud of the students' resiliency and ability to complete these important stories. Find their stories on our website. 

Students in the Newsroom

The Star Tribune practicum, which places a handful of students in the newsroom for the semester, also happens every spring. The shift to telecommuting, not just for the University but for the Star Tribune newsroom as well, meant students, editors and their instructor, Chris Ison, had to adapt quickly. The class had two photographers, a business writer, a sports writer, two feature writers, an education writer and several students covering general news for the paper.

Because a lot of the government and public life shut down, some of the beats students covered as interns disappeared. Student photographers didn’t produce as much work as during a normal semester because the School and the paper didn’t want them to risk their health. But the students in the practicum still produced more than 100 stories during the semester, including writing about COVID-19 and its effect on businesses, student life, and sports.

“Because they're young and live in a campus community, they have a perspective that often is lacking in a newsroom,” Ison said. “Editors at the paper constantly tell me how much they value the students' viewpoints.”

After the stay home directive began, students completed a lot of their interviews by phone or Zoom, which Ison said was great practice since many journalists need to rely on phone interviews in a pinch. Photographers followed social distancing guidelines, and were able to capture meaningful images around a deserted campus.

“One thing we kept emphasizing is that journalists have to adapt to new challenges every day,” Ison said. “It's just part of the job. One day you're covering a zoning commission meeting in St. Paul and the next you're covering a flood in Fargo. So this was a drag, but it also was good training. The students handled it like pros.”

Honoring the Class of 2020

While graduation couldn’t happen in its original form, the University presented a virtual celebration on May 16, 2020. The Hubbard School wanted to honor its individual graduates as well. A web page was created to feature commencement addresses from Director Cohen, Scott Memmel, a Ph.D. graduate, and Hamy Huynh, an undergraduate student. The School also collected and compiled information for three Class of 2020 virtual yearbooks for graduate, professional master’s and undergraduate students. Many faculty members recorded inspirational video messages to include on the web page as well. 

Producing News while Separated

Scott Libin and Sara Quinn teach production classes that rely heavily on equipment, face-to-face planning sessions and hands-on learning. To move to distance learning mid-semester, leaving the collaboration and technology behind, was quite jarring.

Libin’s class had only produced one in-person newscast in the Murphy Hall studio before scattering. The students finished out the semester by producing “Zoomcasts” virtually. The class discussed many logistics before getting started: how to hold a phone steady, how to capture the best sound without microphones, and the ins and outs of software and internet connections.

“We talked about how to coach interview subjects through the process of setting up their own computers, tablets or phones, so that we saw the person at eye level, effectively lit and in an appropriate environment,” Libin said. The class eventually was able to go “live” via Zoom. Anchors read lead-ins as they would in a studio, Libin ran the edited packages from his computer, and the producer each week would run a show topper and a closing graphic.

“Almost everybody in the class had gone home, so we had reports from Long Island, Kansas City and Seoul,” Libin said. “Even our two Korean students, who were 15 time zones away, participated in key class sessions live. That meant it was midnight, their time.”

Quinn’s magazine production class kept up with each other with extra Zoom meetings and a Slack channel, and were still able to produce a printed piece by June. The magazine’s overall theme of an ever-changing world and the uncertain futures of 20-somethings lent itself well to COVID topics, too. “In addition to the stories we'd already planned, each student was asked to create a project on coping with the quarantine,” Quinn said. “These projects included writing, videos and artwork.”

Academic Perspective: Combating Misinformation Online Associate Professor

Emily Vraga researches misinformation online, and coronavirus has brought about its fair share of misinformation. A white paper Vraga published with Leticia Bode, Georgetown University, “shows that people shared links on Twitter to misinformation sites almost as often as links to credible health websites like the WHO.” Her research with Bode and Melissa Tully, University of Iowa, has also found through an experiment conducted with 610 participants that corrections to misinformation—pointing out information that is wrong or misleading and offering credible information in its place—on social media reduce misperceptions regardless of the correction’s tone (uncivil, affirmational, or neutral). Since the COVID-19 health crisis began, Vraga has been interviewed about misinformation in TIME magazine, Men’s Health, Smithsonian magazine, CNN Business, Mother Jones, and more.

Community Journalism via Zoom

Each spring, the students in Gayle Golden’s Brovald-Sims Community Journalism practicum choose an underserved community to cover. Past semester students have covered the disability community and University students from greater Minnesota. In 2020, the students chose nontraditional students, such as working parents, part-time students, those in the military and others.

Moving online mid-semester created many challenges for the class, especially since it prevented students from visiting potential sources where they live, work or hang out. To keep the class feeling connected after spring break, Golden kept up regular bi-weekly class sessions via Zoom, used Slack for informal communication, and took advantage of Google drive to document story ideas, keep a story budget, collect interviews, and process story edits. Golden said the Google drive created a “virtual newsroom” that worked really well.

Before the shutdown, the class had prepared a survey of 5,700 undergraduates. “The survey not only gave us information about important issues facing nontraditional students but also, most importantly, gave us permission to contact nearly 100 students who identified as nontraditional,” Golden said. With everyone stuck at home, those names became a valuable place from which to mine stories and interviews. And because they were developing the survey in early March, they were able to add questions about COVID-19, which led to stories about nontraditional students and how the virus affected them.

“Nontraditional students reported more mental health struggles [in the survey] than traditional students, which makes sense because the community includes those who delay enrollment or go to school part time.” Golden said. “So the shutdown did impact them disproportionately. The lives of student parents certainly changed when those parents began struggling not only with their own school issues but also their children's at-home schedules. We wrote about that, too.”

What’s next: Fall 2020

At the time of publication, the University planned to bring students back in the fall as long as social distancing guidelines can be maintained. This means courses will be a mix of both online and in-person. In Murphy Hall, due to space constraints, classes with more than 27 students need to be held online. As many graduate courses that can be held in person will be. According to the College of Liberal Arts, “The goal is to accommodate people at a higher risk of COVID-19 while allowing them to progress academically.”

The School is ordering masks, face shields, and hand sanitizer in individual packets for people who use the spaces the School keeps open. All classes University-wide will be online after Thanksgiving and will provide all final exams remotely. However, the School is prepared to switch to remote instruction before the Thanksgiving holiday if necessary. Any faculty member teaching an in-person class has to allow students to complete it remotely. “No one is to be made to teach, TA, or be a student in person who does not want to do so,” said CLA Dean John Coleman, in a June email.

Students with technology needs may receive assistance from School, CLA and University emergency scholarships. The School will also provide students with loaner laptops and other equipment and support based on faculty referral.

Covid cell