As the spring 2020 semester ended with an empty campus and all classes switched to online instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic, strategizing to safely reopen the college for the fall was well underway.

Faculty and staff from every division worked together to reimagine the Elms experience, incorporating social distancing and safety protocols throughout campus to ensure the safety and edification of Elms College students and employees. But one question loomed for the fall: What would academics look like?

Associate Dean and Director of Undergraduate Programs Br. Michael Duffy, DNP, ANP-BC, takes advantage of the weather to teach a socially distanced nursing class outside.

Associate professors Amanda Garcia, MSA, CPA, CFP, and Beryl Hoffman, Ph.D., along with assistant professor Shannon Dillard, Ed.D., set out to answer that question. To help faculty prepare for an unprecedented fall semester, the trio spent the summer developing a series of training workshops that scrutinized the topic of “hybrid learning.” 

This method, now ubiquitous in public conversation, refers to instructors interacting with students attending class both in-person and online at the same time. Hybrid learning at Elms has been branded the ElmsFlex model and is designed to give students flexibility as their needs evolve over the semester.

Garcia is somewhat of an expert in this area, being a member of the MBA faculty at Elms. Since 2010, graduate business courses have been conducted in this flexible format, much to the benefit of working adults who juggle family, career, and school simultaneously. Garcia’s knowledge of Zoom, Moodle, and, most importantly, online educational pedagogy, proved useful when coaching faculty unfamiliar with hybrid learning.

“I stressed that technology is simply meant to enhance the classroom experience. We’re all innovating in real time.”

Associate Professor Amanda Garcia

Garcia hosted 10 workshops between June and August, all centered on how to adapt to the ElmsFlex model. Key considerations were made for restructuring syllabi, rewriting assignments, rethinking assessment and grading policies, and redefining what counts as an extracurricular activity. 

The idea of online engagement itself required extensive discussion. Hoffman and Dillard not only created an online forum for faculty to share tips and tricks, but they also hosted an interactive webinar where they exhibited different tactics for getting students involved. It could be something as simple as sharing a map via Zoom, Hoffman said, and asking students to highlight their hometowns.

“You need to consider two populations, the online and the in-person,” Hoffman said. “I think courses are going to change for the better in that regard.”

Photo of masked students in Berchmans Hall
The college distributed masks to all members of the Elms community who will be on campus under the ElmsSafe campus reopening plan

All these efforts have paid off: A recent survey of students found 86 percent say their faculty are regularly engaged with them via Moodle, Zoom, or email.

“They’re happy with the option of being online, being in the classroom, or doing both,” said Vice President of Academic Affairs Walter C. Breau, Ph.D. 

“I was surprised that so many of my students wanted to come into the classroom, especially first-year students,” Hoffman added. “I think they really appreciate that classrooms are open to them.”

Nursing students have been able to work their clinical hours at local healthcare sites, but at reduced numbers per section, Breau said. The end result is “our (simulation) labs are being used morning, noon and night, all week long.”

Brittany North ’21

Brittany North ’21, a secondary education and mathematics double major, appreciates the way that the college has struck a balance when it comes to giving students different learning options. While she is a commuter, she chose to take two of her four classes in-person.

“A lot of schools took the choice away from students,” she said. “The experience has been wonderful. Professors are making sure that students are doing everything to follow all the guidelines. It’s a positive feeling when we can see our peers and professors, and interact with them in-person.”

Elms students aren’t just adjusting to the “new normal” in the classroom, however. They’re also finding ways to get involved in experiential learning, volunteer work, and residence life. 

Perhaps the most visible experiential learning opportunity on campus is the annual Elms Innovation Challenge, now in its third year. Whereas previous challenges took place over a hyper-intensive three-day weekend, this year’s event has been drastically protracted, spread out across the semester as part of First Year Seminar.

Garcia, who directs the annual event, said that extending the challenge this year had its advantages. In prior years, students met with local experts for a few hours to discuss their project ideas. This year, these meetings are happening virtually, taking place over several weeks. Students have been tasked with innovating solutions to the COVID-19 crisis, Garcia said, noting that the new timeline is favorable because it gives students a chance to form real bonds with their mentors over time. 

That type of exceptional student engagement is reflected across campus, especially at the faculty level. In the Division of Social Sciences, for example, Associate Professors Maureen Holland, MSW, and Scott Hartblay, MSW, took a novel approach to helping their senior social work students find fall internships. Rather than requiring students to interface directly with local agencies, Holland and Hartblay decided to make the phone calls themselves. This had the benefit of not only relieving the agencies of administrative pressures due to COVID-19, Hartblay said, but also giving the professors a chance to match students with the agencies best suited to their interests.

In addition to academics, co-curricular activities like the Dorothy Day Service Program were reimagined to support the student experience. Even in the face of quarantining and social distancing, this year’s group managed to find some semblance of normalcy by throwing an ice cream social to get to know one another. They also continued to perform vital support work at local community centers and nonprofit organizations, continuing the mission and legacy of the Sisters of St. Joseph despite challenging odds. 

Ryanne Fournier ’22, a nursing major and returning volunteer, said that one of the highlights of the week was a meditation session at Genesis Spiritual Life & Conference Center. Even though she is a commuter this year, Ryanne said she is looking forward to spending plenty of time on campus. 

While the Elms experience has certainly undergone a sea change in some respects, it remains anchored in the abiding sense of community on campus. Joshua Keaton ’21, a resident advisor (RA) in O’Leary Hall, says that campus certainly feels strange, given that everyone is adjusting to new safety rules. But, he also thinks that people are finding creative ways to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.

“The faculty, staff, and students here are resilient, and always have been,” he said. “I’m looking forward to being able to build a community again. It’s actually one of my favorite things about being an RA.”

Joshua Keaton ’21

This story was published in the Fall 2020 issue of Elms Magazine.