Year of the Pandemic at PAU: Reflections from President Maureen O'Connor

Monday, March 15, 2021
It’s been a year since COVID-19 first upended our world in ways few would have imagined. We asked President O’Connor to look back on the last 12 months for which there was no roadmap. Here are excerpts from our recent conversation.   

When you reflect on this time a year ago, what comes to mind? 

Maureen O'Connor

I clearly remember this time last year. On March 9, I was due to leave for New Orleans for the American Psychology-Law Society (APLS) Conference. I was going to speak and we were hosting a launch event for our Continuing and Professional Studies Division. Hours before my flight, I realized that things were quickly changing and that I could not leave town. The next day we went into crisis meeting mode. We needed to get ourselves tuned into the public health guidance; establish protocols and understand initial education guidelines. 

On a personal note, that same week, my daughter had visited me on her spring break from her mental health counseling program in North Carolina. I have not been able to be with her since – as for so many families, that is the longest we have ever been apart.
What concerned you most?
Right from the beginning, it was all about the health and safety of our community – the students, faculty, and staff. Because of that, we decided to move both academic and business operations online right away. There was so much unknown, and we were not willing to risk the health of our community. We were decisive at a time of uncertainty, but with all aspects of people’s lives upended, we felt clear decisions and communications were critical.  
Moving all operations online must have been a huge undertaking. How did you do that?
I had great faith in the PAU community – it was a complete team effort. We were at an advantage over some universities because we had been doing high quality online education in virtual classrooms in our online master's programs, though not in our doctoral programs and residential undergraduate program. We knew how to develop curriculum for online (synchronous) courses and we’d been focused on excellence in online pedagogy. Our academic technology and pedagogy teams dove in and delivered online training to all faculty within a matter of days. We had been one of the first universities to fully embrace Zoom, back in 2014, so our entire community was already familiar with managing meetings and other activities via zoom. 
What about students who were completing their clinical training – their internship or practicum requirements?  
This was a significant worry. We had close to 100 doctoral students on internship in multiple counties and out of state on internship and months away from graduating. Some of their sites closed. Others insisted students continue working despite concerns about the virus. Regionally, we had doctoral and masters students in practica in 150 agencies. Our amazing clinical training team (now a new campus committee) was on it immediately. They worked closely with our students at all levels to ensure their safety and minimize the impact on graduation and other requirements. They developed supplemental opportunities.  I am exceedingly proud that few students lost clinical hours.
What about PAU’s training clinic, The Gronowski Center?
Continuing to serve our community clients was another critical concern. We also worried our students would lose clinical training hours there as well. With incredible initiative and collaboration with our clinical and IT teams, we were able to move the entire Clinic operations online in a secure, compliant way in a very short time, so we could offer phone and teletherapy to our clients. Our Continuing and Professional Studies Division also jumped in and accelerated the launch of an online course for providers in ‘The Foundations of Digital Therapy,’ an essential training developed by PAU our incredible technology hub scholars and faculty. We not only made that course available to all PAU students, but also to many of our community partners. I am confident we will incorporate teletherapy at our clinic and as part of our training in the future.  
Other challenges?
We were in the middle of the admissions cycle. The admissions team was scheduled to be on the road recruiting and on-campus interviews for our doctoral programs were scheduled and underway. In fact, the last in-person event at PAU before the shutdown was an open house for the doctoral programs. The team quickly improvised and developed successful virtual alternatives. Now we’re weighing the importance of in-person interviews, and thinking about the balance of in-person and virtual approaches. 
Another challenge was recognizing that, once schools closed, many of our students, staff, and faculty were now doing their PAU work AND supporting their own children’s lives and learning at home. Women and single parents in particular have been disproportionately impacted by the situation in terms of managing work and home lives, and it was clear that we needed to manage workloads, support flexibility, and extend grace to all of those affected. And, of course, many families suffered loss from the pandemic without the support of community for grieving.
It is also critical to highlight the amazing work of our Institutional Review Board (IRB) and our faculty to keep our students’ and faculty’s research projects going. Many of the on-going studies had been designed for in-person intervention or contact. Protocols had to be revised; studies had to be redesigned; creative energy and a huge amount of effort went in to keep research going at PAU during this time.
What was the impact on students?
Keeping our students learning was our goal and I give tremendous credit to our faculty and staff for their incredible efforts and to our students for their amazing response. Nevertheless, this was exceptionally challenging for our students. It was rocky at the beginning, no question – but, we learned, we adjusted, and we tried to support students as best we could. I think it was especially tough for first and second-year students, and for those students who had purposely chosen on-campus learning. For those students, they have not had the opportunity to meet any of us in person, and the typical bonding within cohorts in residential programs was more challenging.
And, it has been so disappointing to not be able to hold in-person graduation ceremonies for our incredible 2020 and 2021 graduates. Graduation days are always my favorite day of the year to celebrate with our graduates and their families. We hope to hold in-person receptions for these classes as soon as we are able to gather in larger groups.
What surprised you most about this transition?
How unbelievably well everyone managed the situation. I think communication was key. Everyone jumped in and figured it out. We had many town halls – with every cohort, students, faculty, and staff. Everybody had to do something – everyone had to step up.     
I also think we broke down some barriers. Before the pandemic, there was a sense that remote faculty, staff, and students were at a disadvantage because they were not physically here. The last year leveled the playing field between remote and residential staff, students, and faculty. I hope we can draw lessons from the experience to make sure everyone at PAU, whether remote or in-person, feels part of the PAU community.   
Despite the many challenges imposed on students, faculty, and staff, are there some silver linings?
This past year gives us a lot to think about in terms of how we do business. Commuting, for example, is a factor to consider. Staff have mentioned how much more time they have in their day without the brutal peninsula commute. We can also be more intentional about what is best done in person. On the clinical side, the rigidity of clinical service was weighted against teletherapy. Now we see the possibilities, and more importantly, we hope our accrediting agencies see the potential for quality training in multiple modalities.
Overall, this year has given us all a chance to look at our work choices more critically and thoughtfully. When can meetings be done effectively and virtually so that all can participate equally? When do we really need to be across the table from colleagues?  Some faculty had strongly resisted online teaching; others had embraced it. Now, everyone has had the experience and can make informed decisions about what works best for them.
Any last thoughts you'd like to share?
In addition to managing the pandemic itself, our community has focused intently on the systemic racism and inequities that have been exposed in our country and in our own community. We go into the future with eyes wide open as to the challenges we face in living up to our equity and inclusion commitments. Coming out of the pandemic, we will not choose to go back to the status quo, but to work together as a university to imagine a community in which people feel they belong and where the value each person brings to our community is recognized and honored. 
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