Public Health Learning Continues Online

April 15, 2020

In mid-March Alexis Smith, a second-year MPH student in Sociomedical Sciences, decamped from Washington Heights to her mother’s house in Southeast Alabama to social distance in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And now, like millions of students around the world, she spends her days online. “It’s obviously very different from being on campus,” she says, “But I’m grateful to be able to continue my public health studies and stay connected to the Mailman community online.”

This spring hundreds of Columbia Mailman School students are logged-in and learning, continuing where they left off before the pandemic scattered faculty, students, and staff near and far. The School’s classes moved online in mid-March, shortly before Spring Break, to foster social distancing.

“Even in the middle of a pandemic—especially in the middle of a pandemic—public health education continues. The value of public health science and training has never been more evident,” says Dean Linda P. Fried. “We are committed to delivering the same very high quality of education, whether online or in-person, education that is community-based and engaged. I’m so proud of everyone who made this transition happen under these difficult circumstances, and our success in this is a statement about our mission of social solidarity. It is inspiring to see all the ways we can adapt and carry on as a community in the face of a public health emergency.”

As New York City’s tally of COVID-19 cases climbed in early March, the School quickly made plans to promote social distancing. The School’s Board of Overseers and other donors provided funding to support students moving off-campus. The University announced that classes would be graded pass/fail, to accommodate the tumult associated with the transition.

The rapid move to virtual classrooms took a massive, coordinated, behind-the-scenes effort. Teaching Assistants mastered the finer points of using Zoom as a classroom, including the use of break-out rooms for small group discussions. The Office of Education took calls, fielded emails and real-time chat messages, and posted an online repository of tips. HR and IT staff provided crucial remote support to ensure a smooth learning experience.

Even before the pandemic, the School had pilot programs underway in online learning. Students submitted assignments and exams using the CourseWorks platform. A portion of the faculty were already familiar with distance learning through the Department of Epidemiology’s Epi Summer program. Looking ahead, even as the School returns to in-person classes, there are plans to introduce new online offerings. “We’re on a digital learning path,” says Roxanne Russell, director of online education. “It’s important to understand that emergency remote learning is not the same as well-designed and developed programs intended for the long term.”

Those teachers unfamiliar with distance learning have become adept students, adapting to a brand-new way of teaching and making themselves available through virtual office hours. Across the School, instructors now begin class conversations by asking students to share their thoughts about the pandemic and how they are coping with social distancing. Sharon Schwartz, a professor of epidemiology, invited her students to contact her if they were having trouble getting groceries or going to the pharmacy so she could she can connect them with resources.

The Whole School on Zoom

Nearly every aspect of the School now operates remotely—to support education and research and foster community ties. Student supports—academic help, wellness, career services—all continue from a distance. The Office of Diversity Culture and Inclusion maintains office hours and recently hosted a virtual town tall. Departments organize their own online events. Student groups, too, continue to meet.

Members of the Columbia Mailman community have found myriad creative ways to connect with each other online. Assistant Professor of Population and Family Health Samantha Garbers-Adams introduced themed Zoom virtual backgrounds into her data analysis class, inviting students to upload their own backgrounds to match the theme for the class. Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sciences Greg Freyer organized a special session in response to his students’ request for answers to their questions about the COVID-19 pandemic. The same students also organized a virtual social event. Participants chatted casually through Zoom, beverages in hand, as family members and pets passed by in the background or even popped on screen to say hello.

“Social distancing doesn’t mean we have to lose our community,” says Smith, who TAs the Freyer class from her childhood bedroom in Alabama. “It feels good to check in and see every one, even at distance.”