Melissa Smith, Newman University occupational therapy assistant instructor, made the spring 2020 semester one to remember for her students.
During a surreal time with a sudden shift to online learning and staying at home for anything but essential items, Smith wanted to make sure her students stayed engaged and motivated to finish the semester strong.
Knowing the importance of learning in an in-person environment, Smith said she and her students did the best they could. Some had to meet two or three at a time and always keeping their distance from one another, but other than that, her class met online via Zoom.
“I was amazed but not surprised that none of my students missed a class. Not one,” exclaimed Smith. “I did not make Zoom mandatory for several reasons … and taped all of my classes and uploaded them to my YouTube. So they were welcome to watch the class on another date.”
To keep them engaged, Smith assigned various research projects, PowerPoint presentations and asked them to meet regularly with their classmates on Zoom.
She would often use Zoom’s breakout sessions feature so students could do their assignments or hold small-group discussions. She said mixing it up hopefully made it different and kept them all on task.
She carved out time at the beginning of every class to ask everybody how things were going and if everybody was well. She provided time for everyone to de-stress and talk about activities that had been going on in their lives.
“That seemed to alleviate a lot of stress and let them know that we were all in this together,” she said. “And since this was a psychosocial class, we practiced breathing, meditation, visual imagery, relaxation and all of the coping skills that they will be teaching their patients in the future.”
Luckily, she didn’t have to drastically change her curriculum in order to accommodate for the online learning sessions. While she had to suspend her lab sessions, she kept the remainder of her semester plan mostly the same.
The one thing she couldn’t change was the need to be on campus for finals. Knowing that she needed to be safe, she booked one of the larger classrooms and split the class up into two groups so students could be more than six feet away from each other. Gloves and sanitizing wipes were provided as well for their desks.
She also wanted to make sure they had face masks to wear. Since she owns a side business called “Life’s a Stitch,” and regularly sews face masks for sale and for donating, she decided to create something special for her students.
“I figured that the students deserved some kind of a present at the end of the year. They will be going into internships or onto their jobs very soon. I know these masks will be needed when they are out working with the populations that have COVID-19 or have been exposed to the virus.”
So Smith sewed a mask for each of her students using the Newman University colors. She even embroidered “Newman OTA” onto each mask.
“I mentioned during one of the Zoom classes that I might try to do something like this and I did see some faces on my screen light up. Fifteen masks were a lot to make and embroider, but I knew that I could do it if I put my mind to it. This is a very special group of students who have worked very hard to make this adjustment with such poise and grace.”
The traditional pinning ceremony for the seniors had to be canceled, but Smith said she’s hoping they can at least get together as a class when it is safe to do so, even if they cannot do the pinning.
She expressed tremendous pride for this class of students, praising their flexibility and resiliency during uncertain times.
“They have proven themselves to be worthy occupational therapy assistants. They have pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and supported one another without any negativity at all. Occupational therapists are known for our creativity and flexibility. This class showed me that they are well on their way to being excellent providers.”