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Pandemic Perseverance: How the College of Education and Human Sciences continues to meet the challenge of COVID-19

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Communities and individuals across the globe have felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Oklahoma State University and the College of Education and Human Sciences are no exception.

The OSU family has faced new challenges and diligently worked to adjust and respond to an ever-changing situation. Since March, faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends have joined forces, looking for opportunities to help and serve. Because after all, that’s the Cowboy way.

Many remarkable and inspirational collaborations have taken shape during this unprecedented time. From sewing thousands of face masks to providing resources for the public, from supporting teachers and schools to offering virtual counseling sessions for students and community members and more, the College of Education and Human Sciences has proudly engaged in creative and alternative ways to support one another.

Dr. Boorady at a sewing machine
Dr. Lynn Boorady

Masking Up

Grassroots volunteers sew thousands of face covers

Although socially distanced due to coronavirus, a collection of volunteers connected to Oklahoma State University united to sew more than 50,000 face masks for health care workers and others across the state of Oklahoma during the early stages of the pandemic.

A Stillwater nurse’s Facebook plea for face masks inspired Oklahoma Home and Community Education (OHCE) volunteers, first in Payne County and then across the state, to organize a grassroots effort. That movement quickly crossed paths with the OSU Department of Design, Housing and Merchandising (DHM).

Bunches of masks

“The nurse included a link to a pattern,” said Dea Rash, Payne County Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) Extension educator. “I included the request for masks in the monthly March FCS/OHCE newsletter, and word quickly got out to other counties via social media. People started sewing, and nearly overnight, it turned into a statewide service project.”

OHCE is an outreach arm of Cooperative Extension, where volunteers are members of local groups meeting monthly to further education and promote university outreach and community service.

Suzette Barta, coordinator for community engagement and extension for the College of Education and Human Sciences, said the efforts expanded even further when the DHM department head offered lab space to help prepare fabrics for volunteers to sew.

“I was asked by Dr. Lynn Boorady if some of the OHCE groups could help sew the masks she had been cutting out,” Barta said. “Payne County was our first priority, obviously, because they are close. However, there have also been a few other counties that have jumped on board.”

Barta said most of the face masks OHCE volunteers sewed with their own fabric were donated by OHCE volunteers to health care workers and first responders in their own communities. Masks sewn from material cut by OSU faculty and staff in DHM labs had a more unique delivery path.

“The College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology at OSU has been 3D-printing face masks and face shields,” said Boorady, DHM department head. “Then, engineering is working with OSU Diagnostics Lab, which was doing COVID testing for the state. This lab has a team of drivers who pick up samples, and when they pick up samples, they are also now dropping off the face shields and our face masks at testing sites.”

Boorady also produced educational videos to dispel common myths surrounding face masks. Just as she relied on Cooperative Extension to recruit volunteers for sewing face masks, Extension educators spread her messages throughout Oklahoma.

“We can do the research until we’re blue in the face,” Boorady said. “However, Extension educators are the conduit between university research and people in the community, the ones who disseminate the information.”

Cooperative Extension also produced other COVID-related educational resources covering topics from proper hand washing to how to sanitize a home to family finances and healthy eating. As part of OSU’s land-grant mission, these topics are routinely studied and disseminated by OSU professors and Cooperative Extension educators but have become even more important throughout the pandemic.

“When there’s a crisis of this size, you really see what people have in their hearts,” Barta said.

Teletherapy being delivered
Counseling master’s student Austin Box facilitates a virtual counseling session.

Virtual Therapy

Counseling sessions go online to support OSU students and community

When in-person counseling became a potential health risk amid coronavirus concerns, mental health programs in the College of Education and Human Sciences quickly adapted to virtual therapy sessions to continue serving and supporting their clients.

TheCounseling and Counseling Psychology Clinic, part of the School of Community Health Sciences, Counseling and Counseling Psychology, and the Center for Family Services, part of the Department of Human Development and Family Science, transitioned all services to online when OSU’s campus closed to visitors in March.

“As a clinic, our responsibility is to not abandon our clients and to do no harm,” said Dr. Amanda Szarzynski, clinical director for the Center for Family Services. “My initial concern when we learned campus would be closing was that we not let any clients fall between the cracks.”

The virtual transition affected clients as well as master’s and doctoral students who train within the facilities under faculty supervision. Students took advantage of the learning opportunity, becoming more familiar with telehealth processes and technology support

“They’re getting an opportunity they otherwise would not have had if not for us having to adapt for the COVID-19 pandemic,” Szarzynski said.

While virtual therapy does present some limitations, it also provides an opportunity for purposeful creativity.

“It’s difficult to set the structure of [virtual] therapy,” said Alexis Lamb, a second-year marriage and family therapy master’s student. “We have to be really intentional about using our words more than just body language because I can’t point to who I’d like to speak.”

Despite the change in delivery, clients have shown resilience.

“Not all of our clients have technology, and not all of our clients have privacy at home,” said Dr. Tom Berry, Counseling and Counseling Psychology Clinic director. “Sometimes, they’re going out and sitting in their car as it’s the only [private] place they have.”

For some, virtual therapy can actually be an opportunity for new clients to ease into building a relationship with their counselor while still in the comfort of their own home.

“If people are needing services, I would encourage them to get ahold of our clinic and take advantage of the resources we have for the public,” Lamb said.

As schools move to learning virtually in the pandemic, the TeleED program has supported teachers and administrators.
As schools move to learning virtually in the pandemic, the TeleED program has supported teachers and administrators.

Supporting education through collaboration

Weekly conference calls help school leaders share resources and best practices

The TeleED program, a partnership between the OSU Center for Health SciencesProject ECHO and OSU-Tulsa, launched almost two years ago as a resource and support system for superintendents and school leaders. During the coronavirus, it became a lifeline for school leaders to share resources.

Principals and other school administrators join weekly conference calls to discuss best practices and collaborate to help resolve complex issues and questions regarding Oklahoma schools and students. Initially established to support rural schools, the program has quickly grown.

“We are really serving every educational community in every county of the state,”aid Dr. Ed Harris, professor and Williams Chair of Educational Leadership. “Many other states in the U.S. haven’t been able to serve a fraction of the districts we have, either because they weren’t as established before the pandemic or didn’t have the partnerships we did.”

The Oklahoma State Department of Education and the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration partner with TeleED, while also holding separate programs for special education, (TeleSPED) and state policies (TeleEDGE). While between 10 and 30 attendees typically attended the weekly calls when the program launched, attendance skyrocketed to as many as 500 people per call as school leaders sought ideas for addressing coronavirus in their schools and communities.

“I’ve been an educator for more than 30 years, and each call I learn something new,” said Dr. Don Raleigh, superintendent of Pryor Public Schools. “It considers things that maybe in the heat of the situation you haven’t really had a chance to digest or think through.”

Given the success of TeleED, there are plans to launch a fourth program, TeleNGAGE, this fall. The program will model the community, family and school partnerships in countries like Finland, Switzerland and Sweden.

While one lesson amidst the pandemic is that no one can predict the future, Harris and team are optimistic for the programs’ future after seeing the resilience of Oklahoman school leaders.

“No one had any preparation for this,” Harris said. “They don’t have a course on how to lead during a COVID- 19 pandemic. However, the collaboration and graciousness of each of the participants was really encouraging. We sort of band together in the worst times.”

Tutor with student
Education major provides in-person tutoring support for elementary student prior to COVID-19.

Adapting to a ‘New Normal’

Student teachers and tutors adjust to distance learning

Nearly 170 OSU student teachers were in classrooms across Oklahoma for the spring 2020 semester, in addition to 70 education majors tutoring individual students at the Randall and Carol White Reading and Mathematics Center on campus. When schools began closing their doors due to coronavirus concerns, these future teachers found themselves adapting to the “new normal” of distance learning.

“They were a little more than halfway through the semester,” said Dr. Robin Fuxa, director of the OSU Professional Education Unit. “They were making good bonds, as any great teacher does. They’re mourning that, of course, but they’ve been incredibly professional and flexible.”

Continuing to provide a positive and engaging experience for students learning from home was the top priority. From maintaining daily contact with mentor teachers to logging teaching hours while creating online assignments to attending online seminars hosted by OSU, it was truly a collective effort.

“Schools have done a really good job of thinking about how to continue to support children’s learning,” Fuxa said. “It’s been exciting to see how everyone’s been collaborating with our interns.”

Reading and math tutors within the College of Education and Human Sciences found themselves exceptionally prepared for the transition to distance learning, having already been introduced to online learning management systems within their academic program. Now, education students are applying that knowledge in a real-world setting.

“We’re still reaching the mission of the Reading and Math Center,” said Dr. Sheri Vasinda, associate professor of reading and literacy education. “We’re still doing outreach to the community, still helping our students learn how to teach — except in a new way.”

Various distance learning items and devices

Supporting teachers

Online development workshops cover series of topics

As online learning is implemented in schools across Oklahoma, OSU faculty have stepped in to help teachers prepare by hosting professional development workshops.

The “Teach from Anywhere: Using Digital Tools to Support Seamless Learning” three-course series covers topics ranging from setting up, organizing and using Google Classroom to cultivating digital community.

“Teachers wanted to learn more about technology integration that could benefit them and their students whether they are teaching in a distance or face-to-face setting in the fall,” said Dr. Kalianne Neumann, assistant professor of educational technology and course facilitator.

Of the program’s more than 300 enrollees, some are current P-12 teachers who transitioned online during the spring semester, while others are school administrators, substitute teachers and even retired teachers wanting to better support teachers and students online.

“There are many things out of our control when students are learning online and at a distance,” Neumann said. “Learning how to leverage the advantages of online classrooms for those students is important.”

The workshops are coordinated by the Center for Research on STEM Teaching and Learning (CRSTL), as part of its community engagement mission to support Oklahoma teachers.

“Teachers want to continue to hone their skills and collaborate with other teachers across the state so they can do the very best for students in their classroom,” said Dr. Juliana Utley, CRSTL director. “And we are here to support them.”

Family resources

College faculty shares expertise with parents

With some schools opting to forego in-person classes, many parents and students find themselves in a challenging situation.

College of Education and Human Sciences faculty members are sharing their expertise on how to effectively navigate and balance the new normal of online learning due to COVID-19 by providing educational resources for families.

“In difficult times, it’s important that we support one another in all the ways we can,” said Dr. Shelbie Witte, head of the School of Teaching, Learning and Educational Sciences in the OSU College of Education and Human Sciences.

Resources include everything from best-practice tips for balancing working and educating from home, to subject-specific curriculum resources, podcasts for parents and inclusive book lists.

It also includes tips on how to talk to children about COVID-19, social and emotional activities, and techniques and tips on harnessing technology tools. The resource hub is updated regularly and can be accessed online at

OSU alumna supports special education students

Sheryl Hazelbaker
Sheryl Hazelbaker

While education leaders across the U.S. made plans and was ensuring for virtual and in-person education for the fall, one OSU alumna is ensuring students in special education classes are not left out.

Sheryl Hazelbaker, a 1986 OSU physical education alumna, co-founded Oklahoma Assistive Technology and Educational Consulting Associates (OATECA) with Tiffany Massie to provide curriculum uniquely tailored to special education students’ needs. What began with a printer and laminator in her garage has grown into a business helping parents support their children’s learning during a global pandemic.

“So many parents send their students with significant disabilities to school, but they really don’t know what happens at school,” Hazelbaker said. “We wanted there to be something that would allow a special education teacher to share with the parents.”

OATECA resources provide detailed measurements for special education teachers to monitor students’ progress, opening the door for parents to be more actively involved in helping their children achieve learning goals. Because the resources are reusable, they can be used both at home and school until each skill is mastered.

“A typical general education [student] would take a reading test, and it would show their specific needs,” Hazelbaker said. “Well, there wasn’t one for students with significant disabilities, and we wanted to be able to come to the table and share the exact progress being made by their students.”

With parents more involved in and aware of their child’s growth through the OATECA curriculum, the foundation for distance learning was already laid.

“We needed a way for parents to be able to work with their students with the help of a teacher, via Zoom,” Hazelbaker said. “What we came up with was basically disposable curriculum. We print it all in black and white, except for three different color activities, and we mail those to school districts.”

“Districts were really scrambling for this population of students with significant disabilities. We’re providing a hands-on way for everyone to keep learning and for everyone — grandpa, grandma, brother, sister, parents — to get involved.”

Nursing students learning
OSU nursing students.

Learning on the front lines

Student aims for bachelor’s in nursing while caring for COVID-19 patients

Already an experienced nurse, Verena Turner is furthering her career in public health by pursuing her bachelor’s degree in nursing through OSU’s online RN to BSN completion program in the College of Education and Human Sciences. Her passion for serving patients who need her most has been elevated amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Turner, who is typically a nurse in a neurology intensive care unit, transitioned to caring solely for coronavirus patients over the last several months. The day-to-day patient care is an opportunity to apply her coursework.

“I love being a nurse, although I wouldn’t say being a COVID nurse was my goal for this year,” Turner said. “Seeing these patients recover, getting text messages and cards and emails from families of patients we’ve seen at the absolute worst and not knowing if we’re going to keep them alive makes it all worth it.”

Due to isolation restrictions, Turner said she may be the only person her COVID patients see for 13 hours. She endures layers of uncomfortable personal protective equipment (PPE) to spend extra time with the patients.

“Our patients a lot of the time are intubated and sedated, but they know there’s somebody there,” Turner said. “This has definitely opened my eyes that nurses have a really big impact.”

Turner says many hospital staff have supported the COVID nursing team. From housekeepers to dietitians and physical therapists, each person is important. Even the simplest task, such as retrieving a cup for a patient, can become challenging in isolation.

“If you need something, you have to write on a window to avoid taking off all of your PPE,” Turner said. “There have been multiple times a housekeeper has been walking by and gone and gotten me what I needed… even our CEOs have come to the nurse’s station to check on us.”

Despite the pandemic, the program’s 100-percent online format has allowed Turner to continue taking nursing classes, and she expects to graduate in May 2021. For this nurse — whether treating COVID patients or furthering her education — each task is a labor of love.

MEDIA CONTACT: Brittany Bowman| 540-908-0929 |

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