No One Is on an Island: Connecting, Collaborating, and Coping During the Pandemic

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  • 1 California State University, East Bay, Hayward, CA, USA
  • | 2 Pennsylvania State University Hazleton, Hazleton, PA, USA
  • | 3 Pennsylvania State University Harrisburg, Middletown, PA, USA
  • | 4 Pennsylvania State University Brandywine, Media, PA, USA
  • | 5 Pennsylvania State University Mont Alto, Mont Alto, PA, USA
  • | 6 California State University, Northridge, Northridge, CA, USA

The onset and spread of COVID-19 forced an accelerated shift to remote communication and online teaching, generating new challenges and opportunities for kinesiology. As a result of the pandemic situation, redefined collaborative models independently emerged among kinesiology departments in two systems, California State University and the Pennsylvania State University. These models built community; addressed geographic and size challenges associated with meeting in-person; empowered sharing of ideas, resources, best practices, and emotional support; and guided our campus communities to success. We suggest that these collaborative models can be used in the future as platforms to improve kinesiology student’s success by facilitating professional development, integration, sharing, problem solving, and social support.

In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a highly contagious respiratory disease that has come to be known as COVID-19 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). The spread of COVID-19 has had a marked impact on the entire global population. COVID-19 was no stranger to the United States, hitting the educational system with a blow that is still being felt today. Higher education administrators, faculty, staff, and students were forced to go from face-to-face interaction to a platform of technology that created challenges, stresses, and uncertainty. The sudden shift to remote working and online communication has redefined collaboration (Brown & Finn, 2020). In this paper, we draw upon perspectives shared at the 2021 American Kinesiology Association (AKA) Virtual Leadership Workshop during the session entitled, Academic Leadership During Crisis: Fostering Collaborative Ties. We will address models that kinesiology leaders from the California State University (CSU) and the Pennsylvania State University (PSU) systems used to foster connection and collaboration, and, in turn, help our units cope with the difficulties introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic. More specifically, this paper describes how faculty members across the kinesiology discipline drew from the interpersonal relationships that were formed through various interactive modes of communication. During this significant disruption to higher education and our broader lives, CSU and PSU took different yet similar approaches to collaboration and discovered a silver lining in COVID times.

CSU Kinesiology Chairs Group

In the CSU system, there is a long-standing tradition of regular meetings around academic areas. The kinesiology chairs typically meet twice a year on a rotating basis around the state and at statewide conventions (e.g., at the annual meetings of the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance). These meetings have been invaluable in sharing ideas, resources, problem solving, and providing support and guidance. While not developed with the intention of being a Community of Practice (CoP), the CSU Chairs group meets the key features of a CoP as developed by Lave and Wegner (1991). Namely, the group possesses a domain of interest, a community that engages in discussion and activities, and a shared practice and understanding. CoPs are defined as “groups of people who share a common concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2011, p. 1). From the onset of the pandemic lockdown in California in March 2020 to the present, the CSU Chairs group has evolved as a CoP and grown to include the California Community Colleges (CCCs), that have same domain of interest, want to engage in discussion, and have a shared commitment (Eckert, 2006; Wenger, 2000; Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2015). This engagement was initially driven by the pandemic but now has expanded to address issues of mutual interest and concern. We highlight this progression here as well as the opportunities and challenges that have arisen from this engagement.

The start of the Spring 2020 semester unfolded much like previous years. The same trials and tribulations of any academic semester arose, and the typical rhythm of a term progressed. The pandemic was making worldwide news with lockdowns in Europe and Asia and a growing number of cases and deaths, yet its impact seemed remote in the United States. On March 4, 2020, the impact no longer seemed remote, with California Governor Gavin Newsome declaring a state of emergency for California because of the coronavirus (Office of Governor Gavin Newsome, 2020). In the CSU system, some guidance was provided on preventing the spread of the coronavirus, but there was no indication at this point of suspending in-person operations. On March 11, 2020, the governor recommended that meetings of 250 or more people be suspended (Koseff, 2020), and on March 16, he asked that anyone over the age of 65 self-isolate at home and places of entertainment reduce the number of patrons (Cassidy et al., 2020). While these actions made it clear the pandemic was no longer something happening abroad, events of March 16, 2020, in the Bay Area brought this to our door.

A “Shelter-in-Place” order was issued on Monday, March 16 in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was to go into effect at 12:01 a.m. the following day and required all nonessential business to go into lockdown, including higher education (Allday, 2020). Initially, this was cast as a temporary local measure; however, 3 days later Governor Newsome issued a statewide “Shelter-in-Place” order. This made California the first state in the United States to go into lockdown, and the governor gave no indication of when the order would be lifted (Koseff & Allday, 2020). The original order for the Bay Area was extended, and schools across the state were mandated to be closed through the end of the academic year.

With the March 16 announcement, a series of emergency meetings took place at Bay Area CSU schools. It was believed that this would be a temporary situation, and initially, little thought was given to a concerted and planned response. We hurriedly made arrangements for staff to work from home and for faculty to collect needed resources from their offices. As the scale and extent of the lockdown grew in the ensuing weeks, it became clear that we needed a much more strategic approach. As the reality set in of how unprepared we were for dealing with this extreme change of circumstance, we grappled with finding the tools, resources, and knowledge to cope and ensure students that success was the central focus of our mission.

The CSU system comprises 23 campuses with nearly 500,000 students and 53,000 faculty (California State University, 2021). It is the largest 4-year system in the United States and awards over half of the bachelor degrees in the state of California. Twenty-one of the campuses have kinesiology degree programs, collectively serving over 20,000 students who major in these programs. The CSU system has a reputation for offering an ethnically and racially diverse and nontraditional student body access to higher education at an affordable price. The CSU system is one part of the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education (University of California, Berkeley, 2021). The plan lays out an integrated pathway for higher education that comprises 116 community colleges (California Community Colleges, 2021), the 23 CSUs, and the 10 universities of California (University of California, Berkeley, 2021). Each part of the system has some degree of autonomy, as do local campuses within each of the tiers, but each is regulated centrally and through statewide legislation.

With the lockdown, the planned meeting of the CSU kinesiology chairs for March was canceled. As I (P. Carpenter) struggled with the growing realization that the lockdown was going to be more than a short-term issue and that we needed a coherent plan for moving to remote operations for teaching, student support, and business operations, I reached out to the chairs in the CSU and suggested we meet virtually using the Zoom meeting platform and start brainstorming. Kinesiology had some unique challenges when it came to the pandemic given the physical activity and laboratory classes we teach and the high interpersonal levels of engagement in our programming. It was also evident that people needed to find ways to cope with the pandemic, and physical activity was an important outlet for coping. How could we help students and others be physically active given the constraints imposed by the pandemic. In addition, there were challenges tied to the needs of our diverse student body and equitable access to technology.

The idea to meet via Zoom and brainstorm solutions was well received, and we started a series of regular meetings. The first was very much a sharing session and one that in all honesty became more of a way to vent the frustrations we were experiencing. In itself, this was valuable because clearly there was growing pressure on chairs to address the challenges created by the pandemic. Chairs had very much become the focal point for managing the move to remote operations. It was also apparent that while the Chancellor’s Office set general guidelines and rules, each campus had unique challenges. As a result of local health rules and specific guidelines set by each campus, different ways of dealing with the lock-down were established.

It was agreed that if subsequent meetings were to be of value, we needed to be focused and address specific topics that were going to be impactful. Sharing what was happening on each campus, while interesting and providing some context, was not offering meaningful solutions or strategies to move forward. As such, we set up two initial paths. One was to have the chair meetings around a specific topic and bring in an expert to speak. The other involved establishing cognate discipline groups, connecting faculty across the CSUs in each of the disciplinary areas of kinesiology to meet and share teaching strategies as we moved classes online. In each group, there were faculty with online teaching experience and faculty who had never taught online. Each of these groups was led by one of the chairs, who organized meetings, times, and agendas. During the initial push in March 2020, the content arising from these meetings provided an important resource to help faculty who had never taught online to take the first steps in online education.

During the Spring 2020 semester, the topics that the chairs addressed included faculty and chair burnout; progress toward tenure and promotion; concerns around teaching, scholarship, and service opportunities; student (dis)engagement; and questions of equity around the availability of technology for students and faculty and also the equitability and integrity of assessed work. One area that arose was the transition of community college students. Most of the kinesiology programs in the CSU are weighted toward a far greater percentage of transfer than first-year students. It was evident that the CCCs were facing their own challenges. Historically, we had invited a representative from the CCC system to our meetings. In the CCC system, the California Community College Physical Education, Kinesiology and Dance subgroup of the California Community College Athletic Association had reformed and its president reached out to me. This group comprises the chairs and directors of many of the kinesiology-related programs in the CCCs. We decided that it would be worthwhile to connect and invite members of this group who represented kinesiology-focused departments in the CCCs to the CSU chairs meetings. With the legislation around transfer students and the common challenges we were facing, this has proven to be an important, and much needed and neglected, connection. With many of the CSU kinesiology departments part of the AKA, I reached out and invited then President Alan Smith to these meetings. He accepted and has been attending the meetings. Altogether, by strategically expanding the group, we have forged stronger ties with AKA and the CSUs and the CCCs.

The combined meetings continued over the Summer 2020 and into Fall 2020. Despite believing (hoping) that Fall would be a return to near normal,” we were once again fully remote. CSU Chancellor (at the time) Timothy White announced on May 12, 2020, that the system would be fully remote for Fall 2020, the first system nationwide to take this step (California State University, 2020a). In September, this was followed by an announcement that Spring 2021 would largely be online (California State University, 2020b). As Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 have progressed, the meetings with the CCCs and the CSU have continued, and we have continued to brainstorm and problem solve around the issues that the pandemic has created. It has also become evident that the pandemic has lifted the veil on a number of mutually important issues that existed prepandemic and which we as a collective group had not addressed, primarily around the question of transfer students and California legislation (i.e., Senate Bill 1440; California Legislative Information, 2021a) that conveys certain rights to students and requires certain action for the CCCs and the CSUs and legislation working its way through the state legislature (i.e., Assembly Bill 928; California Legislative Information, 2021b). This has led to two working groups being formed to address these issues and continue to build the bridge between the CCCs and the CSUs and create an environment conducive for student success. One group is focused around the question of transfer and the other on mentoring faculty. The former is building on the work of the group charged under SB 1440 (the Faculty Discipline Review Group comprised of faculty from the CCCs and the CSUs) on the Transfer Model Curriculum (Course Identification Numbering System, 2021).

While the pandemic was an external force that precipitated the growth of these connections between the CCCs and the CSUs, it has led to a number of outcomes congruent with the value of CoPs (Eckert, 2006; Wenger, 2000) and CoPs in teacher education (MacPhail et al., 2014; Patton et al., 2005; Patton & Parker, 2017). In the short term, value is created through access to expertise, help with challenges, and meaningful work. Organizationally, the focus is on problem solving, knowledge sharing, and synergies across entities. In the long term, value arises through personal development, collaboration, and leveraging resources. Organizationally, the focus shifts to strategic capabilities, innovation, and new strategies. The initial meetings of the group revolved around sharing what was happening and starting to provide a sense of community and then developed into sharing best practice, problem solving, providing resources for chairs and directors, and social support. As the meetings evolved, the group has become a more expansive CoP allowing for ongoing collaboration, reducing feelings of isolation, providing a safe space to discuss challenging issues, developing respect and trust among the members, and allowing the participants to expand their capabilities. Given the geography of California and the combined size of the CCCs and CSUs, the Zoom meetings have provided a means to connect that had not previously been explored and alleviates some of the geography and size challenges. It has helped build community not only within the CCCs and CSUs and between these groups but also nationally with the AKA. It has helped identify common issues and mutually beneficial strategies and solutions. The group has a shared experience that has brought us together, and over time this has led to a shared understanding and a commitment to addressing the challenges. It has the potential to leverage the collective weight of the CCCs and CSUs to advance the profession and create the conditions for student success.

Certainly, there have been challenges in moving this initiative forward. With the pressures on chairs due to the pandemic, including the substantially increased workload and stress of continually being in “crisis” mode, it has been hard adding more meetings. It requires someone to champion and organize meetings and be persistent in advancing discussions and initiatives, else the group can lose momentum. When such responsibility is shared, the collaborative effort is strengthened and successful outcomes are more likely. The benefits do outweigh the costs and the potential value these meetings and connections have to student success, building community and partnerships, and advancing the discipline of kinesiology warrant the effort.

PSU Kinesiology Group

The PSU was founded in 1855 and has developed into a complex system of higher education. PSU includes 24 physical campuses located throughout the Commonwealth, the World Campus (online programs), The College of Medicine, two law schools, and the Pennsylvania College of Technology (Pennsylvania State University, 2021a). Total student enrollment across the university is 90,000 with over 7,000 full-time faculty. University Park is the largest campus, enrolling on average 46,000 students, while the commonwealth campuses range from 5,000 students to 500 students per campus (Pennsylvania State University, 2021c). Most campuses are baccalaureate degree-granting campuses. Unlike traditional university systems, PSU has a centralized, unique way of functioning. The PSU motto is “one university, geographically dispersed” (Pennsylvania State University, 2021b). This includes one university board of trustees to establish policy for all campus locations, one unified faculty senate for shared governance, one administration that serves all campuses, and one cost center budget model. For example, course content and delivery are governed by the central University Faculty Senate, requiring that faculty deliver courses within at least 80% of the approved course proposal and allowing for 20% of academic freedom for faculty creativity (Pennsylvania State University, 2021d). Needless to say, communication and collaboration in such a centralized system of course delivery is key to success.

Kinesiology across PSU includes four campuses with undergraduate programs, graduate programs at University Park, and general education courses also known as the Kinesiology Physical Activity Program (KPAP). Undergraduates are required to take three credits of General Health and Wellness in order to graduate. The General Health and Wellness is typically completed with KPAP courses taught by kinesiology faculty. Unfortunately, most commonwealth campuses only have one kinesiology faculty member to deliver the KPAP courses. The complexity of delivering the same content while maintaining curricular integrity with limited faculty may seem challenging; however, the kinesiology department at Penn State University has a distinct network across the commonwealth.

The Kinesiology Commonwealth Faculty Advisory Committee has been in existence, in some form, since the early 1990s. This committee includes representation from most campuses and meets monthly to disseminate information. The committee also organizes a Joint Kinesiology Commonwealth Faculty Meeting that takes place for one full day each semester. Updates on curriculum, advising, advancement, and teaching are the focus of these gatherings. This structure allows for continuity, curricular integrity, and connections in order to increase academic rigor and decrease curricular drift during “normal” times. We quickly learned that this network was invaluable as we pivoted to an online format when the pandemic hit.

Virtual Gatherings

The news regarding change to remote learning struck PSU during Spring Break 2020. With only a few days to convert courses, kinesiology faculty at several campuses met promptly via the Zoom virtual meeting platform before virtual classes started. The emergency shift to distance learning ravaged the normal teaching setting and demanded a swift re-evaluation of sharp-edged approaches and practices (Barnhart, 2020). This first Zoom meeting started a chain of weekly gatherings and essentially launched the paramount collaboration between colleagues working across different campuses.

Despite the web-conferencing systems being around for some time, only the initiation of weekly virtual gatherings of faculty illuminated that social technology would lead to a new virtual togetherness (Hacker et al., 2020). Meetings were platforms for sharing important and continuous updates, teaching tools, and strategies to monitor the integrity of students. Faculty members collaborated on how to navigate and manage student challenges with internet connection and illness. Various situations illuminated social determinants of student success and helped us recognize the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on underrepresented students (Elliott & Muirhead, 2020). Meetings revealed faculty participants’ intent to address rising issues with humility. Shared views helped faculty alter existing approaches to their instruction and course management and to embrace no-harm policies that prevent penalizing students for unforeseen circumstances (Barnhart, 2020).

Discussion of the technology use was another pertinent subject of the gatherings. Existing technology, including phone applications and smart watches, was added as another communication channel (Hacker et al., 2020). This further supports interactions between faculty and students, which is important to student success under typical circumstances and arguably has been of particular importance during a pandemic that necessitated students and faculty to be physically distant from one another.

All gatherings were practical and helped to assure continuance of high-quality kinesiology courses. But they had one more success story that addressed the loss of boundaries between professional and personal life caused by the remote workspace (Elliott & Muirhead, 2020). The meetings were a source of emotional support, especially for those faculty who exist on campuses as a department of one person. By practicing vulnerability during these meetings (Couris, 2020; Knowles, 2014), faculty participants not only supported a culture of open communication, collaboration, and innovation (Couris, 2020) but also allowed others to take a deep breath and realize that many shared the same physical, psychological, and sociological impacts of the pandemic (Naylor & Nyanjom, 2020).

Virtual Activities and Challenges

One of the first challenges of this rapid change to remote delivery was the mandated restrictions. These conditions created limitations for our students which would ultimately have a dramatic impact on their ability to perform various indoor and outdoor activities. The collective goals were to maintain the physical activity requirements of each course while also protecting their academic integrity. However, many of our students were lacking the resources needed to perform even simple skills (e.g., a functioning laptop, adequate internet access, a quiet space to study). With no facilities, no equipment, and no opportunity to gather, we knew we had to consider an approach that better matched to the varied, unique challenges faced by our students. That is when we began to explore the possibilities of virtual health and wellness.

We used technological platforms such as Canvas and the PSU website to develop common areas where colleagues could share creative classroom ideas, videos, and syllabi. Modules were created for several different activity-based courses and were set up so that any faculty member could contribute to the conversation. This ongoing collaboration meant that we were never without an online resource that highlighted a topic of interest for our classes.

In addition to these modules, the PSU Department of Student Affairs (Pennsylvania State University, 2020) developed an evolving website that provided a virtual playlist of wellness programs and videos. The intention was to create an abundant resource that was accessible to all Penn State students, faculty, and staff. This website displayed an organized calendar of events that included live exercise and wellness sessions presented by PSU’s professional instructors. With the click of a mouse and from the safety of their homes, members of our community could enter a virtual studio that provided classes in yoga, mindfulness, high-intensity interval training programs, in-home workouts, and other recreation and leisure activities. These sessions were free-of-charge and could easily be performed in and around the home, which made it ideal for many of our students who were participating remotely.

The final piece of this collaborative effort was maintaining the energy and morale of our campus communities. We recognized the distress that the various changes in our professional and personal lives were causing and quickly decided to incorporate programs designed specifically to encourage engagement. These cohesive virtual programs were presented as games, team activities, and individual challenges. Friendly competitions were implemented between PSU and other collegiate institutions, as well as between independent PSU campuses. These playful activities provided a temporary but necessary distraction from the daily stressors of the pandemic. They were offered across the commonwealth and appreciated by the entire PSU community.

Collaboration is the crucial ingredient (Langlois et al., 2020) for effective working conditions. The initial goal of the Zoom meetings to overcome logistical challenges grew into unprecedented interprofessional collaboration of kinesiology faculty. When facing hard decisions in uncertain times, the ability to share ideas with colleagues seems to be highly valued by all involved (Rashid et al., 2020). Collaboration buffered feelings of anguish and pressure, supported teaching excellence, and inspired colleagues to create and research together.

Conclusion

The complexity that characterizes the work of educators was intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. The immediacy and urgency of responses to this evolving situation positioned educators as front-line responders. Assuring cohesion of learning and the well-being of students became a central focus (Campbell, 2020). Numerous kinesiology faculty have athletic backgrounds that empower them to practice a team approach in order to accomplish a common goal. It also prepares individuals to work in partnership, especially in times of crisis. The global pandemic was a predicament that guided CSU and PSU kinesiology faculty to embrace e pluribus unum (out of many, one) and lead the faculty in synergy to better meet student needs as well as their own needs.

There were several silver linings of this pandemic for CSU and PSU kinesiology faculty. For the CSU faculty, it helped build community within the CSU system and with the CSU’s community college partners. It has offered the potential to leverage the collective weight of these two educational bodies within California. The use of Zoom has helped address the geographic and size challenges associated with meeting in-person. Through these meetings, we identified shared strategies to help address the challenges of the pandemic. For the PSU campuses, the silver lining was that they discovered one another, came together, and sparked an innate team mentality. The sharing of experiences and goals focused our energies on student success in the new environment and platform of delivery necessitated by the pandemic. The unforeseen collegiality empowered sharing of ideas, resources, best practices, and emotional support, in turn guiding our campus communities to success.

As in many other domains, higher education has been impacted by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The mandatory social distance and remote communication inevitably involved isolation and forced an unprecedented acceleration of virtual technology use in academia. With that, new forms of collaboration emerged as a result of this long-lasting lockdown. Previously and commonly attended in-person or phone call meetings to work together on shared goals were transformed into more frequent virtual meetings, affording a larger audience that produced better efficiency. Furthermore, it brought new strategic goals as the focus shifted from the day-to-day operation of our institutions to the more urgent challenges the pandemic created regarding curriculum, advising, and teaching matters. These new models needed to address how to effectively teach physical activity classes and laboratory experiences, how to maintain student support and engagement, and how to equitably bring all stakeholders up to speed in remote technology and remote teaching, among other challenges.

The aftermath of the pandemic context for CSU and PSU was the expansion of new collaborative models that are more inclusive and far-reaching. These models were based on sharing teaching best practice strategies, resources, and tools, sharing expertise, knowledge and experiences, and constructing strategies to solve problems and address challenges, all while providing a safe environment for professional development and social support. While the CSU kinesiology chairs model experienced a more inclusive growth with CSU, CCC, and AKA collaborations in pursuit of student success, the Penn State kinesiology model grew to empower its members to work collaboratively in pursuit of the same goal.

Moving forward, the spirit of connection and collaboration needs to be reinforced among kinesiology leaders. Maintaining collaborative models such as these require personal and shared leadership responsibility. In addition, efforts need to be directed at procuring the necessary human and monetary resources to maintain these collaborative models. Strengthening these models when the pandemic is behind us will enable us to more efficiently and effectively cope with the inevitable next crisis that we will face in higher education and our broader society.

References

Carpenter (paul.carpenter@csueastbay.edu) is corresponding author.

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