COVID, Features

Pandemic leads to educational challenges, successes

Schools and institutions in New Mexico have been facing the challenges of having to provide online instruction during the pandemic.

Ricardo Damian, vice principal of Riverside Elementary School in Sunland Park, New Mexico, said this was one of the first hurdles for K–12 education.

“The main challenge has been the transition from face-to-face to remote learning.  When we started with the remote learning, students were receiving about two hours of instruction per week,” Damian said.

New Mexico State University students work together in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies multimedia lab at Milton Hall during the spring 2021 semester. (Photo courtesy of Hugo Pérez)

Damian said Riverside also had problems with student attendance. Initially, many students did not have the technology to learn online.

There are still about 2,500 public school students who are unaccounted for in New Mexico as of March 19, 2021, according to the New Mexico Public Education Department.

Damian also explained that teachers have faced challenges with understanding the technology.

“The training of teachers to implement a full-blown academic program through remote learning was difficult. A large percentage of teachers were skeptical about learning new ways of introducing the curriculum,” Damian said.

Many of the challenges faced in K–12 education also apply to higher education.

“That first semester we were just trying to figure out how to best deliver instruction online,” said Renay Scott, vice president of student success and enrollment management at NMSU.

Scott said funding provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act helped the university in the face of a nearly $11 million budget cut from the state of New Mexico.

“We were really focusing on helping teachers’ instruction improve. We used a lot of the money to provide professional development for faculty who typically taught in-person, face-to-face courses, that weren’t used to using remote technology,” Scott said.

Scott said the training also taught teachers how to use online programs like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and the Canvas Learning Management System.

“The biggest issue with online is engagement. How do you keep the students engaged and how do you get them to engage with each other?” said Anne Hubbell, professor of communication studies.

Hubbell said the change to online at first was a task of trial and error in order to figure out how to properly deliver her courses. Before, Hubbell said the process of teaching in person was formulating her notes right before class started and creating a discussion with other students.

“Online took a lot of work involving reframing everything in a way that is fair, such as not adding assignments to students. I’ve probably learned more about teaching and teaching online in the last six months than I have in the last 20 years,” Hubbell said.

“The biggest issue with online is engagement. How do you keep the students engaged and how do you get them to engage with each other?”

While Hubbell explained there have been challenges, she also thinks there are a few positives from teaching online in terms of student engagement.

“I see, particularly with the quieter students, they really enjoy being asked to participate and have a sort of safe space. I love seeing in the discussion posting these kinds of supportive conversations between students,” Hubbell said.

Hubbell said she enjoys teaching in person more than online but intends to implement Canvas more when NMSU returns to normal.

The associate director of the NMSU School of Nursing’s undergraduate programs, Teresa Leon, said faculty in her department were accustomed to teaching through Zoom due to already teaching online classes at the NMSU Grants and Alamogordo campuses.

“We at [the school of nursing] rely heavily on clinical instruction because that’s how student nurses practice in order to learn the skills and be ready in a clinical setting as a nurse … Teaching our classes was not that different than what we’d already been doing, but trying to work around the restrictions of social distancing and checking temperatures with students that were on campus was more of a challenge,” Leon said.

In order to have in-person instruction, Leon stated the department limited each lab to about eight students and a faculty member.

“We had to move furniture that we had in the lab and basically leave a patient care bed with a mannequin in it. We also had chairs on either side so that we could have one student in each chair,” Leon said.

Which type of instruction at NMSU do you believe is most appropriate for the fall 2021 semester?

The department also works with clinical partners during the semester in order for students to gain experience in a real medical environment. Leon said they had to work with what best accommodated the students and the facilities.

“Some places, for the safety of the patients, asked us to not come, while others were able to fit us in by restructuring where we placed our students. So instead of having everybody on one floor, they would have them spread out and have students on multiple floors of the building with supervision,” Leon said.

Leon said the nursing school will continue this style of teaching even after NMSU opens to more in-person classes.

Along with the educational challenges, NMSU has had concerns about enrollment. Between the spring 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, NMSU’s total enrollment went down approximately 6.5% across all campuses. On the other hand, enrollment at the Las Cruces main campus grew by about 0.1% since spring of last year, according to the NMSU Office of Institutional Analysis.

Scott said one of the things that helped maintain enrollment at the main campus is a shared commitment to student success.

“What we’ve done that is unique to NMSU is that we’ve taken the message that helping students be successful in graduating is everyone’s responsibility. Not just me or the vice president of student success, but others like the faculty [and] staff,” Scott said.

Scott said NMSU has also been allowing students to rent laptops through the Equipment Rental Program.

“We rent the computers to students and charge them 20 dollars on their student bill for the entire semester. We had over 800 students reach out to us that didn’t have a computer to use programs like Zoom to attend their classes,” Scott explained.

While only 13% of NMSU’s courses are face-to-face for the spring 2021 semester, Scott hopes it will go up by the summer.

“I think this summer you will see more of a 50/50 balance of in-person and online instruction,” Scott said.

By the fall, Scott said NMSU is looking to have the majority of students take their classes on campus again, but for that to happen she said the vaccine would need to be available to all students before the fall semester begins.

“Getting as many people vaccinated as possible, helping people understand the purpose of the vaccine and having them comfortable about taking it is important … I’m 75% confident we’re going to have a more traditional experience this fall,” Scott said.

Over 1 million New Mexicans have received doses of the vaccine with about 27% being fully vaccinated as of March 28, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.


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