When Plymouth State University switched to online learning right after spring break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my students found themselves thrown into not only the traumatic disruption of their schooling, but into unemployment, extra/new employment, stressful or precarious living situations, housing and food insecurities, stress surrounding seeing (or not being able to see) loved ones, sudden childcare responsibilities, isolation-related mental health struggles, illness or illness of a family member, and/or so many conditions and circumstances that seemed bent on keeping them off-balance, exhausted, pulled in many directions.
When I invited my Composition students to take a pass at writing something about their experiences during the pandemic, if they wanted to, a few took me up on it — “C.S.” not only accepted the prompt, but really ran with it, and kept running. We talked on Zoom a few times in addition to exchanging drafts, talking not only about her writing process, but life at home, the strangeness of physical and social distancing, and what her education was feeling like these days. I share her essay here with her permission, because her voice is important and her story illuminating, one that will resonate with many readers. It’s an essay I’m grateful to read, one I learned from.
Being away from home and living on a University campus can sometimes feel like living in a bubble; I say this because my main concerns while living in the bubble are school and social life. The campus bubble is a curious concept, one that both connects and disconnects a person from the world. While I am advancing my studies, making new friends and living on my own, there are a few disconnects as well; for example, I no longer tune into local news on the television or pay too much attention to an ‘outside world’ only what is in the bubble around me.
Spring break was finally here, the second week of March. I was so excited to see friends and family, and it would be a perfect time to pick up a few shifts at the nursing home. During my junior year of high school, I obtained my Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) license. I have been working as a CNA for almost two years now, so coming home and picking up a few shifts was nothing new to me. Since I no longer watch news broadcasts on the TV, I relied on what I saw on social media, but just a few posts here and there across social media mentioned that Coronavirus was starting to spread and filter around the United States, I did not think it would come to affect the world around me as much as it would.
I decided to pick up a twelve-hour shift on Sunday, March 11th. I can never seem to sleep the night before a long shift. So when my alarm rang at five fifty in the morning, it was not a surprise to me as I was basically already awake. Groggily I put my scrubs on, clipped my badge reel and buckled my watch. I scanned my badge to get into the building and headed up to the assisted living floor. I was the only day shifter to be there on time. The night shift nurses sipped the last of their energy drinks and cold coffee. The halls were still dimmed. I walked over to the nurses’ station and read the staffing clipboard. Call-outs on every floor. Taking my assignment list of residents who I would care for, I read through them and passed by their rooms to see if any of them were starting to wake up.
As the day started to roll and the hallway lights shifted from overnight to daytime bright, all the residents, nurses, and nurses assistants like myself were glancing at the televisions in the halls or listening in as we busily passed by. The virus dubbed Covid-19 was spreading across the United States rapidly. Local, state and federal officials were giving speeches on every news channel. I was assigned to supervise the elders’ breakfast with another nurse. She was the definition of a mom-friend, nurse, and boss lady. I guess one could say I looked up to her. She and I walked around and checked on the residents, but I wasn’t prepared for what the overhead speaker would say next.
The mystery voice announced there would be an emergency supervisors meeting shortly. I looked at her confused. She is a floor supervisor and also one of the nurse educators, so she was required to go. I sat on a rolling stool, watching the news. I collected most of the meal trays and started to help residents pack up, passing back walkers, canes, and pushing those in wheelchairs. I was having a very typical day, nothing was out of the ordinary. Influenza type B was going around the nursing home and that explained a few of the call outs. All and all, it was a very typical day. The overhead speaker came on once again, the disembodied voice said all floors were to host a mini-meeting at the nurses’ station.
This is when things got real. No visitors allowed, No activities for residents, No dining room socials. All residents were to stay in their rooms and were to be limited when visiting each other. All non-essential employees were to be dismissed. We were going into some sort of facility lockdown. The regular seasonal flu itself is enough to knock an Elder down, but this new virus would be fatal.
We talked for fifteen minutes, watched a personal protective equipment donning and doffing example and then reviewed what each level of precaution is and signed inservice papers. Then the conversation we had next scared me and that’s when I realized how real this could be.
The nurse that I trust the most, my mother-like figure at work went on to say that face masks of all sorts would now be limited. Gowns and other personal protective equipment would now be restricted. We were directed to use clear vinyl gloves and leave the blue latex alone. They were cutting and limiting resources to save and store. This left me very uneasy, and I still had seven hours out of my twelve-hour shift left.
After I spent all morning showering, bathing, and assisting my residents to prepare for their day I had to tell them all activities were canceled, and no visitors were allowed at this time. It was very hard to explain to grandmas and grandpas that they were not allowed to have visitors come and on top of that afternoon, coffee social was canceled. Every room on the seventy-bed floor had one news channel on or another. All of us were watching the school closure updates, the social distancing lectures, and being reminded of proper handwashing. Residents became scared and stressed. Family and friends called the nursing station non-stop. I was growing nervous as well. When I went to take my lunch break, I walked by the front lobby and administration offices. Family and friends were arguing with administrators over not being able to see their loved ones. Beautiful bouquets of flowers placed on office desks with well-wishing cards and thinking-of-you notes. My heart started to ache. I went about the rest of my shift as normally as I could.
I will never forget how serious the day turned as things worsened on the news. Being told we had to restrict and minimize personal protective equipment usage to avoid wasting could not be more frightening. Telling residents that their daily activities, like crafting hour or afternoon coffee would be canceled until this is resolved was heartbreaking to me; it was so hard to explain to them what was going on without instilling a panic or fear. Seeing the family members argue with directors and administration, seeing flower bouquets clustered on the secretary desks, seeing the activity ladies pack up and go home without employment; it seemed like something only a movie could portray, yet I just lived through it.
Originally my scheduler could only give me one twelve-hour shift during my spring break, but once things started to change, so did the staffing plans. I agreed to work the day shift on the Wednesday following that Sunday shift. Two days. Only two days passed in between my last shift and my next one. Two days. Things at my facility have changed drastically. Some staff were so scared they quit, more people than usual called out, residents were sad and fearful. Orange and red signs posted everywhere, No Visitors and No Vendors. Another sign posted, that I wish I never read, said, “No Entry Unless Actively Dying Hospice.” That policy made me wish I never learned to read, something about it shattered my heart and kicked my morale in the teeth. We were required to wear a face mask and gown when providing care to a resident. The gowns make you hot and the mask makes you think that stale hallway air is the purest oxygen you will know. The nurses’ station was clear of coffee and energy drinks. It was the cleanest I’d ever seen. Hallways were empty, any activity or social event for the residents were completely canceled, residents were restricted to what neighbor they could visit and when. Residents were to stay in their rooms.
During this shift, residents asked questions and my answers were hard to give. They wondered why they could not have visitors, they wondered how their friends next door were doing, they asked why I was covered with a blue plastic sheet and had a mask covering my smile.
One resident teared up and said to me, “I am not dirty, I am not infected, please let my husband come in.”
It was very hard to answer these questions or respond to their pleas. Each question and person who asked or pleaded with facility policy is burned into my memory. I will not forget how emotionally charged this shift was.
I thought about my residents who have dementia or memory impairments and needed routine, structure, and visitors to help them get by. It made me think about how having a loved one visit, gathering in the main dining room for coffee hour, sitting in your friend’s room and other daily activities were taken away from these residents. It made me think about how stressful, lonely, and challenging it must be for them all. This shift made me realize more than ever how my residents need me; they need a friend, an ear, a caregiver. The nursing staff was not just their caregivers but their family. I guess I always take my job as a nursing assistant for granted. I always tell myself it’s just a stepping stone for my nursing career and that I just need to do my time in assisted care, but it is times like these where the elders need us more than ever; even to just sit, listen and care for them.
This shift was very hard on me emotionally to get through, the world was changing and a virus was spreading rapidly. The cutback and supply limits frightened not just me but my co-workers who have been in the healthcare game for a while. I watched my co-workers steal boxes of gloves, shove extra facemasks into their purse, build their own first aid kit in the supply closet; all in fear for themselves and their loved ones.
I was the youngest one working, nurses and aides I looked up to were now panicked and worried.
The whole shift was nothing like one I’ve had before. I will never forget these two days.
Welcome to Zoom University, an Online Learning Experience
By the last day of spring break, my in-person higher education would be switched to online courses for the upcoming two weeks. At this point, my phone buzzed and dinged with calls and texts from friends, family, and the nursing home. The nursing home was short-staffed on every shift basically each day. I had to respond politely that I was no longer on spring break, I was back to school, making me unavailable for shift pickups. It did not take long for the spring semester to be fully transferred online; it was my next learning journey.
With shifting to online courses, I was presented with another round of challenges. Some of the main challenges included the lack of in-person learning through gaps in communication with some educators, students also lost on-campus utility access like a printer and courses had to abruptly alter syllabi in which corners were cut in education by removing lab work or skipping chapters. As a nursing student, we have labs to take along with lectures. Since we were no longer on campus and class could not be held in the lab, my fellow students and I missed muscle twitch and stimulation projects.
Another issue that arose with shifting into remote learning and the idea that students are being confined to a home, is that some professors have taken this idea as a way to assign or create a heavier course load to keep students engaged or involved under the assumption that students are doing nothing while at home has freed time to complete a different workload and by becoming unsympathetic to the challenges outside of schooling one might face. Some students are more comfortable or even luckier than another student; one may have returned home to an unsteady income and have to enter a job deemed essential during this time to help their families, or someone who now has to take on another role for their siblings as caretakers or early educators, or even those who might live in a heavily affected area causing them to have more invisible alterations to their life.
Though this shift is flawed, I have noticed some positives as well. Even though there were significant communication losses, there were some communication gains; some professors were now being more thorough with directions, more timely with email responses and some even lessened required projects. I think this has also been a good way to measure if online courses could be something a student might consider or not in the future. A more personal positive that was brought to my attention was my ability to have more control over my personal learning and could implement specific learning needs, such as the advantages of having access to power points or presentations, or having the ability to rewatch or re-listen to lectures that were not recorded before.
Though my focus shifted back into more studious tasks, my nursing home would call; they needed me to come in. I could not pick up shifts, I had Zoom classes to attend, textbook excerpts to memorize and news reports to watch. Learning from home has been an impactful life shift and challenge, not to mention outside factors that may worsen a student’s capability to focus on or complete work, considering the state of the world right now. This has been a challenging learning curve, one that I had never seen coming.
Guilty and Fearful
I have thought about working every day. I think of my residents. I think of my co-workers. I think about the stress, the fear, the sickness. I have had my facility message me for shift pick-ups nonstop and coworkers messaging me asking why I am not working and how selfish of me it is to stay home.
I have guilt. I think about it constantly. I don’t want to feel this way, but I do. I am an aide, I am a nursing student; I want to help, I want to provide care. I am still a kid, I am still in school. I am conflicted, I have a fall semester to pay for but I am more afraid of getting sick.
Guilty thoughts fill my mind. My facility sent me a letter in the mail, reminding me of my per-diem duties scheduling me for the end of May without my input. It was a threat and served as a reminder not to abandon my commitment to the facility.
Weighing even heavier on my shoulders was fear, the fear of falling ill under the sickly grasp of Covid-19. Throughout my time being quarantined, I have lived in an anxiety-induced state, like many others, over my chronic illness, Asthma. Asthma has plagued my lungs since the day I entered this world. During Flu season, I caught Influenza B, which took a huge toll on my health. This had required me to visit the Health Service office on campus. These visits were daily, as I was subjected to having my breathing monitored. Seeing as a common cold could hit me hard as it could, I can’t imagine putting myself at risk against this all-new virus. This provided me a fork in the road, should I continue feeling guilty and selfish or play it safe and lock myself at home?
Almost two months have passed since that first shift. The world around me has been tested and challenged like never before. My learning has been altered, going to the store to pick up a missing recipe item has now become a second thought, seeing friends and family has been turned virtual. No one could have foreseen such drastic alteration in such a short period of time. Uncertainty, worry and fear are now feelings to be felt more than usual. I harbor guilt, stress for school and often worry of what might happen the next day. This situation is so surreal it almost feels like a sick joke on me and the rest of the world. I still find it hard to believe the world is under lockdown, but I truly believe that if we all work together and stay home, we just might possibly slip through the cracks of Covid-19’s grubby paws.