The analysis of the journal entries suggest that compatible with the characteristics of a shared traumatic reality (Shamai, 2016), the experiences of students, instructor and administrator who were exposed to the same collective disaster mirrored each other. Two main themes emerged in all journals: A developmental process and factors that shaped it.
A Developmental Process
Three identifiable sequential stages flowing into each other emerged from the content analysis, although the timing and specific nature of each phase varied for individual participants. The stages were evident both in the pattern of posting and in the content of the entries. The number of entries varied greatly. With the exception of a student who posted a single entry, most students posted between nine to 16 entries, some students and the administrator posted a reflective summary, and the faculty posted nine entries.
Early Weeks: A Sense of Chaos. Journal entries in the first weeks tended to be frequent and relatively detailed. For example, the faculty posted four entries in one week. Everybody reported struggling with the need to abruptly change routines and learn to function on unchartered territory, which one student conceptualized as “trial by fire”. Students who are practitioners had to move to providing services online, in addition to some emergency in-person services, which carried significant risk of exposure to the virus. The faculty needed to develop online versions of her courses, the administrator were engulfed by numerous meetings dedicated to developing alternative educational programs for students who could no longer intern in person as prat of the requirement of their professional degree. These rushed transition caused considerable uncertainty generating emotional reactions. A student shared
My head began spinning on 3/13. From that point on, plans changed for managing work and Sunday School every couple of hours. We are considered essential employees yet plans had to be made for delivering services by telephone or video conference for every client while managing the phones (because support staff were sent home) and urgent appointments and reaching out for extra work to ensure clients had their health needs met (while how to do this changed daily as emergency regulations and policies had to be put into place).
Postings by all participants, irrespective to their role, revealed high levels of stress, anxiety, some to the degree of panic, and confusion. Students reported loss of motivation, productivity and concentration. Everyday stressors were amplified and mundane tasks felt insurmountable, exhausting and debilitating; e.g. “I was finding it difficult to even absorb information from an email and was exhausted… from caring for clients, making numerous adjustments daily and figuring out how to make life work.”, “It’s such an avalanche that normal activities seem like you’re slugging through the mud.” and “Working on a dissertation while working full-time remotely, teaching remotely, and holding private practice hours via phone with my clients is stressful to begin with but even more stressful to say the least because it was all within my home.” The added challenge of “normal” tasks was mirrored in the faculty’s posting “I was feeling the burden of responsibility, concerned that engaging students will be more challenging as they may be distracted by children, dogs, other occurrences in their home environment.” The administrator compared the experience to previous crises, “It is not that is it a ‘pandemic.’ It is more than that. More profound. It is more than shared worry, fear, and onslaught of conflicting information. It is the collective trauma which is unmistakable.” The faculty observed, “Everybody’s stress level is sky rocketing. Instructors who never taught online panic, students are confused and the IT people are collapsing under the flood of demands, questions, calls for help, help with equipment.” One student wrote “Everyone on the WhatsApp is talking about dropping out and I am nervous we won’t have a cohort anymore”. Writers conveyed a sense of being overcome by disbelief and living in an overwhelming chaotic reality. One student reported “I felt trapped and had nowhere to go”. Another stated
The pandemic has brought up new problems for me; constant worry for my loved ones, the enmeshment of my personal and work space, and hunting down masks and gloves so I can leave my house with less anxiety...I had to do emergency [work-related] visits and contend with the fact that I might die and be okay with that on some level. I started taking my temperature daily and if I ordered anything, I would not open my door until the person left. I stopped going to see my mom because if I was carrying the virus, I could spread it to her and my brother and if she had it, she could spread it to me and my partner.
Entries documented personal and vicarious stressors. Personally, a student reported pressured by excessive irrational demands “I feel like I am expected to be available 24/7 for my clients, students, co-workers, boss and it is completely and utterly draining”. Several students, especially those living alone, were anxious about the need to keep distance from loved ones and felt lonely, especially in important moments such as defending a dissertation proposal with no family or friends around “to provide a celebratory hug or high-five afterwards”, celebrating alone Cinco de Mayo and birthdays. Capturing the spirit of multiple statements a student said “I am aware of feeling alone in all of this, I don’t know if others are feeling the same way, or rather I can’t trust they are (others have expressed similar frustrations, but I don’t believe they are doing as poorly as I am)”.
The faculty felt intimidated by the need to learn quickly new strategies and an added burden of having to perform in unfamiliar territory while maintaining all normal responsibilities that instructors have at all times. For example, an entry in the third week reads “Never did I learn a new skill with such intensity and such a short notice. This is intellectually, emotionally and physically challenging and sometimes draining.” Faculty’s concerns focused specifically on the challenges of engaging students who may be distracted by children and other family members, pets and other occurrences in their home environment as well as potential technological issues. Specifically, beginning entries by all reflected concerns regarding the use of technology. The faculty wrote
My main anxiety was about what can go wrong with the technology and how I can fix issues on the spot. Sure enough, in one of the first classes, I was working from two screens; one for the Zoom meeting and one for the PTT that I posted on Moodle to save me the challenge of going back and forth. The problem was that the screen with the PTT refused to allow me access. So here I was with a group of students who can see what I wrote in the PTT and a professor (me) who could not. After some looking around I was able to unblock the access. I believe that my sigh of relief could be heard far away.
Vicariously. Participants expressed anxiety related to family, clients, colleagues, friends and classmates. A student who was able to defend her dissertation proposal during the pandemic expressed feeling of guilt that classmates were forced to change their methodologies as well as sadness witnessing others struggling but not reaching out for help. Another student express feeling guilty for being safe and having the benefits of access to food unlike her clients and colleagues. “I would feel guilty at not being out there, not volunteering to help, and being cowardly for staying in my home while former colleagues were on front lines in the hospital.” Faculty’s entries reflected concerns about students’ anxieties and its impact on their attendance and functioning. For example, one student shared feeling stressed by being moved to a supervisory role, for which she never received training. Another was absent for a couple of weeks and never responded to private emails, leaving the faculty conflicted between being intrusive by further attempts to reach out and respecting student’s “no contact” implied desire. Eventually, the absence was explained by an apparently non-virus related hospitalization. Another student shared with the class prior to her virtual presentation her stress because her husband was lying sick with the virus in the other room and she felt torn between focusing on her presentation and the urge to constantly check on him.
Participants’ own reactions to stress became stressors such as feeling guilt for their reactions; “Why am I not capable of absorbing new information? Two weeks ago I could but now not...But nope, couldn’t think beyond the immediate and, brand new skills, forget about it.” Acknowledging being objectively safe, a student shared
Everything makes me nervous. Everything. Why. It’s like I’m sitting on a needle and I’m going to fall off. I have no idea. Things are fine…There’s no problem in my immediate life. I’m nervous about standing up. I’m nervous while sitting. Blinking makes me nervous.
Stage Two: Struggling to Cope. Participants increasingly gained a realization of the magnitude of immediate and potentially long term challenges caused by the situation, leading to growing frustration, which was further increased by changes to established routines such as being notified about and able to attend a colleague’s dissertation defense. One student shared that she got sick with the virus and was unable to work on the dissertation losing about three weeks of writing. Because all studies that involve personal interactions with research participants were temporarily suspended due to the pandemic, students were forced to revise approved and significantly developed research plans or opt to wait for an unknown future time when they can collect data in person. Both options involved significant loss of precious time and potentially financial cost, leading to feelings of disappointment, anger and despair. Some students became concerned of losing employment.
Technological issues continued for students and faculty. For example, in one class, a student disappeared from the screen but managed to inform the class via a text message that activating the camera leads to disconnecting her. A few minutes later, another student disappeared. Students asked to be excused from classes as they felt exhausted from struggling to cope with work requirements, school demands, family obligations and the general situation. The faculty wrote
I try to continue to focus on the presentation and students’ reactions. I feel like I need five heads and numerous pairs of eyes and ears. A spare brain will also be nice. … Teaching online and trying to attend to everybody’s need is quite e daunting.
Concurrent with continuing to reflect challenges, entries also began to suggest evidence for gradually processing the experience, mourning the loss of people, the sense of safety and the familiar “normal” way of doing things and a struggle to cope with logistic and time management issues as well as yearning for and efforts to re-establish some familiarity, structure and stability; “Fingers crossed for a smoother week and things staying the same for more than 2 hours at any one time.”; two students in the administrator’s class expressed the desire to stay in class despite being ill with the virus because they needed familiar things. After responding briefly to her checking on how they were doing and how COVID touched their lives personally or professionally, one student said “can we move on – I need normalcy”, to which the rest of the class agreed. Some students became proactive. One reported initiating an advocacy effort to address financial and logistic concerns resulting from the situation, “I was emailing, texting and speaking with them [other students] via phone”, contacting the graduate student council, program and school administrators who themselves were struggling with a lot of unknown and constantly changing policies. A student offered the following image to capture the beginning of a gradual change
I feel my brain uncoiling like a snake being called out of its basket by a snake charmer, uncoiling, and becoming freer. This too was something I did not expect. Much of my brain is still tightly coiled in the bottom of the basket but there’s a little bit that feels it can stretch. The periscope is going up for the first time and looking around.
Both the faculty and the administrator began to see manifestations of resilience. On week three, the faculty wrote
I am impressed with the level of engagement that students demonstrate and the empathy and support that they offer to each other. Real social workers. They seem involved, relate their Corona experience to the content of discussion and are very supportive of each other.
Similarly, the administrator reported that students’ assignments manifested having pivoted from self-focused to client-focused
As the semester online progressed, I became more impressed by my students’ resilience. At their own pace, they began to equate the learning in class with what they were experiencing, how it impacted their lives, and what other interventions might they use with clients to assist them in dealing with the anxiety and stress of COVID.
The observation was confirmed by some students “I actually feel space in my brain for new information. And I didn’t before.” The student described being able to move from focusing on her own experience to her professional mode
I wonder, is that how clients feel? It’s not that I’ve not felt their pain. It’s that I wonder whether they literally do not have room in their brain…for change, to be able to hear anything I’m saying, to think beyond the immediate, to think long term, to care for themselves. But for those clients who live in crisis, whether it’s a product of their neighborhood, family, or a creation of self, is that how it is always?
However, the experience was not universal. One student who is also an adjunct faculty commented that the quality of her students and her own work had decreased.
Stage Three: Learning to Live in a “New Normal”. Several weeks into the sheltering in place, some participants began to post shorter entries less frequently. Students began to indicate bouncing back and making adjustment to the new situation. Most entries reported lower levels of stress though one reported “We are now 9 weeks into the pandemic, and they [cohort members] are more stressed out than ever before.” Some reported having “settled” into a new “normal” which is still crazy. Routines became more familiar. One student reported
I went into the office for a couple of hours for the first time today since March 20th. Had my temperature taken at the door, spritzed with hand sanitizer, mask of course, had my name taken down and admitted. Sat in my office with the door closed and felt weird when I encountered someone in the hallway. But got home unscathed. I guess this is the new normal.
Several students reported being able to focus better on their academic work as attending classes and thinking about school work became a refuge from the pressures outside. While recognizing performing below the usual level, a student stated “It is [a written assignment] a short one, and I don’t feel great about the quality of it, but I do feel good about having gotten it done and about the prospects of doing more work.” The administrator and the faculty began to notice changes in students’ mood and manifestations of resilience. The faculty observed changes in academic performance
I am impressed with the ability of most of them to find the stamina for developing their presentations and facilitating class discussion… in today’s class, students seem less anxious, more active and more involved. More students demonstrated familiarity with the material that was offered for reading.
The administrator concurred
As the semester online progressed, I became more impressed by my students’ resilience. At their own pace, they began to equate the learning in class with what they were experiencing. ...For me, the gift in this tragedy, is trusting this group of students impacted by the pandemic can move the profession forward in a different manner. This generation will find new ways of knowing and of practicing.
Yet, concerns regarding the future prevailed and anxiety resurged for some regarding the prospects for reopening. One student was troubled as to how the near future will look professionally
What will this [reopening] mean? Are we going to shake hands? Will I be in more danger? What happens when kids come back into the office? How do I get them to adjust AGAIN. No, we can’t have that toy in here because I can’t clean it between every client. No, we cannot have all of the siblings come in at one time because there’s not enough room to social distance. No, we cannot fist bump.
The efforts to get back to functioning took its toll. The student commented “[I] Get 30-60 minutes done in the morning. The rest of the day I am too busy. I plan on doing it at night and by 9:30 I got nothing left in the tank.” The student further expressed feeling guilty for taking time to do the work at the cost of fulfilling other tasks.
Student shared strategies that they used to bounce back. One stated “Well I caved and ordered the AirPod pros. I think part of it is the practical escape with noise canceling, and a large part of it is just perceived escape.” The same student elaborated
I decided to spend time organizing my thoughts and the articles in a serious way, putting them in the order I think they make the most sense for the literature review, reading each article and taking notes, plugging that all into one document, and then begin to write the paper from there. I am not sure if this will take longer or not but at least I am moving forward and feel progress, which at this time feels good.
In addition to regaining some degree of functioning, students expressed exhaustion with the efforts and wish for the year to be over “it [writing a paper] was really more about survival than learning… I feel like this semester was just a waste and am kind of sad about that.” While the sense of fatigue is not uncommon at the end of the semester, at this time the feeling had a different flavor. One student wrote
I am not looking forward to classes or my papers, which in the past I had pretty much been doing. School has actually taken the seat all the way in the back of the bus. I simply don’t care. Not in the normal way of not caring, i.e. procrastination, but a deep prioritization of not caring. It feels like something extra that I simple don’t need.
Factors that Shaped the Process
Entries identified factors that shaped the experience by either aggravating it or enabling and enhancing gradually moving into a coping mode.
Factors that Aggravated the Experience. Racism, limited institutional support, increased professional challenges and the nature of online learning were identified as stressors.
Racism. Non-white students conveyed that familiar exclusionary racist attitudes towards minority groups persisted and in some cases escalated although sometimes their expression was different. An Asian American student reported being spit on and being called a “corona bitch” while walking in public places. She further shared that a webinar on microaggressions that she attended was ‘Zoom bombed’ and the intruder wrote offensive racist vulgar comments in the chat area “It was very shocking and made me angry ... I have heard about this happening but never witnessed it before. It triggered feelings of trauma for me and a doctoral colleague who was on the webinar as well.” A Black student felt helpless assisting Black clients who ask if it is safe to put on a mask due to worries about police brutality and hopeless in light of the disproportionate rates of Black and Brown people dying form COVID-19 related illness.
Limited institutional support. Students commented that their situation was aggravated by inadequate support from employers and the school. One student reported that her employer provided technological but not emotional support and she encountered institutional push back and a sense of exclusion. Some responses from the school were experienced as insensitive and unaccommodating. Several students who were concerned about financial burdens due to the situation reported responses from some administrators that were bureaucratic lacking empathy compassion, or understanding. Some students who rely on income from serving as adjuncts were worried that due to decreased enrollment they will not have a class and thus, will have a hard time paying their tuition.
Increased Professional Challenges. Students experienced cumulative effects of work-related role strain such as the need to move abruptly to delivering services via technology, meeting the needs of clients who were impulsive, with risky behaviors or with limited verbal abilities, and fulfilling additional tasks of other workers.
I would think about which clients had access to food or shelter. I would think about whether the shelter was a good place to go due to the number of COVID positive cases there. I would think about a client who typically would benefit from a nursing home referral but also had to keep in mind if I would be sending her to her death due to increase COVID related mortality rates in nursing homes...I would think about broken systems buckling under the amount of people applying for unemployment or public assistance. I would feel helpless in clients still waiting for EBT cards after almost a month and difficulty reaching an HRA representative for assistance.
The Nature of Online Learning. Several students felt that the abruptness of the transition and the changed interpersonal atmosphere of online learning added pressure and lacked the intimate direct context of face to face classes. One student stated
Online learning does not allow you to feel the energy from those interactions as you would when in person. Smiles are not as warm, nonverbal looks of agreement or distain are not as perceptible, and at times needed conversations among classmates are not readily available.
Others commented “I feel I would have had a much more positive experience if I was in the school and the meeting took place in person…I find that people tend to act differently when they are not hiding behind a screen.” The same student continued “I also read body language VERY well, and felt I lost something as I could not look at my advisor [during a proposal defense] as much as I wanted to. All I saw were faces without body language.” Another student wrote “I am tired of talking on the phone and looking at the screen.” and yet another reported
Online learning has forced me to be more attentive in class, so professors know I am engaging with the material. It has also forced me to be more deliberate with my time because I have more time and more energy to dedicate towards the assignments.
Factors that Enabled and Enhanced Gradually Moving into a Coping Mode. Participants identified that helping them were a sense of community, being active and proactive, support from friends and family, and faculty reactions
A sense of Community. Students reported that their cohort and other students provided a much needed emotional and instrumental support. A student reported that meeting remotely with other students was validating “to know we were not alone”. A similar process occurred for faculty who reported working with the director of the center that trains and assists faculty and staff in integrating computer technologies into teaching “We developed a plan for triage and for allocating knowledgeable faculty and IT people to support those who are paralyzed by panic.” One silver lining reported by most participants was getting a glimpse into others’ lives beyond their formal roles, “Seeing them [students] with their children, dogs, family members was adorable, and it was nice to see them in their lives outside of the classroom.”
Being Active and Proactive. Students were felt “unstuck” by initiating scholarly activities. One student shared “I presented [a webinar for doctoral students with NASW] with another doctoral student, and it was a great experience.” Students reported that becoming proactive and negotiating with the university regarding financial and logistic implications of the situation on their status enhanced their feeling of battling helplessness and was empowering. Involvement with professional organization brought a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. “I received positive feedback from those who attended [a presentation].”
Support from Friends and Family. Several students reported that their family provided support at difficult moments. One commented on her reaching out when in an extremely stressful situation “I was freaking out. …I called my mother. She kept me calm.” Friends were an additional source of help “It was only after I reached out for support and wound up speaking with a doctoral friend/colleague who reached their hand down (figuratively) and pulled me up from the dark hole I felt trapped in.”
Faculty Reactions. While students reported experiencing limited institutional support, individual faculty were sometimes helpful. One student wrote “I am particularly grateful for the advocacy, support, and availability of my advisor.” Specifically, faculty’s flexibility, availability and active reaching out, applying collaborative strategies and modelling were noted.
Flexibility. From the instructor’s perspective, flexibility included an effort to accommodate demands without compromising quality of education. The faculty commented
I think that my welcoming students’ participation at the level that their individual circumstances allowed, freed them from feelings of guilt, self-punitive and shame and allowed them to what one of them called ‘a friendly together escape where I can forget for two hours the real world around me’.
The sentiment echoed in students’ reported experience. One student suggested that relaxing assignment deadlines helped and should be visited beyond the crisis situation as it enables students to work at their own pace.
Availability and active reaching out. Students commented on communication with faculty. For example, “This semester, I have spoken to professors via telephone or Zoom more than I have in the past”; “I received an email from one of my doctoral committee members who assured me that they are ready, willing, and able to be available for my dissertation proposal defense.” Several students welcomed professors’ contacting them between classes to check in and follow up regarding personal issues that they shared. One student felt that communication with a faculty member in relation to a frustrating administrative reaction was very supportive and helpful.
A collaborative process. Students’ entries indicated that they experienced empowered, motivated and supported by the collaborative manner in which the faculty invited them to shape their plans for the course written assignments, negotiated structures, topics and dates that can work for them and their diverse circumstances.
Modelling. Students claimed that one factor that helped them being able to get back to work on their course materials was modelling by the instructor of coping at a challenging time.