In This Class, COVID Restrictions Led to New Learning Opportunities

In This Class, COVID Restrictions Led to New Learning Opportunities
Jen’nan Read’s immigrant health class on a masked, socially-distanced trip to Duke Gardens. Photo courtesy Jen’nan Read

Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series of essays by Duke faculty members whose normal fall 2020 class routines were disrupted by the pandemic. These essays will examine how faculty adapted.

DURHAM, N.C. — This fall, I knew my Immigration and Health (SOC 250) class would be different. How could it not? I would teach it in person, twice a week to 27 students, socially distanced, wearing masks, in a large campus auditorium.

So I started from scratch and partnered with World Relief Durham (WRD), a non-profit refugee resettlement organization, to have the students work on team projects analyzing the organization’s data to improve refugee youth outcomes in the Durham community. I had never forged such a partnership for class before, and doing so meant completely changing the course requirements. In the past, students would pick generic topics related to immigration and health, not real-world problems right here in Durham. But thanks to a 2018 Rapid Response Research Grant from the William T. Grant Foundation, I had met with the organization before, and they were happy to join me in this new adventure.

The director of WRD, Adam Clark, and the director of its youth programming services, Rob Callus, worked with the students and me throughout the semester, joining class via zoom, meeting with individual teams, and providing valuable feedback on the projects. The students analyzed data, created infographics, and wrote policy briefs with recommendations to address their topics, such as improving refugee academic integration and increasing refugee parental involvement.

To reduce students’ stress, I scheduled extra breaks in the syllabus in October and early November around the election and got permission to take the class to the Sarah Duke Gardens one day. It was a beautiful, sunny day and absolutely awesome!

So how did I manage to re-design a class in the middle of a global pandemic? Well, thanks to a Bass Connections’ Collaborative Project Expedition grant, I was able to hire a doctoral student in Sociology to help me over the summer. Some of the changes include the following:

  • I re-ordered the syllabus and course content in order to get the students knowledgeable about refugees in the first few weeks of class. In the past, I taught about refugees toward the end of the semester, after lecturing on the history of U.S. immigration and immigration policies. I moved the content on refugees to the beginning in case we went to remote learning after a week or two in person — I wanted to make sure the students understood the refugee resettlement process in order to work on their team projects.
  • I eliminated the 2nd exam so that the students could focus their energy on the team projects and individual health policy briefs during the last weeks of class. There was one exam the 10th week of class after I had covered all the substantive content.
  • I removed some of the student-led discussion sessions because it was too difficult for students to present to the class behind masks while being socially distanced.
  • In the past, I would bring students food during class once or twice a semester since I teach over the noon hour. I would ask students to list dietary restrictions at the beginning of the semester and then surprise them with pizza or fruit. All of that was out the window this year.

The end result was far better than anything I expected — the students produced five high quality infographics that had concrete, actionable items that World Relief Durham can now use to improve outcomes for refugee students and their families. They used research evidence to find solutions to real-world problems right here in Durham. I am now working with WRD to apply for an external grant to expand and extend what started as pilot project in my Immigration and Health class. I can’t go so far as to call it a silver lining during something as devastating as COVID-19, but it has given me, my students, and WRD a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak time.

I’m sure I’ll look back on this one day and shake my head in disbelief. I’ll have a smile on my face, knowing I was part of a bigger team effort at Duke accomplishing something few other universities could achieve during a global pandemic — providing students with the best educational experience possible.

Jen’nan Read is the Sally Dalton Robinson Chair and Professor of Sociology at Duke University.