Persevering In A Pandemic

Author: Sheron Smith
Posted: Monday, May 24, 2021 12:00 AM
Categories: School of Computing | School of Arts and Letters | School of Health and Natural Sciences | Pressroom | School of Aviation | School of Education and Behavioral Sciences | School of Business | Faculty/Staff | Students

Macon, GA

Math major Kessiny Neal was among hundreds of students who were living on MGA campuses in spring 2020 when the pandemic shut down in-person classes. The disruption left her a bit shaken at first but Neal returned in fall 2020 more determined than ever. Now a junior, she lived at University Pointe residence hall on the Macon Campus in spring 2021.

 Adapting to unprecedented challenges, Middle Georgia State University finds ways to live up to its values and support students pursuing their degrees in an unsettling time.  


By March 2020, math major Kessiny Neal was really hitting her stride as a Middle Georgia State University student leader.

At the time she was a sophomore living in Harris Hall on the Cochran Campus. Neal was part of the Student Government Association, Campus Activities Board, and other organizations.

She had, of course, heard of COVID-19 as she made plans to return home to Valdosta for spring break. But, along with perhaps most of her fellow students, she had not yet grasped how much the burgeoning pandemic would impact her life.

“Then we got the word that we were not to come back to campus after spring break, that all of our classes would be online,” said Neal, a 19-year-old junior. “We were allowed to return later to get our stuff from our rooms, and it was around then that I started to realize we were dealing with something much bigger than I had thought at first.”

As it did for many aspects of people’s lives, the pandemic upended colleges and universities across the nation. MGA was among a multitude of institutions that canceled in-person instruction and hastily moved to all online-only instruction. In MGA’s case, the University extended spring break by one week to give faculty who were teaching in person time to make the transition. Most administrators and staff members began working from home and transitioning to remote communication through Microsoft Teams and other platforms.

Meanwhile, the Office of Student Life was forced to cancel face-to-face campus activities. The NAIA, the athletics association to which the MGA Knights belong, suspended team seasons. The University canceled in-person graduation ceremonies, replaced by virtual events. Pandemic-related budget cuts hit MGA along with other state agencies.

As Dr. Christopher Blake, MGA’s president, said in his State of the University address in January 2021, “Our work and accomplishments as a University this past year have taken place within the context of the most challenging, frightening, and unstable environments in decades.”

More Than Surviving

Well over a year after it began in the U.S., the pandemic was not over but MGA was surviving. In some ways, especially now, the University is even flourishing.

Along with other University System of Georgia institutions, MGA resumed many in-person classes and services in fall 2020, albeit with significant adjustments that included mandatory face coverings and social distancing for all students, employees, and visitors. Facilities staff reconfigured classrooms and many common areas to make social distancing easier and set up regular schedules of deep cleaning. The University established up a tracking system so that students, faculty, and staff could self-report COVID cases (as of late March 2021, about 460 members of the MGA community had reported they had contracted the virus) and compiled an extensive list of health and safety resources.

Among other things, the University established an initiative called BeWell@MGA to provide students with additional mental health resources to cope with stress related to COVID and other challenges, including the nation’s high levels of political and social strife.

Meanwhile, MGA’s Office of Student Life moved forward with steadfast purpose. Even before students returned to the campuses in fall 2020, Student Life staffers tapped into their imaginations to continue providing the kinds of activities that are pivotal to university life. 

“We never allowed ourselves to think, ‘Because of this pandemic we can’t offer students an engaging experience,’” said Devereaux Lindsey, Student Life coordinator on the Macon Campus. “Initially, the main thing we did is let students know we’re still here and making programming available to them.”

After some brainstorming, Student Life coordinators planned and rolled out a series of virtual events. Online trivia, bingo, and other activities that gave students a chance to win prizes, such as t shirts and instant pots that were mailed to them, proved popular. Many students enjoyed a DJ streaming live music over social media and posted photos of their animal companions for a “Pets of MGA” showcase. Many enjoyed streaming events with a magician, mind reader, and caricature artist.

On the flip side, Netflix watch parties, Zoom cooking demonstrations, and Tik Tok posting challenges drew little participation.

“One thing I’ve learned is to manage my expectations,” Lindsey said. “This experience has impacted people differently and sometimes they simply do not want to engage, which is ok. We’ve also had students reach out to us saying they are so happy we still do things because it gives them a good distraction from the problems we’re all facing.”

In fall 2020, Student Life began easing back into in-person activities that take place with all of the recommended health and safety measures. This spring, “I (heart) MGA Student Life” purple pillow stuffing has been a hit on several campuses. On the Eastman Campus, where MGA’s School of Aviation is based, a “plane pull” competition that allowed for greater social distancing replaced the annual picnic and softball tournament.

“That turned out far better than I could have ever imagined,” said Christy Faulk, Student Life coordinator on the Eastman Campus. “That event set the stage and really ramped up student excitement for other things we planned.”

As long as students are living on campus and taking in-person classes, they are going to want something to do, Lindsey said. “If we can do some events as safely as possible, that lets them know we are happy they are here and encourages them to continue their studies at MGA.”

Teaching Challenges

With a strong track record of offering fully online degrees through MGA Direct, Middle Georgia State was in a better position than many institutions to handle the emergency shift from face-to-face classes in spring 2020. Most faculty members already had experience teaching online.

Still, the majority of MGA’s classes meet face to face for at least some sessions over the course of a semester. Faculty members who were teaching in person faced some challenges in suddenly shifting to fully online formats in the middle of a semester, although most supported the move for their own safety and that of their students.

“Many of my students had to juggle a lot, and they needed and appreciated the flexibility that online courses allowed them,” said Dr. Crystal O’Leary-Davidson, an MGA English professor. “At the end of spring 2020, my students said they felt I was ‘present’ and that their fellow students were ‘present’ as well. I spent more time than ever online, communicating multiple times daily through emails, announcements, and video recordings. All the teachers I know did this.”

O’Leary-Davidson admits that she, along with many of her colleagues, had concerns about returning to in-person classes in fall 2020. COVID case numbers were rising and she knew people who had gotten sick with the virus, including some who died.

“However, at least in class, students are very conscious of social distancing and wearing their masks,” she said. “We do a lot of (voice) projecting! And I repeat what a student says so those in the back of the room can hear.”

In some academic disciplines, teaching certain aspects of the curriculum fully online is simply not possible.  

The pandemic temporarily grounded MGA’s flight students and put a stop to applied training classes for those in aviation maintenance programs. “We shut down (in-person) instruction when everybody else did and received FAA permission to move the lecture portion of our classes online,” said Adon Clark, dean of the School of Aviation. “That continued until May 26, when we resumed the maintenance and flight labs.”

Suspension of hands-on instruction did delay graduation for some aviation students, “but we were able to get most of them finished over the summer months,” Clark said.

Senior respiratory therapy students in spring 2020 were midway through hands-on prep work for their credentialing exams. “We did as much as we could online but there were times we had to get special permission to come together in person,” said Teri Miller, chair of the Department of Respiratory Therapy. “We were able to get that done so they could graduate on time.”

Students who were juniors that spring were training in the use of mechanical ventilators. But early in the pandemic, MGA was among the state’s colleges and universities that loaned its mechanical ventilators to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA).

With no equipment for the labs, the juniors had to take incomplete grades. But faculty members rearranged the degree program’s curriculum so the students could make up the instruction the following fall (by then GEMA had returned the equipment and MGA added to that by buying two more ventilators) and into this spring.

“Our faculty went above and beyond to make sure our students could graduate on time,” Miller said. “And our students showed such adaptability. In their clinical work (in area healthcare facilities) they aren’t allowed to work directly with COVID patients but they can work with patients who are dealing with post-COVID issues. I think their experience of working in respiratory therapy during such a time has given them a more holistic view about the impact they can have on patient care.”

Before COVID, the Georgia Board of Nursing prohibited nursing courses from being taught completely online. As universities transitioned to fully online in the spring, the board relaxed that rule so that some instruction in certain non-lab courses could take place online.

MGA’s advanced nursing students, however, still had to complete clinical hours in clinical settings – mostly hospitals. They were given the option of taking incompletes until the pandemic eased but all chose to continue their clinical work.

“I think most of them feel nursing is their calling and that they needed to be there,” said Dr. Donna Ingram, chair of the Department of Nursing. “Some did kind of teeter on it, not for themselves but because they worried about exposing their families. But they decided that their clinical work would place them in the best situation to learn the proper way to deal with infection control and other issues related to a pandemic.”

With the return of in-person classes last August, MGA’s nursing department began screening students for COVID symptoms before every lab session.    

Progress Never Stopped  

Pre-pandemic, MGA was moving along on several building and renovation projects. When students, faculty, and staff returned to the campuses in the fall, they saw that the work had never stopped.

On the Cochran Campus, builders completed state-funded major renovations to Roberts Library and Dillard Hall this spring. In Dublin, MGA significantly expanded and upgraded nursing facilities in order to increase the number of students admitted to the program based on that campus. The expansion made it possible for MGA to offer the B.S. in nursing in Dublin, which up to then was limited to the associate’s degree. 

Also completed was much of a major road project to improve vehicular and pedestrian safety and to increase the Macon Campus’s visibility and access. Near the campus’s new roundabout, construction began on the privately funded Peyton Anderson Enrollment Center. Lakeview Pointe, a new residence hall, opened on the Macon Campus.

MGA also gained some major equipment. In August 2020, MGA dedicated two new single-engine Piper Archers at Macon Downtown Airport. MGA purchased the new aircraft – funded through an $800,000 donation from the Charles H. Jones Family Foundation – so that the Eastman-based School of Aviation can expand flight education at the Macon satellite location. 

“In the past seven years, MGA has secured over $75 million in public and private funds,” Blake said. “It’s tremendous to see how that support has transformed some of our facilities and allowed us to make major capital purchases that dramatically elevate the University’s teaching and learning opportunities.”

Won’t Last Forever

As she waited out the summer and continued taking courses online, math major Neal tried to make the best of what she admits was, at times, a depressing and stressful situation.

“For me, anyway, not all math courses should be taken online,” she said. “I made it – I even got an ‘A’ in Calculus III – but it was hard. Microsoft Teams was new to me so I spent time trying to figure that out. And I missed the campus atmosphere and just hanging out with friends.”

Neal regularly participated in Student Life’s virtual activities over the summer. “Virtual bingo was my favorite,” she said. “I won an instant pot.”

When she returned in the fall, Neal moved into a Macon Campus residence hall and continued her involvement with SGA and the Campus Activities Board. She also joined the President’s Torch Society (a leadership honor society), and MGA’s Center for Career & Leadership Development accepted her into the Emerging Leaders program.

When she finishes her undergraduate degree she plans to apply to MGA’s Master of Arts in Teacher Education program. Her initial career goal is to teach math to high school students.

“I feel a little bit cheated out of some of my college experiences because of COVID, but I still have my senior year and I plan to make the most of it,” Neal said. “This time won’t last forever. I’ve learned to adapt, which is good because I was not someone who liked change.

“If something like this happens again, God forbid, I’ll be better prepared.”


Editor's Note: A version of this story originally appeard in the spring 2021 issue of MGA Today.