At the end of every quarter, Loma Linda University School of Public Health (LLUSPH) hosts a poster presentation for graduating students that allows them to showcase their practicum projects to staff, fellow classmates and community partners. It’s a milestone for many students and one that everyone looks forward to. Practicum presentations for winter 2020 were scheduled for Friday, March 20th. On March 12, the county reported its first case of the coronavirus. According to Interim Dean Dwight Barrett, “We knew we needed to set an example as a public health institution and made the decision to make the event virtual on Wednesday to protect the health of our students, staff and community partners, and their families. The next day brought the official shelter-in-place order from the governor’s office.”
At LLUSPH, going completely virtual overnight was a bit of a challenge considering it was the final week of the quarter and faculty had approximately a week to wrap up the quarter and be prepared to teach the entire spring quarter in a virtual setting. Says Interim Dean Barrett, “University leadership looked to the School of Public Health to organize risk communication concerning the pandemic for the entire university.” In efforts to keep university students, staff and faculty updated on the COVID response, LLUSPH created a risk communication team that developed a COVID-specific text and email strategy to keep everyone informed concerning best practices, case rates and other important information. In addition, the school partnered with the LLUH Institute for Community Partnerships to organize a COVID Care Corp that designed informational content for local community partners and members. This included COVID care information, resources, information on related government policies and other local community specific concerns.
As with any other educational institution, there were challenges — particularly with the overnight transition to virtual learning. “We were especially invested in our students that were getting ready to graduate and had various practicum requirements at places that were also in emergency mode,” Barrett says. “Looking back now, this was one of our greatest blessings because it allowed us to move many of our programs 100% online and allowed us to offer public health education to those who may not have found it accessible before.”
Lessons were learned though. Notes Barrett, “First we learned or rather saw the incredibleness of the public health community in times of crisis. We learned that we CAN pivot to keep educating and serving regardless of the circumstances. Secondly, we saw the importance of communication and relationships. We were able to partner within the university and among our community to effectively practice and promote public health. Having those relationships and prior lines of communication made us more effective in times of crisis.”
He adds, “People have a better understanding of public health post-pandemic, but unfortunately that has come with a mistrust in public health. It is up to us to curate our messaging, partnerships and relationships to promote trust and be a reliable source for relatable information and resources.”