College of Education and Human Development

Connect Magazine

A new virtual reality

Elizabeth Lightfoot

Finding ways to adapt and advance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For more than a year now, the COVID-19 pandemic has kept most of us separated. But for many, especially an institution of higher learning, that will just not do. New ways of communication, collaboration, and connection were needed to allow us to move forward in these times of vast uncertainty. We’ve found ourselves living in a virtual space, viewing each other and the rest of the world through screens. There’s certainly been downsides to this new and we hope temporary reality, but, as we’ve discovered, there are areas of opportunity as well.

Nearly a year ago, Distinguished Global Professor Elizabeth Lightfoot, School of Social Work, started work on a new project on caregiving during COVID-19. “It wasn’t one I had funding for,” she says. “I just decided to do this research project.”

She gathered social work PhD students Kenneth Turck, Jacob Otis, and Heejung Yun, MSW student Courtney Kutzler, undergraduate student Kamal Suleimon, and her former advisee, Rajean Moone from the Center for Healthy Aging and Innovation.

The reason for the project was personal: Lightfoot’s mother was living in Washington state, which had one of the earliest breakouts of COVID-19 in assisted care institutions. “And they were making such poor decisions,” Lightfoot says. “Not just in her facility, but in general.”

Lightfoot had begun by setting up some Facebook support groups and later was invited to give some talks about the subject. “I was shocked by the number of people who came to these Zoom talks,” she says. She soon realized that people were hungry for more information, so she set up her research team. They already have four research papers in various stages of publication. One of the papers, published in the Journal of Gerontological Social Work, is the most downloaded paper that journal has published on COVID-19.

The research has been done entirely over Zoom with family caregivers. Some of it documents what was relatively known: family members were very concerned about the social isolation for their aged relatives and had a subsequent fear of declining physical and mental functioning. At the same time, most everybody was supportive of the restrictions on nursing homes.

“There were some surprising silver linings of caregiving during COVID,” Lightfoot says. “If they were caring for them in their house, they had all this time to spend together. Older parents were spending time with the grandkids. Story time. Family games.”

collage of people with masks during pandemic

Even for those taking care of people from afar, relationships were strengthened because they appreciated each other more. “Everyone talked about how technology had helped,” she says. “How they could FaceTime with their mom in the nursing home. It opened up the idea that they could do that.”

Caregivers were also happy because they didn’t have to do as much driving. “So there’s the realization for caregiving that maybe we could make some changes with technology,” Lightfoot says.

Lightfoot’s team is also conducting a separate study with Somali families. A full analysis hasn’t been completed yet, but the researchers have noticed that it’s been difficult for Somali families because social connections are a core part of their culture. It’s not easy for their traditional extended families to be separated. More research on this topic will take place this summer.

Lightfoot notes one final oddity she discovered through her research. She likes to use pictures with her presentations, but she couldn’t find any of people with masks on. “All the stock photos with masks on are in the hospital with doctors,” she says. “I had to ask friends to take pictures because there was nothing out there. So my photos are mostly people I know.”

Sharing COVID-19 strategies across borders

CEHD, in partnership with a group of European educators, recently established the International School Leaders Association (ISLA), which brings together education leaders from Germany, France, Scotland, England, the Netherlands, and the United States. The group initially came together in 2016 as part of a State Department initiative in response to the large influx of migrant children in European schools. With unique expertise in their local communities, the group examines various approaches to promoting the economic and social advancement of minority, refugee, and immigrant youth.

“In the first week of March 2020, the ISLA group met in Germany and the Netherlands for our annual international field work,” says CEHD International Initiatives Program Director Marina Aleixo. “As the week progressed, we started responding to urgent calls from our schools. It was clear that COVID would have a significant impact on the ways we serve students, teachers, and families.”

For the past year, the group has worked to expand access to the ISLA network of education experts and host virtual sessions to share experiences and resources, and problem-solve together the challenges of the pandemic.

“The strength of this group is the opportunity to discuss and share possible solutions during the pandemic in order to maintain educational, pedagogical, but also social continuity,” says Cyril Norbec, a school principal in France. “The comparison of our respective educational systems, U.S. and European, is a useful way to respond to the challenge imposed by COVID-19. Education has no borders.”

Fragmentation, isolation, and anxiety about otherness might well have characterized the landscape throughout much of 2020, but, “for a group of school leaders tasked with keeping our communities safe, positive, and actively learning, it’s been a tonic to touch base with familiar counterparts overseas and ato recognize, over and over again, shared values and purpose,” says Joanna Pomeroy, a school director in the United Kingdom.

“Our group collaboration has helped schools develop a variety of materials for use when teaching about ethics and identity,” says John Breslin, a head sociology teacher in the United Kingdom. “The success in maintaining student involvement has been assisted by the sharing of ideas and expectations with other teachers and leaders.”

Martin Oppermann, in the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Germany, says the group’s exchanges about different COVID-19 measures in various countries and how they are managed helped him find his bearings. “It is extremely necessary that our students get social support at home by our teachers, school social workers, and school psychologists,” he says. “The international ideas helped a lot.”

Aleixo says ISLA exemplifies the benefits of building international partnerships focused on trust, friendships, and reciprocity. “The group has been a valuable source of professional and emotional support during these challenging times,” she says.
“I am proud CEHD has played a leadership role in the sustainability of this group for the past five years.”

The need for flexibility and stability in teacher education

Throughout the pandemic, CEHD faculty, professional and clinical teaching specialists, Office of Teacher Education (OTE) staff, and college leadership have been responding to needs, pivoting to support critical partnerships, and focusing on the health and well-being of U of M teacher candidates and school partners.

“That’s probably been one of the biggest challenges—to be flexible in what student teaching looks like,” says Karla Stone, Department of Curriculum and Instruction lecturer for ESL, world languages, and classic languages licenses.

Student teaching has been entirely online, and Stone is pleased at how responsive and helpful CEHD’s school partners are. “There was a lot of sharing ideas on hosting a teacher candidate in an online setting,” she says. “And how they could help these teachers grow and focus on the needs of K-12 students.”

OTE’s team navigated, for faculty, teaching specialists, and students, with the state’s Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB) to find ways during the pandemic that would ensure that CEHD’s pathways to teaching would remain robust and relevant.

“Fortunately, the state board has offered guidance and flexibility, including waivers on the number of hours for student teaching,” Stone says.

Marie Lister, a teaching specialist in the Institute of Child Development, added some fluidity to her course. “I got rid of all deadlines for assignments and I got rid of class participation points,” she says. “I took a poll at the beginning of the move to online learning: Would they be more comfortable to meet as a group or one-on-one? They wanted to meet consistently. This space was necessary for them.”

Lister found herself changing a lot of her assignments to incorporate some of the uncertainties her students were bringing to the table. “Really the course content in some ways was creating itself,” she says. “My job was to sift through it, synthesize it, and introduce it to them. We met every week and worked through what might be best practices for partnering with children and families in the future. Or what it means when we structure online instruction.”

OTE’s clinical partnership team reviewed data from spring 2020, and using feedback from alumni, created online resources and provided virtual workshops on online instruction to all U of M new teachers, cooperating teachers, and principals. For example, a “Remote Instruction in K-12 Contexts” website provides foundational ideas of online learning, tips for building relationships and community, activities and assessments, and support systems for teachers. A site that offers co-teaching resources for school partners and U of M students also was updated to include strategies to support a variety of environments and contexts.  

Although the new resources are quite robust, there are some things that are more difficult to replicate virtually. Michelle Marchant-Wood, lecturer and licensure and MEd coordinator for CEHD’s special education program, says that the main drawback with offsite student teaching is the difficulty in building relationships. “Especially with children with special needs,” she says. “Not only is it hard for anybody, but when you have students with developmental disabilities, attention problems, on the autism spectrum, or with behavior issues, doing a Zoom is complicated.”

For Ann Ruhl-Carlson, early childhood licensure coordinator in the Institute of Child Development, most of her teacher candidates have all been placed in a district that has never physically had their children at school. “They’ve all been doing distance learning with children and their cooperating teacher,” she says.

With the children at home and working with individual learning devices, RuhlCarlson agrees with Marchant-Wood that some things just cannot be replicated re-
motely. “Little children are not meant to learn this way,” she says. “You have to have relationships with these kids. You have to know them and they have to know you.”

Also, active learning is extremely important for young learners. “Teachers have to be really intentional and planful for how they are going to get kids to actively engage with the materials,” Ruhl-Carlson says. “Some are having kids write or draw. Many districts are sending home hands-on materials.”

A third aspect to think about is finding ways to differentiate for specific learning needs, as some children need more support than others. “It’s harder to do online,” she says. “I think there is a really strong recognition that our youngest learners really need to be in school.”

Navigating international collaboration

For those faculty whose work is primarily internationally faced, the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially challenging. Renáta Tichá is a researcher in the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) and, along with Brian Abery, co-directs ICI’s Global Resource Center on Inclusive Education.

She says COVID-19 has impacted several of her and her colleagues’ projects, including one with Ukraine to support educators in implementing inclusive practices with students with disabilities and another with the Kingdom of Bhutan focused on improving social inclusion and employment outcomes for young adults with disabilities.

“In the case of both projects, we had scheduled visits to the respective countries to conduct trainings, presentations, and project update sessions,” she says. However, COVID-19 put a quick halt to these plans, so alternative methods of communication were implemented.

“We have been able to stay engaged with all of our projects via Zoom with our international colleagues, by focusing on analyzing and reporting data collected in our previous in-country visits, and developing online training materials,” Tichá says.

Indeed, a new initiative with Japan with a similar focus as the Bhutan project was launched in February through Zoom. But Tichá says although electronic communication has enabled these projects to move forward, it is not ideal.

“One of the many things COVID has revealed for us is that even though there are some project activities that can be done on Zoom, in-person interactions, including exchanges of ideas, problem solving, and visiting local work sites and staff are irreplaceable,” she says. Particularly challenging is not being involved in the project area’s culture. “Cultural immersion on international projects, be it in the country of the projects or our international colleagues traveling to the U.S., is essential to this work,” she says.

However, there are some unexpected benefits with remote communication. “Because we did not dedicate allocated project time to travel, we had more time to focus on analyzing and reporting results from previous project visits,” Tichá says. Also, an online forum was created using the theme of social inclusion and employment from the Bhutan and Japan projects, as well as from a previous Russian collaboration. The forum, The Dignity of Work, took place on Zoom in March and featured presentations from more than 10 countries.

Once the pandemic finally subsides, Tichá predicts the future of her work will find room for both in-person and remote communication moving forward. “As I mentioned, nothing will replace in-person interactions and cultural immersion,” she says. “We probably will, however, utilize the online option to connect our project participants across countries around topics of focus.”

Long-distance student

Although Washington Galvão was accepted as a first-year MA student in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development more than a year ago, it took him that long to finally set foot on campus, not to mention the continent. COVID-19 kept Galvão in his home country of Brazil.

Two years earlier, he was on the Minneapolis campus, after being invited to present some work he had done with Indigenous communities in Brazil. “That was my first time abroad,” he says. “I was really excited to have an opportunity to continue my studies in another language in another place at a huge university.”

Galvão applied to the U of M in December 2019 and was accepted in February 2020 to begin studies in the fall. “I was so excited to go to the United States to meet some new people around the world,” he says. “That’s a huge thing for an international student—to go to a university in the United States.”

Then COVID-19 swept like a wave across the world. Both the U.S. and Brazil were hit particularly hard and travel was limited. “So, I had to stay home,” Galvão says. 

Washington Galvão
Washington Galvão

He ended up keeping pace by starting his fall semester in Brazil. “I was here but my body was working in the Minnesota time zone,” he says. Galvão took three online courses from the University. His favorite was an ESL course due to his interaction with his classmates. “I learned a lot of things about people around the world,” he says. “I studied with people who did not know how to speak English well, so it helped me learn how to write and how to talk better.”

The language barrier was the most difficult aspect of the experience, Galvão says. “As international students who come from places that are not English countries, we have difficulty getting immersed in the language,” he says. “If we were in the United States, it would be different because we would have more opportunities socializing ourselves in the language 24 hours a day.”

Another problem Galvão faced was the fickleness of the internet. “When we were trying to debate or have a conversation and the internet connection was not stable or it was starting to freeze, it was so frustrating,” he says.

Galvão is now in Minnesota, picking up where he left off in Brazil. He is studying the comparative and international development of education. “I want to be a comparativist,” he says. “I come from social science, but I never had learned about comparative education in my academic studies in Brazil. So I’m learning a new area of social science and it’s awesome.”

Hearing from the experts

As the COVID-19 pandemic overturned the usual way of doing things, CEHD faculty were on hand to offer expert opinion and guidance on how to navigate the now uncertain waters.

Running an exercise physiology laboratory during the pandemic

The Laboratory of Integrative Human Physiology (LIHP) is a research laboratory and the Human Performance Teaching Laboratory (HPTL) is a teaching laboratory directed by Don Dengel, a professor in the School of Kinesiology. The labs are both housed in Mariucci Arena. When the pandemic first hit, both labs were in full swing, but quickly had to make adjustments to their research and teaching processes. “We knew that the dynamics of our work were going to change, perhaps indefinitely,” Dengel says. “We survived through the spring semester, but right after that we got to work on trying to adapt quickly.”
Learn how the labs adapted at

Dengel and Nicholas Evanoff, a School of Kinesiology doctoral student and LIHP lab manager, later published a paper in the International Journal of Sports Medicine detailing how they adapted to the pandemic and offering suggestions for how others could do the same.
Learn more at

How COVID-19 has changed early childhood education

Before the pandemic hit, the child care sector already faced systemic challenges, including funding, staffing, and ensuring quality. All of these were exacerbated by COVID-19. Hannah Riddle de Rojas, a program quality specialist at the Center for Early Education and Development, penned an essay exploring two important ways in which the pandemic has affected child care providers: financially and operationally.
View the essay at

Managing children’s media environment

As the pandemic forced children to move to at-home learning, they found themselves spending more time in front of screens. This increased media use exposes children to more advertising through TV shows, social media, apps, and other online and digital spaces. Institute of Child Development Associate Professor Gail Ferguson and two of her PhD students compiled a Q&A about media literacy and resources to help guide media use with children that has applications well beyond the pandemic.
Learn more at:

Education equity in the age of COVID-19

Early in the pandemic, former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, now at the Minneapolis Foundation, and colleague Patrice Relerford spoke with Interim Dean Michael Rodriguez to talk about a new Reimagine Education report, which CEHD helped produce, that tackled educational equity in the age of COVID-19 and where to go from here.
Learn more at

Photos courtesy of TJ Turner, Elizabeth Lightfoot, and Galvão