College of Education and Human Development - George Mason University

College of Education and Human Development

Adapting to Virtual Learning

March 27, 2020

By Greg Sullivan

In her final semester of her athletic training master’s degree program in Mason’s College of Education and Human Development, Jennifer Cooke already can see the finish line.

Cooke is a somewhat unconventional athletic training graduate student. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in English literature from Kansas State University back in 1993.

Not long after the youngest of her eight children, Patrick, started kindergarten a few years ago, the Fairfax resident prepared to return to school.

Cooke, now 48, said she researched programs from home and was quickly set on Mason after seeing that the board of certification exam pass rate for its Athletic Training program was very high. It would take her a year of completing prerequisites such as statistics and anatomy at Mason before she could officially start the master’s degree since her first degree wasn’t associated with the sciences.

Mason athletic training graduate student Jennifer
Cooke (back row, second from left) with her family.

Once she completed those prerequisites, she began the two years of full-time traditional coursework in the program.

Cooke excelled in her program and just recently found out that she passed her board of certification exam (which certifies her to practice as a certified athletic trainer contingent on finishing her degree this spring). Then, suddenly, the coronavirus pandemic caused universities and schools everywhere, including George Mason, to move classes online.

For regular classes, moving them online was one thing, but for clinical-type work there can be some extra hurdles.

“I knew right away that it was going to be a challenge for our program to figure out a way to do clinical hours,” Cooke said. “My class was 22 months out of 24 months into the two-year program. All of us probably had over 1,000 clinical hours done already because Mason does a good job of spreading those out throughout the program. I felt we’d be able to make it work somehow.”

Because of school closings, all five of Cooke’s school-aged children were now at home with her and her husband Tom. One of their three older children who normally would be at college in New York was also home. She and Tom have been keeping up with their other two grown children while hunkered down in Fairfax—one living in nearby Alexandria, the other in Germany, serving in the military.

In the house, everyone stays busy in the daytime keeping up with their respective online school assignments, Cooke said. “Our dining room, I call it our COVID-19 classroom right now. It’s full of computers and books,” Cooke said with a laugh. “We don’t eat in there anymore. We eat in the kitchen.”

In a twist, with the solution from Mason’s Athletic Training program to adjust to the new online format, it winds up working out that Cooke’s children being home is helping her finish her degree requirements rather than being a distraction.

An unprecedented challenge and the best solution available

According to the Mason School of Kinesiology, 46 athletic training students this semester were assigned to clinical sites, mostly around the Northern Virginia or the D.C. area, and a few were assigned a bit further away. Occasionally, the program has needed to find a way to accommodate a student in an extenuating circumstance, but this semester wound up being a very different kind of logistical challenge.

Part of the program’s practicum course requirement for these students is for them to complete a number of skill assessments, known as clinical proficiencies. As often as possible, Mason professors say, these proficiencies should be completed in real time on real-life patients, but occasionally, circumstances necessitate simulations.

For instance, a student might need to demonstrate to a clinical site preceptor that they could handle responding to a patient’s shoulder injury when such an injury might not organically occur while at the clinic site. For that reason, the student’s lab manuals already spelled out some scenarios that could be played out as alternatives.

Once the university transitioned to online for the rest of the semester, the program’s faculty agreed they would have to get creative about completing the proficiencies. They asked their course preceptors—experienced athletic trainers in the field—to engage with students virtually using video chats to assess their proficiencies. Students could also consult with their preceptors virtually to discuss patient care and treatment.

“Some proficiencies are more administrative, like developing a plan for a student with, say, an eating disorder,” said Jennifer Rheeling, a longtime Mason preceptor and an athletic trainer at H.D. Woodson High School in D.C. “They don't necessarily have to have a patient in front of them to develop that. I could ask them to develop a home exercise program and show me what would you give them so the student understands how to do the exercises.

“Of course, we'll work with them to make sure it gets done. And some of us are older and our certification exam used to be an in-person oral exam. It's a computerized test now. Ours was very similar to doing this. We had a model there to demonstrate, but the model couldn't give any feedback. They just did exactly what you instructed them to do. This is not as strange of a concept to those of us who are older as it may seem at first to the students.”

This semester, students will likely be at home and need to utilize the help of a family member or roommate. Or, a situation will arise where they’re talking through a scenario with a preceptor in other circumstances.

“I talked to my preceptor last week,” Cooke said. “I had four of my nine proficiencies left to do. I asked, ‘How can we accomplish this’? For two of the proficiencies, I used cases that I had in my previous clinical assignment last semester. I did a SOAP [subjective, objective, assessment, and plan] note, which is when we explain [to the preceptor]how we treat something and what our plan will be. I contextualized that for her so she could review what I would have done if that patient was face-to-face with us at her clinic site.

“The second thing I did was a video that combined two of the proficiencies together, and my kids acted the patient roles. We made a video together and I made a SOAP note to go with it. My preceptor has it now and is going to review all of my SOAP notes to make sure I did everything as I should have.”

Mason athletic training professor Candace Lacayo, who teaches Cooke in the practicum course and oversees clinical education for the program, said that this was the best possible kind of solution for the program and its students under the circumstances. They couldn’t just scrap the proficiencies without lessening the quality of the students’ preparation, she said, and they also couldn’t create a barrier to keep students who’d done everything right from graduating on time and getting out in an important field and helping patients.

“You need to have that hands-on practical experience,” Lacayo said. “You need to go through the skills that you’re uncomfortable with while being a student so that as a professional you can recognize those things and you can know right away, ‘Oh, I remember that from school.’

“We all have to do the best we can. Even though we’re having to do it differently, we’re still trying to maintain some sense of normalcy by having all of our students still complete the proficiencies.”

Cooke agreed and said she feels ready to confidently work as an athletic trainer in the field now since she’s completed the clinical assignments. She came into the program thinking she wanted to serve in a school setting, following somewhat in the steps of her father who was a high school athletic director. And after doing rotations in a variety of settings while in the program, she said a school job is still what she wants.

As far as finishing her graduate school career at home unexpectedly, Cooke said she’s trying to make the most of it. She worries about family members not at home, and like many, wishes life were more normal now. She empathizes for her oldest son, a high school senior, whose senior lacrosse season ended abruptly and who won’t be able to experience his senior prom.

But she’s found plenty of good moments while stuck inside her house with her loved ones.

“Being able to be home and have them home and be able to help them with their schoolwork and complete my schoolwork, that’s a huge relief,” she said.

As she was finishing some of her last clinical assignments with her children’s help, she was able to interact with them for the last few times as a graduate student mother.

“My son Jack doesn’t love being on camera, he’s usually the one to do the camera work, and my daughters Mae and Jenna will play the role of patient,” she said. “They make a big stink about it, but I think secretly they like it.”

They’ve been pitching in also in other ways the whole time she was in school, Cooke said.

“The kids have been wonderful,” she said. “I wasn’t home as much, but they helped with dinner, they cleaned up—really without asking. They’re in a way pretty excited I’m doing something new and hopefully a little proud of me.”