Alison Burnett, Interviewed by Graeme Courtney
What was the lead-up to Covid like in the Wellness Department?
It was a lot of discussions and monitoring the situation and sort of keeping an eye on things. Trying to be proactive in terms of creating plans should it become more than it was. We had pandemic plans in place, just reviewing those and making sure they were still in line and so definitely managing some individuals' anxiety/
What was it like when you first realized this was something big?
I think for me personally I had taken a vacation in February and I think I was very much aware at the point in time, but I think it really was when I got back from that at the beginning of March and just knowing that things were moving very quickly. It was definitely going to be a thing and it was moving rapidly and we were still not prepared for what the experience was really going to be like. There was no way to fully prepare for it.
That wraps into another question I have. Since I'm not old enough to have experienced epidemics like HIV/AIDS so I was wondering how Covid compared on scale?
So with regards to comparators to some of the other ones like H1N1, SARS, I worked through SARS as well and it was comparable in some sense, but it was still moving much more rapidly and the containment measures to keep it at bay didn't seem to be as effective as with SARS. The Transmission of Covid seemed a lot worse or more transmissible than some of the other illnesses that we had seen before. So in things like H1N1, MERS, SARS, you were less likely to contract it so the protective measures you can put in place were much more effective whereas with Covid it spread quickly.
Would you say that there was more panic and more worry about this pandemic compared to the less transmissible but more deadly diseases like H1N1 or AIDS?
I don't know if it was panic, there was definitely a lot of anxiety for sure, but my recollection of SARS, in particular, was that there was also lots of anxiety and lots of worries about what this was going to mean and that degree of uncertainty in terms of which direction it's going to go in is always worrying. So I wouldn't say there was panic per se, I think most people were able to contain themselves in that regard, but there were definitely a lot of worries and a lot of discussions and work going into planning.
So how did the initial shutdown affect your department per se?
So I will always maintain how proud I am of the Student Wellness team in terms of how they responded because we were able to move into a virtual environment very quickly with very low amounts of downtime. So I believe we were able to move our counselors home and they were up doing telephone calls and checking in with people the very next day. We were able to move our clinical services - that were never completely shut down we stayed in place, but those things that were moved to virtual environments we did that very quickly as well. So we had a very good turnaround time with regard to that and were very nimble in our approach. Lots of problem-solving, lots of flying by the seats of our pants, but always being able to be there for our clients or students. I would say the biggest area that was impacted was the health and performance center which is physio and chiro and you really can't do those in a virtual environment so those did have to be paused for a period of time until we were able to work out the logistics of that.
That was going lead into another one of my questions where I was going to say was any of the services you provide here cut or limited during the pandemic?
To a certain extent yes, the health services, we didn't do some of the things people were coming in for that could be postponed, so any of the preventative types of things that we do. They were put on hold until we could work some things out and then the HPC was definitely impacted, the other ones like the student wellness education were able to move into a virtual model. They did a great job in planning programs online, accessibility services, and counseling all moved into remote appointments. It was pretty quick.
With the movement online, with all the talk about mental health, I was wondering if you guys saw an uptick in contacts during the pandemic or was there a drop-off?
Initially, there was a drop-off for sure. People were for the most part at home with their families which were positive experiences for them in that regard, of course, there were people who were not able to go home and we made provisions for them here on campus, so they were still on campus and were still able to connect with us. I would say as the pandemic progressed the effects, impacts, restrictions, and isolation were beginning to have a more increased impact on people and we are definitely seeing some of that now. So it's progressively gone back up.
You said you shifted to at-home work during the pandemic?
Well I was one of those people who had a small child at home and who wasn't going to school so I did have to work from home during the pandemic.
So how was the experience of working at home?
To be honest I mean I am again very fortunate in regards to my child being fairly independent so I was able to manage with my partner at home quite well, but again in the position that I hold in the department and within the university, I was online for probably 10 hours a day, especially during the early parts and at various others points during the pandemic. So there was lots of screentime, lots of meetings, and it really did have an impact in different ways in terms of fatigue and things like that, that you might not notice at first but that you begin to experience it over time. So while it was challenging in the essence of setting up and doing the work but also being able to connect with my team in different ways was a bit of a challenge. So setting up those new processes for how you're going to connect with people just took a little bit more time, plus at the beginning, it was “two weeks” right - it's the biggest lie ever told. So you aren't really wondering how long it's going to be and really we worked at home for the better part of a year and a half to two years.
So how fast was the department able to shift once they realized they were in for the long haul?
Well, we had really no downtime, we were pretty well set up for a virtual environment. We did have some limitations in terms of our records and things like that and making sure that our security was solid in terms of how we were doing things, but that ramped up pretty quickly. We did a lot by phone initially and then we were able to move to virtual relatively quickly and we made some pretty good advancements over the course of the pandemic with regards to our records and have them accessible for the people who need them. So it was ongoing work and to be honest it's a bit of a blur for me in terms of timelines. When I was thinking about what I would say for some of the comments I'm like “I don't remember when that was in the timeline” because it was such a hectic period of time, but there was not a significant amount of downtime.
Do you remember what it was like when the first conversations started of when we would maybe look at a return to coming back to school?
Oh for sure, there were tons of conversations of what that was going to look like, how we were going to do it, what things we needed to put in place, and then there was balancing that with government instruction in terms of the direction that we were mandated to put in place and the timing of those things had an impact for sure. I’m not about to place any kind of blame on anybody, but things were happening in the moment and so you had to respond very quickly and put measures in place and there was a certain amount of chaos with that. But there were lots of conversations and lots of different people at the table at different times with their expertise for sure.
As the director of student wellness, how did going from the in-person model to the online model change your focus?
So again I was very fortunate with my management team - they were able to take the reins of a lot of the day-to-day activity within the department and I was able to help redirect my attention to some of the broader university types of things as it related to covid – I was the piece between the two in terms of bringing back direction for us. What did that look like in terms of our testing on campus, what that was like for vaccination, and opportunities when working with public health on all of those things. So I had to focus on that a little bit - I'm always kinda split between outward facing and inward facing for the department, but again I was able to rely upon my management team to help with a lot of the internal stuff.
One thing we looked at in class was the use of the lockdown browser, did the student wellness department receive any complaints about the browser?
With the lockdown browser, there was in term of discussion with students in accessibility services. So using those for exams, we had very degrees of students who really appreciated the opportunity for that, but there were some other people who didn’t, and lots of discussion around that. So I’m not sure if we received any significant complaints, I think the complaints went to other departments.
With the students moving to online classes and testing, for the people with accessibilities, how did that process work?
I don't think there was a whole lot of change in that regard, it was just another opportunity to accommodate individuals who needed accommodations and this was a tool that we could utilize. It definitely had its challenges and wasn't necessarily the best tool, but it was something that we had available at the time to help ease some of the challenges with moving to a remote environment as it related to assessment and things like that.
So what was the most challenging aspect of the pandemic for you?
My god just one?
It could be a couple.
I think the biggest challenge was the constant reactivity of the situation. So always having to react to whatever was happening at the moment, not having been through a pandemic of this magnitude before. We were kind of working it out as we went along so that constant problem-solving over a very long duration of time. You’re working in that adrenaline mode and that is very fatiguing. So I would say having to stay present in all of that to get things done was probably the biggest challenge, and then responding to the various requirements that were then put in place that we needed to follow. It was challenging in terms of the timeline and deciding how we're going to do it and then getting it in place at a reasonable time and required lots of effort from lots of people. A lot of the behind the scene stuff was very challenging.
So would you say now going through all those challenges that god forbid we have another pandemic on this level in the future do you think that the department would be more prepared?
Oh absolutely. We did just within our department a review of the good things, the bad things, and things we kind of need to focus on to have plans in place for the future. Which has been beneficial as a debrief. So I do think we will be in a good position should, and all indicators point to there will probably be another pandemic at some point, so I think we would be in a better place for sure. There were lots of opportunities to learn throughout this whole process so it's whether or not you can remember all the learning.
So going back to the working at home thing and coming back to work, how did you feel about coming back to an in-person environment?
I was fine myself. Working in healthcare, working through SARS knowing that the protections were available, knowing the resources in terms of vaccine availability and things like that. I felt safe in doing so. I know for a lot of people that was not the case and so some of the challenges were working with people and understanding their perspectives and coming to how we were going to work together to overcome some of those things that would make it possible. So from my perspective coming back to work was fine and I actually prefer to come to work at the office, staying at home was dragging on for me but I do understand and appreciate that wasn’t everybody's experience. So understanding what that was like for people I think was an important aspect that we had to pay attention to.
You say that you enjoy coming to work. Using my parents as an example there were initial talks that they would have to back to the office every day but as it stands they only go to the office once a week now. So I was wondering does student wellness have something similar?
Yes, the university has a policy in terms of the flex work-from-home policy. So it allows for several days, as a department though knowing that we are front-facing student service, we go off the needs and wants of the students that we work with. So we have seen and most of this is reasonable, students who are coming to campus for classes or who are living on campus who would like to see their practitioners in person because to see a counselor they have to go find a private space so you might as well just come to the building to be available to see them right. So we've done well I think in terms of managing the balance between those things, always trying to put the students at the center of it in terms of what their needs and wants are for the services that we are providing. So we still have a hybrid model and we will probably keep that for the long term in terms of ease and flexibility for the people on both sides.
People in a lot of places didn't want to have giant buildings that were empty and I was just wondering whether or not like it makes sense that students would want their counselors to meet in person.
Absolutely yes, so a majority of people are here at least 3 days a week usually, it rotates. It seems to work well, people like having the flexibility, and there's that balance between service delivery and the health and well-being and desires of your employees right? So trying to find a balance between those two.
It sounds a lot harder - both my parents are accountants so for them there's not much sense in going to Toronto every day for work
If that was me I wouldn't want to go into Toronto every day, as an accountant as you have been at home and you work primarily at home by yourself I can totally appreciate that. When you're in a social type of service right where your relationship with the person is important to what you're trying to do that face to face is important as well.
I know my cats definitely appreciated it, they were also bugging my mom for food. So looking back at the pandemic at large how would you say that it changed your life overall?
Overall? I think there were several ways. I think it gave an opportunity to pause, even though working really hard. It was probably more of my home life that things changed in terms of deciding where you wanted to spend your time and how you wanted to utilize the time that you did have. It did sort of give us time to relax a lot more, that go go go all the time is not the same as it was before the pandemic which I think is a good thing. I think it changed the perspective on where you want to spend the majority of your energy and time, and yes work is always important but you have to balance that with other aspects of your life. So I do think it was positive in that regard in terms of reflection and retrospection with how you want to live out the rest of your life kind of thing. I think the pandemic changed that for sure.
That's an interesting point because I'm also taking a history course on 9/11 and I watched a couple of interviews of people who were talking about it was a moment of reflection where they completely switched what they wanted to do with their lives. That feels like that probably happened to a lot of people.
It does, I think it also gives you pause. You know that yes what I am doing is important and I need to keep doing it and I enjoy certain aspects of it and so it was reaffirming in a lot of ways too. Then it's like I don't need to 90 hours a week. That's not how I want to spend my life either right, so recalibrating that balance I think is important.
Yes because personally for me it gave me a chance to slow down and I completely switched what I wanted to do for school. It happened to a lot of other people I know too, with them even now thinking “what do I want to do” because they had so much time just sitting there and we had gone back to school but they just weren't ready for the university life and now they are just trying to figure it out.
And that’s the piece that I’m really interested in as we are moving out of the pandemic, I mean there's still a pandemic, but at this point in time the impacts it had on people of your age on individuals who were maybe in high school and moving through into university. What kind of impacts did it have on the way they think about the world, how they see themselves in the world and what other impacts that time had on them because I am sure there's tons and they are the ones who are going to have to go through the rest of their lives with work and all that and are going to have to figure out how to balance that. So it will be interesting to see how those impacts play out.
I got fairly lucky when I picked Guelph because when I came here for Landscape Architecture we were fairly in-person as we are only a group of 60 students. So we were able to have 30 students in class one day and 30 the other day and that was fairly impressive. But I know some of my friends who had just gone through two years of on-line classes and they had gone to university and were fully on-line and weren't happy. Like that reality of that “2-week” period where it was like “oh this is fun” over that two-year period got pretty dry. I know a couple of people who were just not having it.
I think by in large most people, even those who are major introverts are social beings and need to be around other people as that's just part of our make up right? So to be isolated I can only imagine what it was like for those first-year students only having online courses like you aren't feeling connected. It's one thing if you start with people and you get to know them and then you move to online, like I think that's a different scenario, but to start online and to build those connections with people was very hard.
I completely understand. It would have been pretty tough if I didn't have my friends. Like if I was a first-year high school student it would have been pretty lonely. With my friends, we had each other and could talk in an online space, or a while we couldn't meet in person as some of us have older parents and were worried about that. I do think about that sometimes about how hard that would be.
Yes, and what kind of impacts does that have over the long term in terms of how you move through the world right? I think were only beginning to uncover some of those pieces around people's experiences with anxiety, depression, and all of those things and what that was really like for people.
Personally, for me I used the pandemic because I had all that free time, and I was able to readjust my thinking. Where at one point I weighed like 260 lbs and with all that free time I got down to where I am now at 180 lbs. It's weird how for some people the pandemic was either one of the worst things ever or a lot of people used it to better themselves.
Yep focus inward a little bit. I can see that too.
Right now we're at the point where for me and for most of my friends where I still look at covid news and I see reports about all these cases, but by in large it seems that people have moved on. Do you feel this as well?
Yes for sure. I understand it why people would want to move on – they are kind of done with it right; they would like to get back to some sort of normalcy and live their lives and not be consumed with all this information about Covid and some illnesses and how it’s going to impact them or not. Balancing that with ensuring people are informed right, so they can make good decisions about what their going do. Keeping people isolated at home for long periods of time is not helpful it creates other problems and so how do you find the balance between what risks you're willing to take because you know it's better for you in some regard. Versus other risks, you're not willing to take because the risk is too high in terms of sharing illness with somebody else. So, you talk about some of your friends having older parents or grandparents and how does that factor into their own decision-making and so understanding what's happening in the context of the illness so that people can make good decisions is probably where we need to focus a lot of our attention. But I can appreciate how no one wants to hear about Covid anymore right? I mean I still look at all the stuff too I want to know what's happening, what we're going see and I still think there's a lot of unknown around the illness itself right in terms of the longer-term impacts that the virus can have. Nobody knows what that looks like either, so I think that is something to have an eye on.
Bouncing off that does the student wellness department still have any Covid measures in place?
Yes, so we still monitor wastewater testing in all of the residences. Did you live in residence last year?
Yes I did
Which residence did you live in?
I lived in South.
Which one (Tower)?
So we had wastewater testing right. You would have seen messages when they reached a certain level we would put out increased messages. So we still have the waster water, but with all of the other illnesses that are circulating, it's only one factor we can look at. We keep track downstairs of what individuals are coming in with and what we think it might be. So we have a sense of what we're seeing. So, periods of time we were seeing lots of flu, it's more of a monitoring type of approach and then increasing messaging when we see things come up to certain levels or you know continuing to educate people on getting their vaccinations - we have also seen a bit of a decline in that as well. So we have incorporated our testing and things like that into our drop-in so it's just part of our normal work day. We have kept in the clinic downstairs the same measures around masks, that's all still in place. Those are the major things I think at this point, we have a self-declaration form for people to self-report. So those are still all in place.
Yeah, I remember it was fun to look at the wastewater thing cause at the very end of the school year everyone I knew besides me got Covid and it was kind of funny to look at that spike.
You could tie it to certain things too right? Like after Christmas, we saw a spike right because of course everyone was home and socializing and brought stuff back. I’m sure will seem a similar thing after reading week. We will probably see another spike.
Does the department track Covid Cases?
Well, we do, but we are doing it only by symptoms. So we don't really know 100% because of the restrictions on testing and who is eligible for testing most people we see aren't eligible for testing. So we're doing it by symptoms.
So would you say there has been an uptick or downtick since?
Well prior to Christmas we saw a lot of people coming in who were sick and significantly sick. Whether that was all Covid I’m not so sure that was the case. We saw indicators that there was flu and we also had indicators that there was RSV. But people were coming in quite sick and so it really became around messaging that if you are sick regardless of what you have you should be taking the appropriate precautions. So that is what became more of the message, but we do track that downstairs, we do have a sense of what's happening, you know we can tell fairly quickly that if there are lots of people in South with illness we can pick up on it here and we were like that even before the pandemic just by the questions we would ask when people would come in. There's something circulating in various areas and we would put some enhanced measures in place.
For me I came during the Covid year, this year it felt like “Where did all these people come from” and I was wondering if you had a similar thought. Because for me I hadn't seen the school before had so for me it was such a shock, was it a shock for you how many people were on campus?
Oh totally. To go from nobody on campus to a few people on campus to even last year in residence still didn't have the same vibe on campus, but this year walking through orientation week and the fall there were a lot of people on campus and it did in some ways feel nice in terms of we are seeing a return and people seemed so happy to see each other in a genuine way. So that was really nice and there was concern with regards to transmission and concern around individuals who might be immunocompromised and what that meant for them. So being attuned to people who might not feel as safe in this kind of environment because of what they bring and how you create environments that everybody feels safe in. So those were some challenging times.
Bouncing off of that does the school have living options where you could live with someone who might also be immunocompromised or caring towards that sort of thing?
So they do have a process in place in residence where you can make requests in that regard. I do think they made attempts to match people appropriately, and then we tried various places where masks were required. It was very challenging and maybe not as well executed as it could have been in terms of the attempt, but certainly lots of learning from that. So there were some measures put in place, was it as robust as we hope it could be? Probably not.
Going back you talked about how it went from nobody to some people, to how it's now full. I was wondering what the campus looked like with nobody here?
Well we are here 12 months in the year so in the summertime you notice a stark difference on campus any year. There is little activity, but there is still some activity in the summer. So it was kind of like that middle of the range where people started coming back, it kind of felt like the summer, not with the weather though, but that's the vibe. When nobody was here again I wasn't here myself but people on my team were definitely here and they did feel it was quite isolated and strange, like a ghost town, where nobody is around. So it was strange, but you adapt to that kind of thing. With buildings locked, it was just a very weird time.
It would have been interesting with just these giant buildings with absolutely nobody in them. I kind of forgot people are here in the summer.
Right? Unless you're taking a course in the summer. Courses are mostly distance ed in the summertime to. But we are here all summer long and it is definitely a different vibe on campus during that time.
What's a good question to wrap this up? Leaving the pandemic what will you carry forward with you for the rest of your life?
From this time? This bizarre time in our lives? I think just a different level of appreciation. Personally, having had that time to reflect and I hope I remember that time that I’ve been able to spend doing things differently in my life. I think from a work perspective just how important leading with empathy is in a leadership role and how important that is in an institution. Sometimes, you get caught up in the challenge and you don't necessarily think about the impact it has on people and always trying to come from that perspective is something that I hope to take forward. Because the pandemic hit people in different ways and so always trying to bring that perspective into conversations. So I think that would be something I would take away that. I’m not in a big hurry to do it again. We are still tired; it was extremely tiring over the two years. It would be in periods like probably like when you were going into first year with the vaccine mandates, it was a pretty crazy time, not one I would want to go back to. It was just the circumstances and there's nobody to blame or anything like that, but it really was very challenging, and that’s where I hope we can take some learning from to prepare a little bit differently in the future.
Yes I completely understand especially the appreciation aspect because for me that was me. My friends all we did for the year and a half was play video games all day every day. Now we always talk about how we took advantage of that time.
Didn't really appreciate it at the time?
Yes, we didn't appreciate it at the time and now some people we never get to talk to them much anymore because people have jobs now, people have school now. We had those two years which were probably the two strongest years of our friendship and now it seems like everyone has kind of gone adrift and when we do get together we always talk about those times and how good they were. Even at the time we didn't appreciate it because we were talking about how bored we were getting and how draining it was and now looking back at it.
It wasn’t that bad.
Yes, we would switch in a heartbeat to go back to that playing video games all day.
I know right? And I think that's a lesson for people in general about how you need to appreciate things in the moment. So regardless of what's happening you can appreciate what's good about your current circumstance I think that's good for your overall mental health and as you reflect you are able to appreciate it a little more.
Yes, the pandemic definitely did that for me as I just recently in January turned 20 and since then it's just slowed down where days are still going by fast but I reflect more than I did about days as a kid and not having responsibilities. That's one of the things that the pandemic has done like I'm not getting any younger.
And as you get older just an FYI times goes by faster, heads up.
Yes, it's something Il carry from the pandemic for the rest of my life.
Exactly and like you said the pandemic wasn't all bad you know it certainly presented opportunities and things you could take away from it.
End of Interview.