One year later: Faculty of Health dean reflects on pandemic pivots and the new status quo

- April 15, 2021

Brenda Merritt, dean in the Faculty of Health. (Nick Pearce photo)
Brenda Merritt, dean in the Faculty of Health. (Nick Pearce photo)

When COVID-19 forced Dalhousie to close its campus in March 2020, it created unprecedented challenges and disruptions to people’s lives, educational experiences and careers.

Since then, the Dal community has found new and notable ways to teach, forge connections and be of service. As we complete a full year within these circumstances, we’re checking in with a few of Dal’s academic leaders to learn how their communities overcame obstacles and found opportunity, and to commemorate the effort that’s gone in to getting it done.

Like other deans at Dalhousie, the Faculty of Health's Brenda Merritt tapped into the ingenuity of her community last year when faced with the pandemic. Dozens of programs were impacted across her Faculty's eight schools, one college, and stand-alone program housed at the IWK Health Centre.

We caught up with Dr. Merritt to discuss some of the the ups and downs of the past year and what the future could look like in her Faculty:

How did the upheaval brought on by COVID-19 impact research in the Faculty of Health?

Our researchers showed extraordinary resilience in learning how to continue their research in a different way. Many were able to pick up with online strategies for interviewing and for connecting with their research groups. I’d also say they pivoted to what was needed around the COVID research. To date, we have 28 funded grants related to COVID. Those researchers working on projects where data was being collected on human participants faced big challenges, and, again, many were able to  pivot and tweak their studies.

One area that has been heavily impacted in our research labs with our graduate students and even our early career researchers is mentoring. Day-to-day spontaneous mentoring is much more challenging in a remote environment. I take Shaun Boe, our Associate Dean of Research, as an example. Prior to COVID, he might have three or four students in the lab, in and out all day, and there’s constant mentoring happening. That has been harder.

We now have some researchers who are back on campus through the return to research plan, and that is going well. But many are still not back.

How has your Faculty contributed to efforts to combat COVID-19?

Our faculty has contributed in a somewhat unique way. Most of it is not bench science. Much of our focus has not been creating new vaccinations and exploring biomedical disease parameters, but more at the socio-cultural impacts of COVID and how it has impacted health. Researchers are looking at strategies around how are we are supporting and what’s our response to challenges facing African Nova Scotian and Indigenous communities. Looking at dementia and caregivers, and what’s the impact both for the caregiver and the person with dementia. How diets have changed. Leah Parsons in Health Administration is looking at how can we give the public the best information possible so that they can make informed decisions. We’ve also seen more research on gender-based violence and intimate-partner violence during COVID. And some research has looked at new mothers and the impact of having a child in neo-natal intensive care during COVID. Others are looking at how COVID has impacted Canada’s national athletes.

So, it’s there has been a focus on the socio-cultural side of things that impact empowerment and decision making. I’m very proud of the work that’s coming out of our Faculty. The impacts of COVID run pretty deep in our culture.

See also: How COVID‑19 has magnified racism in Canada's health care system

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What innovations have you seen emerge out of your Faculty as a result of the pandemic?

Faculty members Derek Rutherford in physiotherapy and Diane MacKenzie in occupational therapy designed a COVID screening app for our students that links to Brightspace. We can check students in with their phone with a big green check mark. That’s enabled us to get students in the classroom way more quickly. It’s a daily reminder for students to do their self-assessment. It has helped when we’ve needed it for contact tracing. Now, other Faculties are beginning to use this app, too, for their in-person engagements.

I would also say in general that at the beginning of the pandemic, very few of us really knew how to video conference. We’ve learned this very, very well and we’ve learned some technologies around virtual simulation for learning when we couldn’t be in a lab situation or in close encounters during simulation-based learning, say in Nursing, and I think that technology will continue to be used.

See also: New COVID‑19 screening app for Health students born from necessity and collaboration

What do you see as some of the lasting impacts of the pandemic on education in the health professions at Dal?

Some technologies around virtual simulations will remain. In some areas, we have moved into different strategies for our practice education or clinical placements where we have students that are providing virtual care. That hasn’t happened before. I see this as a way that we may be able to reach more individuals in rural and remote regions. And, in general, I would say this is across our entire Faculty, clinical education placements are becoming harder and harder to find. So, if we can develop new strategies for that, we can begin to build greater capacity in that area.

What has been the most inspiring aspect of leading the Faculty over the past year?

Definitely our people: our faculty, staff and students. They have risen to the occasion to work together to solve problems and it’s been absolutely inspiring. But I also note it has come at a cost. People are tired. And some priorities in the normal world have had to be put aside a little bit.

One thing that I have found just amazing is that our leadership is far more distributed, and we are working as a really solid network. That is including leadership coming forward from our staff members and if I didn’t have this network of emerging leaders and more formal leaders, I don’t think we would be as successful. If I was trying to micromanage everything, it would not work. That distributed and collaborative leaedership has been instrumental to our success.

See also: Forty projects receive funding from Nova Scotia COVID‑19 Health Research Coalition

What have you missed most about in-person operations and what are you most looking forward to getting back to post-COVID?

What I miss most is those brief conversations that happen in the morning or right before or after a meeting where you get to connect with people about their kids or their pets or vacations. I try to make time for that in almost all of my meetings, but it’s not quite the same. People show up on Teams and they are ready to get going in the meeting, versus having that five minutes or so for informal discussion. And then it’s those impromptu meetings where you send someone a text and go get a cup of coffee. You get to see the students out on the quad. The vibe of campus. I miss that a lot.

This is probably unique to our office, but on Friday afternoons, we often will have a bit of fun time together. We gather around and socialize a bit. This might be juvenile, but we have finger puppets and we do shows in the office every now and again. It relieves some tension. It’s become a bit of a thing. We’ve tried to do it online but it’s not the same.

Any parting thoughts?

I don’t think we can go back to the status quo. I think we have a new status quo. The way we use space and our work hours at home versus on campus should remain or merge into something much more flexible and dynamic. As compared to everyone being at the university during the same hours. There are some big benefits to being home. People are with their pets or kids and can take a walk or exercise. That flexibility has been good. I’d like to see Dal take on that flexibility, especially with our staff who tend to have very rigid schedules and expectations. We’ve proven we can work from home. I don’t see us going back to Monday to Friday, on campus, every day.

Our faculty have been absolute leaders in developing health and safety plans for students and on-site activities. The collaboration we’ve had across programs, down to the minute from when Nursing students arrive and when physiotherapy students arrive has been incredible. I open the door to any the other deans or programs that need some advice on how to do this type of restricted programming on campus because our group . . . we have a face-to-face planning group that has met every week since the pandemic started. They are still meeting to solve problems. I’m fortunate that I have really great people around me.


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