Maddie Josephs, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM, ASCLS President

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the word, virtual, likely had a different connotation to many. I thought of virtual in the context of virtual reality—something that does not physically exist but occurs because of some software program to provide the same experience. Since the middle of March 2020, the term virtual has become an integral part of our vocabulary, as meetings, classes, social events, etc., have had to become virtual and are carried out over a network instead of in person. Of course, medical laboratory professionals don’t have the luxury of working from home, and most healthcare professionals don’t either. The major exception being primary care physicians who hold telemedicine appointments with their patients for continuation of care, keeping the health and safety of their patients in mind.

Most likely, one of the saddest aspects of this virtual communication occurred in intensive care units all over the world, as patients close to death had to say a virtual “goodbye” to their loved ones over phones and iPads. I cannot think of anything more tragic than this, but I suppose it is better than not being able say a last, “I love you,” to a parent, spouse, or sibling. No one could have ever imagined that this would become such a tragic and common occurrence.

On a personal note, I have been able to continue to work as an educator, lecturing online and holding virtual labs for students in my MLT program. While not ideal, we have at least had the opportunity to continue instruction in as seamless a manner as possible. My ASCLS colleagues have happily shared resources with other educators, and these resources have proved to be invaluable. Many thanks to all those educators who were so generous.

Online classes or distance learning is not for every student, as learning styles can differ so vastly between students. And unfortunately, many students struggle with this type of learning. To mitigate attrition in our educational programs, it is important to consistently remind students that, if they are having difficulty with this type of instruction, they need to reach out to faculty for help to ensure a good educational experience. Giving guidance on how to be present remotely, as difficult as that can be, is fundamental to online learning.

Working from home is certainly not a new concept to some people. Many professionals have done so for years and have found a good work-life balance. However, so many challenges have arisen for professionals working from home for the first time. Among the most common are technical issues, which may even prevent some people from getting their work done. The good news is that even the most technically challenged person has become somewhat of an expert holding meetings, classes, and webinars over platforms like Zoom, WebEx, Collaborate, and many others.

These events are not without their humorous moments. Statements like, “You’re muted,” or, “If you turn your camera off, it might help with the connection,” or, “If you are not muted, please do so at this time,” are statements we hardly ever uttered before this pandemic began. Ending and leaving a meeting can sound funny to anyone who may be listening from the next room. A fun and new challenge is to find an interesting virtual background, as is knowing when to talk when no one else is so as not to interrupt. And sometimes, the silence can be deafening when waiting for answers to questions. For some reason, this silence isn’t as pronounced during in-person meetings.

Distractions are another challenge for the employee working virtually. Even if you are alone at home, it can be difficult ignoring the pile of laundry that needs to be done, the lawn that needs to be mowed, and countless other chores that you do not give a second thought if you are at work. When you are not alone, children needing attention and barking dogs are some common issues that we all deal with. My students have come to know when my mail is delivered, usually around the same time every day, as my dog’s barking informs them as such. Children popping in on the screen happens all the time. Again, this very frequently leads to some humorous moments, and I have had the opportunity to “meet” many of my student’s family members, whether intentional or not. I believe it is important to try and imagine the students’ learning environment, which I have no control over, and consider this when teaching.

One major downfall of working from home is the fusion of work and home life. Since I walk by my home office countless times a day, it is very easy to sit at my desk to answer just one more email. There have been many 12- to 14-hour workdays that just wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have the office set-up that I have now. Maintaining a good work-life balance to prevent burnout has never been more important than it is now. It is just so easy to fall into a bad pattern if you are not used to it.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of working and holding meetings virtually is the disconnect we feel because we are not face-to-face with our colleagues and friends. We can’t ignore that we all, including students, can have some difficulty remaining positive in the face of these turbulent times. Mental health issues and the lack of that routine human contact with people other than family members and roommates, has led to an increase in the incidence of depression. Helping our colleagues, friends, and family members find the balance between productivity and well-being was never more vital than it is now.

Fears and vulnerabilities are real and need to be validated and addressed. For most of my students, success in an academically rigorous program, which is virtual for the first time, is just one challenge they deal with now. Job insecurity, children also learning online, spouses now working from home, and caring for elderly parents all add up to the stressors they face. Maintaining open lines of communication and listening actively is essential to their success and well-being.

There are many social events that can help. A Zoom gathering, like a happy hour, while not the same as being with friends in a social or work environment, can be fun. You don’t have to talk about work or school but can just share a funny story or discuss how you might be feeling that day. I am confident that one day soon, when we will be able to be together in person at work or in a social gathering, it will be a celebration like no other.

Maddie Josephs is Chair of the Allied Health Department and Director of the MLT & Histotechnician Programs at the Community College of Rhode Island in Lincoln, Rhode Island.