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COVID-19 Spotlight: An Interview with Dr. Tapati Dutta, MCHES®, Fort Lewis College

Tapati Dutta, PhD, MCHES®, is an Assistant Professor of Public Health at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. Fort Lewis College (FLC) is a Native American-serving Non-Tribal institution and lies within the Rocky Mountain Region. FLC’s students are from rural and reservation areas representing diverse population groups.
What is your area of expertise? 

My taught courses cover the intersecting areas of global health disparities, health systems and policies, community health, social epidemiology, community-based participatory research, program planning, monitoring, evaluation, and mixed-methods and implementation research in public health. I also mentor students for their internships/Senior Project. In retrospect, my professional experience of twenty years (1998-2018) while working with humanitarian organizations in India, Africa and rural US, addressing social, relational, and ethical determinants in health policies and programs have deeply influenced the use of participatory methods in my teaching, research, and practice, including my widely viewed TEDx talk, Life Lessons via Cannibals, Sex Workers & Marginalized People).

How have your responsibilities changed as a result of COVID-19?

In March 2020, after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 pandemic, our college transitioned to online teaching and learning. A week’s time after the spring break allowed smooth transitioning: planning and implementing remote teaching-learning by faculties and staff, students’ moving to their homes, and FLC senior management’s transparent discussion on the potential challenges to safeguard against, and the potential opportunities to leverage on. Remote teaching and learning arrangement enabled each student’s successful completion of the semester and graduation for some! That said, these shifts have been much nuanced than the traditional online education. Additionally, serving the educational needs of a diverse, rural student body also presented some challenges. Keeping four key strategic approaches in mind, I have been practicing the following:

  1. Building an uninhibited virtual environment – One of the first realizations that I had was, much like our students, we as faculties are experiencing unprecedented times, oscillating between being hopeful and low, and are engaging in ‘chores’ to de-stress or just maintain our homeostasis. With most of our students from rural, tribal, and reservation areas, issues of digital divide are gaping, and hit us the most when online teaching-learning became the only recourse during the remaining part of the Spring 2019 semester.  Little strides helped me. I shared my phone number with students, became more relaxed with timelines (read deadlines), extended the due dates for assignments, removed the concept of ‘late submission’, and conversed at length about feelings, reflections, and coping mechanisms. This made students and me more sensitive to each other’s contexts, helped in better bonding, and resonated with management’s advisory of no ‘F’ Grade during this semester. A student’s note to me could explain this, “Hope you are doing well and thank you so much for being accommodating to all of us. I can only imagine what it is like to be a professor right now. Hope you are staying safe and healthy!” In the same breath, students’ placement to online internship programs have enabled their hands-on experience on content development for COVID-19 prevention communication, and contact tracing, especially among the tribal and rural populations. Such experiences are not just making students and communities feel symbiotic with each other, but also building academic-community partnerships which are increasingly valuing ‘whole-community approaches’ compared to need-based patchwork interventions.
  2. Acknowledging the dynamic new normals – While operationalizing multiple ‘new normals’ is pertinent, I feel that acknowledging that there’d be no such thing as ‘returning to normal’ at least in the recent future, is equally important. During the first few weeks students’ response to Canvas assignments or email reverts served as proxy indicators to sense their well-being, and map their availability of digital devices, and access to the internet. Interactions with students highlighted that while some had to drive down several miles and access internet from the parking lot of a Walmart, others had a shared laptop for the whole family. Attributes of intercultural humility and sensitivity helped. Reassuring students that it is ‘Okay if you do not feel motivated at each point’, mostly practicing solitary and didactic methods when students watched videos or presentations and read documents online, conducting online creative workshops to destress, were some ways to acknowledge the ‘new and ever changing normals’.
  3. Invigorating social solidarity – Another way that my students and I felt connected was watching together certain webinars or documentaries led by the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) etc. This facilitated in having synchronous and critical discussions on the science and politics of COVID-19 as it has been unfurling in real times. Similarly, livestreaming with guest speakers from India, Belgium, Uganda, and Kenya, helped connect the students with global health scientists, researchers, educators, ethicists, and implementors. This, to some extent aided dissipating the mental health impact of social isolation among students, while they experienced and ushered empathy.
  4. Sharing narratives - Straying from the binary of ‘negative news’ and ‘positive examples’, in all our public health courses we discussed the whole spectrum of people to policies in the context of COVID-19. At one end we critiqued anecdotal data that exemplified that underlying health inequities persisted with COVID-19 along racial and socioeconomic lines, while we also shared narratives and interventions showcasing social solidarity for COVID-19 prevention and containment from different parts of the world. Be it watching parodies with COVID prevention messages from South Africa, cooking demo by the Navajos to combat COVID, or delivery of serum to Nome during an outbreak by the Siberian Husky, Balto, they helped students comprehend the pulse in the social determinants of health and realize their roles as public health advocates for themselves, as much as for the global community!
Do you think your role as a health education specialist be permanently altered due to this worldwide pandemic?

So far, COVID-19 has not only made us alter our lifestyles and pedagogy delivering mechanisms, but certainly made us believe in the dynamism of life and making the best of choices in the worst of scenarios. As a professor, I have witnessed tremendous concerted collaboration, transparency, and person-centric approach from the senior management and colleagues here. Rather than reinventing the wheel, sharing resources on Canvas, having several Zoom meetings and check-in calls, and online fora like Faculty Learning Circles helped us to think-share-learn and synergize.

Presentations by tribal leaders, many of whom are representatives of FLC’s senior management team, and interactions with students’ organizations have sensitized me of the unique issues of susceptibility to COVID-19 and increasing risk of COVID-19 related mortality among rural and indigenous populations. Such understanding will need me to be more creative with asynchronous (Canvas, Blackboard) and synchronous (Zoom) platforms, layered into face-to-face instructions. While I envisage that developing quality online learning programs with high-input operations will become an integral part of future strategic planning, they need to be contextualized and operationalized in a socio-culturally responsive way. I also think that they cannot substitute for the intimacy and immediacy of face-to-face learning, discussion, and guided practice.

While COVID-19 related national and state curves are showing marginal improvement in some of the ‘explicitly visible aspects’ (fatality, hospitalization etc.), I fear, that these might create an illusion of convergence and equality, or complacence to practicing physical distancing. Especially in  places like these, with students from indigenous populations - having minimal access personal protective equipment, and public sanitation; underfunding for community health and educational institutions, lack of transportation to regional hospitals, and social norms like collectivity, pervading multiple aspects of indigenous daily lives from extended family co-residence, communal labor and production, and food sharing - calls for additional attention to prevent and control virus transmission while planning for ‘safe return to the school’ scenarios.

How do you suggest that we move onward toward our 'new normal'?

Concurring to the state government’s advisories, executive orders and emergency proclamations, bodies of higher education have implemented social distancing measures, stay at home and safer at home orders, and mask-wearing requirements to mitigate COVID-19’s devastating impact. Moving on, with FLC’s primary goal to protect the health and wellbeing of students and staff and continue the institution’s vital missions of education, I would envisage more academia and public health partnerships, coordination with regional and tribal governments and public health authorities, training in use of personal protective equipment, and case reporting and mapping of suspected and confirmed cases. For these, concerted political will and sustained resources are required such that granularity of implementation is evidence-based, and community-owned. Simultaneously, the following structural and systemic transformations are also proposed:

  • Invigorate campus instructional design capabilities in devising state-of-the art online, hyflex, and hybrid pedagogic methodologies.
  • Partner with not profits, and student innovators while exploring online program management revenue-share models.
  • Augment telehealth and tele-counseling services and promote systemic documentation of the community-owned, culturally responsive social solidarity mechanisms. This will not only aide in building communities' preparedness and resilience, but also help building socially-responsive policies to mitigate impacts of COVID -19 or any other future pandemic.
Posted by Jessica Wessner at 11:43 AM
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