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First-time SFU instructor recounts impact of COVID-19 on teaching and family

May 05, 2020

SFU PhD alumnus Alison Yueh Li is a first-time sessional instructor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry (MBB). She shares her story about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on her teaching and her family, and about how SFU instructors and students have come together to help the transition.

Back in December 2019, I was ecstatic to receive an offer to teach a third-year protein biochemistry course for the SFU Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry during the spring semester. Throughout Christmas break I spent hours preparing my courses while juggling family duties. It was during this time that the world started to see COVID-19 unfolding in Wuhan, China.

My husband is a frontline healthcare worker, and he also runs his own family clinic in the community. He was concerned back in January about how the infection could spread widely in Canada, so he told me that I should prepare to teach online. While I started looking for online teaching tools, deep down I remained cautiously optimistic, hoping it would never happen.

As a first-time instructor, I enjoyed sharing my recent SFU graduate school experiences with my students. The classes were going well, with many engaged and talented students. I still vividly remember the last in-person class with my students, where I said that I hoped the spread of the virus would not get so serious that classes would be cancelled. The next day, on March 13, we received an email from the university saying all in-person classes were now cancelled.

At the same time, stressors from my husband’s work really started to impact our family life. When the pandemic started to unfold in mid-March I was anxious, worrying that he might be exposed, and the potential risk he might bring home to me and to our young daughters, a seven-year-old and a ten-month-old.

As well, I was frantically learning online teaching tools and how to administer online tests for my students. My parents, who provide important support to me and my family, were stuck in Taiwan because their flight was cancelled due to the pandemic. Now I had to balance the sudden shift of course-delivery method for my classes with breastfeeding my baby daughter while entertaining my seven-year-old, and adjusting our daily routines to follow the physical distancing and self-isolation measures.          

However, the most difficult time also brings out the best in people. Amid this unprecedented crisis, professor Nancy Hawkins, chair of the MBB department, along with many other faculty members and instructors, began to create a platform that allows us to brainstorm together. I am grateful for other instructors’ generous help and their quick responses to my questions. As well, SFU’s Centre for Educational Excellence (CEE) offered useful workshops and resources to support remote teaching.

From the very beginning of the transition, I’ve received many warm and encouraging messages from my students, who have been incredibly understanding and supportive during these unprecedented times. Some offered help for my family if needed, some expressed their gratitude for the effort I have put into restructuring the course. Some shared stories about the concerns they are facing with their own loved ones who are also frontline healthcare workers. I was deeply moved when I read those comments, and it was these messages from my students that really kept me going to finish the course. It is important for our community to continue to support and express care for each other, despite how bad the global situation is.

Now that the course is over, my family and I do our best to join the 7 p.m. cheering for healthcare workers with our neighbours in the SFU UniverCity community. It has been heart-warming to receive the hand-made thank you cards and baked goods our neighbours have dropped at our front door. Although the fight against this vicious virus is far from over, and my daughters and I have to live separately from my husband during the weeks when he has hospital shifts, I am grateful for all the support from my fellow SFU faculty members and my community on Burnaby Mountain. I’m deeply humbled by this challenging, yet incredibly rewarding teaching experience that I’ll be proud to share with my kids in the future.

SFU alumnus Alison Yueh Li earned her PhD in April 2019 after studying with professor Glen Tibbits’ group in the Department of Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology. Her thesis focused on the functional and structural impacts on genetic mutations associated with cardiac hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in the young.