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Internships: Navigating Experiential Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Veronica Adams-Cooper
August 28, 2021

An article in the American Society for Public Administration’s fall 2020 PA Times was titled, “COVID-19: Public Service During a Pandemic.” It contained informative articles on various aspects of how government was responding in real-time to the myriad challenges of the COVID-19 crisis. As the field of education (K-12 and higher education) in the United States of America begins the second academic year during the pandemic, it continues to experience some of the most intense challenges related to this emergency, such as disparities in online access and addressing safety protocols. This article focuses on challenges experienced by internship and project coordinators who are navigating internship and professional project placement experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Albany State University (ASU) Master of Public Administration program is one among several of Georgia’s programs accredited by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA). These three areas were the most significant challenges addressed—policy development for safety protocols, assessing capacity for alternative formats and accountable supervision for alternative formats.

Policy Development for Safety Protocols

Adhering to government directives at varying levels, the university developed policy guidelines on campus safety and operations that included instruction. Beyond this level, academic units were charged with ensuring that they followed any accrediting body standards to minimize jeopardizing graduation requirements for students, especially candidates for graduation that spring. After reviewing the university’s emergency policies to ensure congruence, an examination followed regarding the statement on COVID-19 by the Commission on Peer Review and Accreditation (COPRA) to ensure implementation of the campus emergency guidelines in relationship to NASPAA accreditation standards. There were four standards specifically addressed in the statement, of which one was Standard 4.3 that encompasses the support services of internship placement and supervision.

This program’s internship component is based upon the 2003 Model Internship Guidelines adopted by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Advisory Board on Graduate Education and NASPAA Urban Management Education Committee, revised 2012 ICMA guidelines and most recent 2021 revisions. In creating the emergency guidelines for the internships (pre-service students) and professional projects (in-service students), existing internship guidelines were not suspended related to required hours, duration and supervision for the placement experience and academic learning activities involving reports, reflection essays and seminar sessions. Procedures and processes were developed to enable students to have three safe alternative formats: onsite with COVID-19 protocol, online/remote or hybrid. These three alternatives would increase the ability of the placement experiences to retain quality, relevancy and substantive exposure to experiences to augment the development of core public service values.

Assessing Capacity for Alternative Formats

The process of assessing capacity for implementing the three alternative formats first involved working with the university’s distance learning division. Guidance was sought on any changes or updates to GeorgiaVIEW Brightspace, the online learning management system (OLMS) by D2L. Recently, ASU was highlighted in The Chronicle of Higher Education article, “The Colleges that Prospered During the Pandemic.” Next, students and internship host agencies were contacted to determine their capacity for the three alternatives, especially the availability of technology assets (hardware, software, network security and internet access). Based on the results, internships were continued on a case-by-case basis with all three of the alternative forms being used. The seminar sessions were transitioned to the virtual meeting environment while assignments continued to be submitted through the OLMS.

Accountable Supervision for Alternative Formats

Accountable supervision was important for maintaining the integrity of the placement experiences. Students at agencies that indicated the inability to continue hosting and supervising the students were placed with different agencies that could offer hosting and supervision. Regardless of the alternative format, the submission of placement timesheets and evaluations (midterm and final) were transitioned from a paper-based system to an electronic system created for all three parties to navigate. The e-system combined third-party software (Google Sheets) for the students to enter hours using a unique identifier with the supervisors accessing their sheets and approving them by submitting the transmittal forms using a unique identifier (Google Forms). Data were able to be viewed and retrieved for completing grading in the OLMS. Completed evaluations were received via email from the placement agency supervisor with the student being copied.

For fall 2021, the majority of placements will be through onsite COVID-19 protocol. Implementing this emergency response to the pandemic has and will continue to assist students in successfully completing their experiential education degree requirement during the pandemic. This curriculum component is especially vital for students’ development of the NASPAA competencies. Moreover, it strengthens their capacity for responding to the Grand Challenges in Public Administration upon entry into or advancement in the field. Addressing policy development for safety protocols, assessing capacity for alternative formats and accountable supervision for alternative formats resulted in effectively navigating internships and projects during this emergency.

Author: Veronica Adams-Cooper is a professor in the Master of Public Administration program at Albany State University, Albany, GA. She serves as the coordinator of internships/projects and director of the Lois B. Hollis Center for Social Equity. [email protected].

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