First-year Occupational Therapy (OT) students sometimes face long classroom hours. Every Thursday, they’re in a five-hour synchronous class titled “OT Theory and Practice for Children and Youth.” 

Chelsea and TikiEspecially now, with all classes being taught online during the COVID-19 pandemic that has closed Salus for the rest of the spring 2020 semester, five hours can be a long time for students to sit on their couches staring at their computers while learning virtually.

Given the situation, Andrea Carr Tyszka, OTD ‘18, MSOT, MS, OTR/L, associate professor in the OT department, and Sharon Marcy, OT ‘16, MS, OTR/L, an OT instructor, are working just as hard to address the well-being of their students during this challenging time. 

Marcy came up with the idea of hosting a “Bring Your Pet to Class” day to help break up the monotony for students and encourage them to incorporate their fur babies into the learning experience. And Dr. Tyszka was onboard from the get-go.

“We had dogs, cats, birds and even guinea pigs and hedgehogs join us for class,” said Dr. Tyszka.

Bruce Quillis the hedgehogIt’s an unusual time of isolation for the students, and keeping with the message of maintaining one’s mental health during the crisis constantly emphasized by Salus president Michael Mittelman, OD ‘80, MPH, MBA, FAAO, FACHE, the two OT instructors came up with the pets idea.

“I wondered if there were any benefits to learning at home after the novelty of going to school in your pajamas and avoiding rush hour traffic wore off, and if so, how we could capitalize on those benefits to support not only our students’ mental health but their active engagement in our online classes,” said Marcy. “I figured everyone loves their pets and at least being at home and away from human friends means getting to spend more time with your furry ones.”

According to Marcy, the “OT Theory and Practice for Children and Youth” was the obvious choice for the class to add four-legged guests because of the length of the class. 

Cooper the dogThe instructors broke the pet introductions into two groups: Students with last names A-L introduced their pets in the morning and those with last names M-Z introduced their pets in the afternoon after lunch.

When it was time for the introductions, students unmuted their microphones and turned on their video cameras so all the students could virtually meet all of the pets.

Among the pets introduced were Zeke the Sheppard, owned by Kiersten Nice ‘21OT; Cooper the brown dog, owned by Healey Miller ‘21OT; Tiki the bird, owned by Chelsea Iaconianni ‘21OT; Maverick the white pup and Bruce Quillis, a pocket pet hedgehog, both owned by Alexander Paluzzi ‘21OT.

“It was a very cool experience,” said Iaconianni, who added that her bird Tiki is 15 years old. “It was a good way to keep things light with everything going on in the world these days.”

Maverick the dogMarcy said that not only did the students get to see each other’s pets, but more importantly, they got to see each other.

“The students are used to seeing me and Andrea, as we keep our video on throughout the class,” she said. “But they don’t get to see each other nearly as often. Introducing their pets seemed to encourage those who may be more reluctant to participate online to do so far more readily.”

The pet idea was introduced in a Clinical Conditions class on a Monday, and by Tuesday’s Applied Tenets class, the students were talking about how much they were looking forward to it on Thursday, according to Marcy.

She said there were several reasons the duo thought that “Bring Your Pet to Class” day worked so well. 

Zeke the dog“First and foremost, isolation can be really hard. We know from research how therapeutic animals can be, so focusing our attention on our four-legged (or winged) friends that bring us so much joy can help reframe our being at home,” said Marcy. “Secondly, OTs are social people. We get into our field to help our community and connect with and support our clients so they can live their best lives. Sharing our animals with each other created a fun excuse to turn the cameras on ourselves and share our homes and personal lives with each other to bond over this uncomfortable situation of social distance.”

Marcy said the OT department plans to continue the pet project.

“Interesting enough, many of the pets we met wear clothes,” she said. “So perhaps a theme pet day is in order. Who wouldn’t want to see a dog dressed in a funny hat, a sports jersey or perhaps even Salus gear?”