How Georgia Tech has handled academic support in a transformed setting

The pace has been hectic and the challenges many. The task of helping keep Georgia Tech’s athletes on top of their classwork looks entirely different than it did in March, when the coronavirus pandemic closed campus and shifted all classes to a virtual setting.

Tech president Angel Cabrera called it nothing less than “the single biggest transformation that American higher education has gone through at any point.”

And yet, those who have led the shift in the method of service for Tech’s academic support staff believe the conversion has gone even better than expected.

“I had some hesitation, but it’s been smooth,” Chris Breen, assistant athletic director for student services, told the AJC. “The kids are enjoying it.”

As Tech’s wades through the uncertainty that the shutdown of sports because of the spread of COVID-19 has created in college athletics, athletic director Todd Stansbury’s second highest priority (after the safety of Yellow Jackets athletes and staff) has been ensuring that Tech’s roughly 425 varsity athletes are making it through the semester and continuing progress toward their degrees.

“So that ultimately, they’ll be ready to go when we get the green light to go,” Stansbury told the Tech athletics association board in a video conference earlier this month.

The endeavor has been led by Breen and associate AD Phyllis LaBaw, who oversees the student-services office. They were charged with developing new processes, protocols and policies for their staff, tutors, athletes and coaches to adjust to the new academic environment. LaBaw said the staff began to plan March 9 and was ready to go by March 29, the day before the semester resumed.

By that point, almost 300 tutoring sessions had been rescheduled to be conducted via video call for the first week alone. Staff, tutors, coaches and athletes had been brought up-to-date on the video-conference technology that they would be utilizing. Virtual study halls were set up.

“I just think what’s great about Phyllis and Chris Breen and their team is they’re solution-oriented,” basketball coach Josh Pastner said. “They’re very positive. They don’t see the negative.”

Facing many challenges

The challenge was exacerbated by the fact that, of the 60 tutors that the department typically employs to help athletes with classwork, only 30 decided to continue amid the uncertainty. Further, the formats of all the classes had changed, some of them substantially.

For some, LaBaw said, it was “as if they’re taking a new course.”

Add in the fact that Jackets athletes are across the U.S. and in Europe, which presented another scheduling challenge for sessions with tutors and academic advisers.

“From what I know we’ve done in this short time period, I’d love to say it’s been totally seamless,” LaBaw said. “It’s just been a hell of a lot of work, to be honest with you. But I don’t think the student-athletes see anything but a lot of support. And they really needed that at this point.”

LaBaw, who has been at Tech since 2005, and Breen, who came to Tech in 2011, have led a dramatic improvement in Tech’s academic performance. In October, the athletic department’s NCAA-measured Graduation Success Rate was 88%. It was 81% five years ago and 71% a decade ago.

“I think Phyllis LaBaw and Chris Breen are the best in the United States of America,” Pastner said. “No one’s better.”

No shirt, no service

There have been factors that have eased the transition. When the pandemic hit, athletic department staff already had been using the Microsoft Teams platform, which includes video meetings and workplace chat, so diving in was less complicated than it might have been otherwise.

LaBaw credited understanding faculty members. Coaches, who also have a stake in the academic progress of their athletes, have had less to occupy them and have been highly engaged.

“Our coaches have been tremendous,” LaBaw said.

Breen said he is in frequent contact with football coach Geoff Collins to let him know which players he can praise and also “some guys maybe to give a kick in the butt to.”

LaBaw said that, Sundays through Thursdays, from 2-9 p.m., advisers and tutors have been busy in virtual meetings with Tech athletes, making sure they’re on top of their assignments or tackling subjects ranging across the sciences, math and business. Football study halls are conducted via Zoom.

The supervising adviser might check in one by one with attendees, asking them to summarize what they’ve just read or lay out the night’s assignments or to hold up to the camera the math problems they’ve completed. For freshmen who find themselves back home – some of whom just arrived on campus in January – the structure can be crucial.

Breen and LaBaw have perceived that the contact, even if through a phone or a laptop, has been appreciated by Tech athletes who are trying to adjust to being separated from the familiarity of campus and their teams. The staff has made an effort to “overcommunicate” with athletes and coaches to make sure that they had the information they needed.

“They do a great job of just communicating and always checking on us, reminding us of things to do,” Tech cornerback Tre Swilling said.

The shift has provided some benefits. Seeing even a glimpse of the athletes at home and their families has provided deeper understanding of who they are.

“They may introduce you to a grandmother or a mom or a sister or brother,” LaBaw said.

The evident comfort that athletes often feel in this setting has necessitated the stated expectation that they must wear shirts while meeting with tutors and advisers.

“I think a lot of it’s a credit to, first and foremost, the student-athletes just for their buying in, doing an excellent job,” Breen said.

The dependence upon virtual meetings has opened the eyes of the athletic department to their benefits even when campus re-opens. Tutoring sessions via video conference are a natural for athletes on road trips. It also can help solve the limited availability of tutoring rooms in the Edge Center.

“It’s really set us up for the future,” LaBaw said.

The assistance that it has provided this semester is about to be revealed. The semester ends Tuesday. Final exams begin Thursday and run through April 30.

Said Breen, “We feel positive about the finish of the semester.”