COVID-19 Response for Community Based Learning

As we adjust to life in the time of COVID-19, there are many factors to consider when thinking about transitioning your Community Based Learning (CBL) Course to a remote environment.  While there are many examples of CBL in online courses, those were often constructed over a longer period of time and could still have students active face to face in their community.

In times like these, we are inspired by the willingness of so many to want to help, support and contribute. Here are a few ideas for ways to contribute: 

  • Donate food or volunteer at your local food bank or pantry 
  • Support small businesses 
  • Donate blood 
  • Donate supplies (or better yet $) to an organization that is doing critical work in the community. 
  • Check in on your neighbors and those that may be vulnerable in your community 
  • Take care of yourself and your loved ones 

COVID-19 is creating new needs and challenges, while putting tremendous pressure on all nonprofits. There are growing needs from individuals across the region and fewer volunteers to keep their organizations running. The nonprofits working directly to meet those needs require more resources to do so. Our friends over at Volunteer Fairfax are working diligently to share opportunities and donation requests from organizations across Northern Virginia. We hope you will take some time to visit these websites and encourage your students to do the same! 

Please visit for volunteer opportunities:

 Please visit for donation needs: 

Remember this quick switch in teaching and learning is likely uncharted territory for us all, including your students and community partners.  High quality community based learning isn't about logging a certain number of hours, it is about being responsive to community partner needs. Perhaps at this time, the ultimate way to be engaged in the community is in ways that are grass-roots and emerging as the situation unfolds.  

Note, the information here does not supplant directives from the institution or government regarding social distancing, isolation, and quarantine.  This is simply a collection of ideas that might help keep your course community connected learning goals moving during this disruption. Use your best judgement for how to proceed.  

As you are moving your teaching online, we are presuming that those of you with community engaged learning courses are needing to shift and reconsider how community engagement will continue in this virtual environment. While you, our community, and our campus continue to work through the evolving nature of the impacts of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we in Social Action and Integrative Learning (SAIL) want to provide some guidance for how to plan for community engaged work and teaching for the rest of this semester.

Step One: Reach out

Reach out to community partners to jointly determine how to move forward the rest of the semester. Our community partners are also facing a disruption in their day to day operations.  Here are some things to keep in mind when reaching out to them: 

  • Read their website and social media posts to see what they have already shared about impacts.  They may be closed entirely, operating with limited services, limiting outside contacts, etc.  Be mindful of the additional burden planning for students might cause as well as the additional support that might be beneficial. 

  • Have an open conversation and respect their limits in hosting your students at this time.  What is reasonable on their end? On yours? On the students? Are there other needs they have that are different than your usual involvement that might work for all involved? 

  • Make a plan: 

    • Reflect: Use this time with your students to learn about the impacts of the pandemic in community organizations.  (see below for more resources to guide that reflection)

    • Moving forward with students engaged in some way.  Again, think of all the parties involved.  As you develop a plan with the community partner, factor in the new realities for your students.  Keep reading below for ideas on ways to get creative with CBL during this time.

    • Deciding to suspend temporarily. Set a time with your partner where you will check back in.  While GMU is currently slated to be online through the first part of the term, that could be extended.  Your partner organization may also have shifting restrictions. Decide when you'll check back in and keep plans flexible for shifting impacts for both GMU and the community partner. 

    • Deciding to connect with a different partner.  Consider other community partners and efforts that might need support.  Follow the same steps to check in with them and make plans. 

    • Deciding to suspend direct CBL for the term.​​

  • How will social distancing measures and online teaching impact service delivery for the rest of the semester?

  • How will community agencies want to interact with volunteers and interns moving forward over the next two months?  

  • Is there a way for service delivery to continue virtually? 

  • What does the partner see as most critical to address during the interruption period? 

  • Keep in mind that even if Mason’s suspension is lifted, the partner agencies may have their own protocol regarding volunteers coming into their facilities. 

Reflection on COVID-19

  • From Loyola University: Leveraging the Learning Opportunity of a Global Health Situation
  • Analyze the COVID-19 outbreak and public responses to it (including changes in university policy) through a lens that is attentive to underlying structures of power and inequality
  • Offering students a conceptual framework (and a corresponding digital platform) that presents 'consciousness-raising' as a radical and transformational mode of social change (rather than 'helping' or 'serving' per se)
  • Discussion of the xenophobia that is emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Talk to your students

  • Be transparent with your students regarding new expectations around the course’s service requirement.

  • Let students know they will not be expected to complete service hours or requirements per the original course plan if those requirements can no longer be completed in light of current Mason policy.

  • Share as much as you can when you can regarding how requirements will change for the course in light of the virtual teaching environment, including how these changes can shift quickly given the uncertainty and fluidity of what’s happening.

Step Two: Be creative and plan

Below we offer some ideas and links to resources for teaching and learning activities that can be completed when in person community engagement is suspended.

Focus on integrating critical reflection

Take this time to focus on integrating critical reflection to generate discussion and learning. This packet was created for IUPUI’s recent workshop on strengthening the quality of critical reflection across HIPs and has some good tools and prompts for you to consider.

Use one of these previously created reflective discussion guides

The Center for Civic Reflection fosters the practice of reflective discussion through the use of readings, images, and videos to “help people consider the values and beliefs that underlie their commitment leading to . . . more committed, effective action.” You can use one of their already developed discussion plans, facilitator summaries, and additional resources to engage students in reflective dialogue on a range of topics with the current crisis as the source of experience. Here are some examples:

Fear and leadership

Is crisis a destructive force or an opportunity for renewal?

What are our responsibilities as citizens? Who or what are we responsible for?

How should we respond in a crisis?


Research social issues and examine impact of COVID-19 from a public health lens

Think about the particular social issues that your community engaged learning projects are addressing and have your students complete online research on those social issues; in particular, have them look at how those particular issues or populations are affected by a crisis such as coronavirus. Have students examine what is currently happening in response to the pandemic in regards to underlying structures of power, inequity, bias, and discrimination.


Discuss advocacy as a social impact tool

Discuss advocacy as a social impact tool, research current policies or bills being presented that affect the social issues you are discussing, consult the United Way’s Public Policy agenda for ideas (or have your students research other organizations’ public policy agendas), and create a plan of action.


Translate what students typically do in/with community partners into course goal-oriented statements

Review your learning outcomes for the community engaged learning project part of your course. Try to translate what students are doing in/with community partners into course goal-oriented statements (e.g., skill development, checking for understanding, collaborative project work, problem solving, relationship development, fact finding). Determine how you can still help your students meet those learning outcomes even if the community project/service they were supposed to do is suspended or altered.


Adapt a classroom social justice simulation

Adapt classroom social justice focused simulations for online environments. Here is an example:


Create a plan of action utilizing a community organizing toolkit

Have students read through this community organizing toolkit and write up a plan of action.


Use TED Talks or podcasts as texts

Find a couple of TED Talks (or podcast episodes) for students to watch and then respond to via guided reflection prompts. Some suggested talks are linked below: 

  1. Science in service to the public good

  2. Activism needs introverts

  3. The economic injustice of plastic

  4. How urban spaces can preserve history and build community


Things to keep in mind

Patience is key. Don’t try to force service in order to ensure completion of hours as part of your course. Like Mason, community agencies are working through how to best respond to the pandemic right now. As they work through this, they may identify ways in which partners, like faculty, staff and students, can help them. If you are already working with an agency and they identify something you and your students can do that protects the health and safety of everyone, and if this is something your class can reasonably do, then go for it. However, do not assume that you know what agencies need right now. Don’t create your own project without first consulting the agency. Also, understand that an agency may not have an answer for you right now, but may have something in a week or two as they work through their own contingency plans. 

Understand that we are all figuring this out right now. We need to give everyone room for accommodating a very unknown timetable. This may mean that a certain project gets suspended for the semester. This may mean that students do not complete a certain set of hours at an agency. This may mean that assignments get tweaked in terms of their expectations.


Supporting students and employees

As campuses consider closing or shifting classes online, low-income students will need extra support to ensure they can continue to be successful. These students may not have a place to go if dorms close, food to eat if cafeterias close, or the technology to participate in online classes. It is important to advocate for the resources these students will need. This can include:

  • Seeking philanthropic resources to provide temporary housing and food support to students 

  • Setting up a resource center to connect students to community housing, food, health care, mental health support, and other resources

  • Offering loaned laptops, wifi hot-spots, and other technology resources needed for online classes

  • Adding to existing emergency funds or creating one to support students who may be impacted by job losses, school closures, and other unexpected issues

Students may also face additional mental health concerns during this time. Here are some great resources on mental health and coping with the situation.

In addition to students, campuses also have many hourly employees who would be significantly impacted by a campus closure. Advocate for them to have access to sick leave, emergency funds, and community resources as well.

Bias and discrimination

Unfortunately, this public health emergency has brought out bias, discrimination, and hate in some, including racists attacks. It’s important toproactively remind ourselves and others around us not to project fears of the virus onto marginalized groups or spread unfounded associations. People of Chinese heritage or those who look East Asian are not genetically predisposed to carry or spread the disease. It’s important to pay attention to what is happening on your campus to be able to respond quickly to any attacks or statements that may impact whether all students are welcome on your campus (here’s a great poster from the Minnesota Department of Health). There are a number of resources on responding to incidents of hate on campus, including this one from the Chronicle of Higher Education. These incidents also offer an opportunity to engage students in dialogue about racism and xenophobia. Make this a “teachable moment” in your classroom with our local and national dialogue resources.

Consult resources

Resources and responses from other engaged campuses:

  1. Portland State University

  2. IUPUI Center for Service and Learning

  3. Iowa Campus Compact

Resources for teaching and supporting students during this ever-changing time:

  1. Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19

  2. Teaching in Times of Crisis

  3. Going Online in a Hurry (Chronicle of Higher Education)

  4. Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning

This information will be available on our website and we will continue to add to this  as new information becomes available.


Many thanks to all the organizations, universities and people who are sharing resources! Resources pooled from the Service-Learning Higher Education Listserv, Iowa Campus Compact and IUPUI Center for Service and Learning, Portland State University and so many more!