Technology helped CAPS serve students without missing a beat

June 26, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Penn State Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) was on track to see about 5,000 students this year.

In order to keep services available to students no matter what might happen with the spread of the coronavirus, staff began in late February to plan for possible scenarios. They developed models where CAPS staff would all continue to work on-campus, where they would be entirely remote, and a hybrid combination of the two.

After spring break, they began training staff to function in the hybrid model, which they believed was the likely scenario for continuing to provide services. As with much of the pandemic planning, though, things quickly changed when the University announced that everyone should work from home if possible. 

"We had mapped out what was needed for a complete work-from-home scenario, but we didn't know we would need to move to that so quickly," said Ben Locke, CAPS director. "We essentially were still building the boat while we were sailing it."

Helping to provide the tools for that massive project was the Student Affairs IT team, led by interim director Cheri Graham. The most pressing need was finding devices for the staff to work from home. 

"We had to figure out who would be able to support a desktop, who needed to remote back to their desktops on campus, and what specialized software they needed access to. We had to get some webcams and headsets — there was a lot to consider," Graham said.

With the help of Penn State IT, they located about 200 devices for use throughout Student Affairs. IT support specialists Dylan Ishler and Brandon Pash set up shop in separate conference rooms in the HUB-Robeson Center to disinfect, reimage and deploy the devices, including about one-quarter of them designated for CAPS staff. Ishler said they kept a master list of every department they got a loaner device from and where it was assigned so it could eventually be returned.

They also helped to support the needs of University Health Services, which is caring for students who remain in the State College area. Ishler and Pash were mobilized to provide technology in the ambulance bay, which was converted to a screening and testing checkpoint.

"We had to reconfigure 10 laptops and run cabling all over the bay so they would have technology in each of the spaces that were separated by tables and dividers to keep the staff and the patients safe," Ishler said.

Systems administrator Dan Raffetto said the IT team worked closely with the Office of Information Security and the firewall team as they handled setting up machines, software and access. 

“There were different things that different users needed. In University Health Services they needed access to the Point and Click electronic health records software. CAPS uses a different software, Titanium. Other staff needed access to file servers, so coordinating all of that was challenging,” he said. “Making it all come together in a timely fashion was a big accomplishment.”

Locke said once the practitioners had the equipment and technology in place to deliver patient care, they also had to comply with state requirements for the locations of the students at the time they would receive the telehealth services.

"The provider has to be licensed to practice both in the state where they are located and the state where the patient is located," he said. "For students living in Pennsylvania, it was easy. For the ones in other states, it got complicated very quickly."

Staff from CAPS at Penn State and the University of Texas at Austin built a national tracking system for licensure requirements in each state by provider type (psychologist, counselor, social worker, therapist and physician). By early June, the spreadsheet had been downloaded more than 15,000 times by clinics and providers across the country.

Locke said the University also fast-tracked the launch of a wellness portal managed by Student Affairs that curates resources to help students succeed and thrive. The program was originally scheduled to launch in the fall, but the unique circumstances of the spring semester necessitated getting it online more quickly.

"It bears repeating that the Student Affairs IT team and the CAPS operating team worked tirelessly and continue to work almost nonstop for us," he said.

Locke noted that the demand for crisis services might increase in the fall when students are no longer remote.

"People are talking about a surge of mental health needs this fall, because the consequences of COVID-19 will accumulate through the spring and summer,” Locke said. “As we move into the fall, and particularly if there is a second wave of infections, that is where we are a little more concerned."


Last Updated September 23, 2020