Vulnerable Populations during COVID-19

Project Context

Context: This project was completed between September 2020 –November 2020, with independent and group components executed by a team of 4 gradstudents.

Key Activities: Stakeholder analysis, persona development, experience mapping, ideation, business modelling, prototyping, implementation planning

My Primary Roles: Research, persona development and experience mapping, solution prototyping

Vulnerable Populations and COVID-19

This project was my major focus during my first semester of my Masters program. In the spirit of a very unusual school term, my team and I had all independently chosen to focus on educators in some capacity during our first, individual project. We were grouped together based on our similar interest in the topic. 

The Process

1. Problem Finding 

I have a number of good friends who are teachers and parents, and I had been hearing a lot about how difficult the schools shutting down had been on all sides. I decided to focus on the impact of COVID-19 on elementary school teachers in the Toronto District School Board. 

2. Problem Framing 

My team and I, brought together by our common topic from project 1, came together to examine possible opportunities for intervention and unmet needs to improve the teaching experience during COVID-19. We also established the scope and constraints for the solution space before we moved into the next phase of the project. 

3. Problem Solving 

Bringing everything together, in this stage of the project my team and I developed an innovative solution to the established problem and a business model for successful implementation.  

The Problem

Framing the Problem

In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic following the outbreak of COVID-19. With so little known about the virus, people were taking extremely precautionary measures to prevent spread. This sudden disruption caused the shutdown of businesses, schools, places of worship, public facilities, etc.  Students who were sent off on March Break did not return to school for the rest of the academic year, leaving families, educators, and administrators unsure of what the future would look like.

Initial Response

The Ontario government's released their back-to-school plan in late July, but there were 3 areas of top concern for parents and teachers alike.

1. Environment - Families were given the choice between sending their kids to school in-person, or stay at home to attend a "virtual classroom", but the inequities of this solution were starkly evident. 

2. Class Sizes - Teachers and parents alike were unclear how expectations to physically distance in the classroom were to be followed if no caps were put on class sizes. 

3. Mask Regulation - Students in Kindergarten to grade 3 were not required to wear masks, causing concerns for families and teachers about the greater risk of virus transmission. 

Impact for Teachers

Many teachers expressed that the plan to re-open schools was ignoring their key concerns, such as:

  • ability to physically distance without smaller class sizes
  • the possibility of virus transmission from unmasked students
  • isolation and tech connectivity issues for remote teachers
  • additional responsibilities preventing them from having adequate planning time 
  • last minute reassignment of classrooms and cohorts

Whether they would be in the classroom or online, teachers would be experiencing significant changes to their usual role. In-Person learning versus Virtual learning both have their challenges. 

The Importance of Keeping Classrooms Open

In addition to educating students, schools perform a secondary function of childcare, allowing parents and guardians to attend work full time. Beyond this though, schools also provide support for low-income and at risk youth, whether through nutrition programs, counselling, or a safe space. 

Stakeholder Needs Assessment

In our initial projects we had all conducted our own stakeholder needs matrix, but coming together we realized we needed to come to an agreement on who the stakeholders actually were, what their needs were, and how they ranked in comparison to one another. 

1. First, we ranked the needs of the stakeholder groups individually.

2. Next, we plotted the stakeholders by their decision making power on an influence and impact matrix to help us anticipate potential challenges in negotiating a solution.

3. Finally, we ranked the needs of each stakeholder group relative to one another to highlight cross-dependencies and potential conflicts.

I was so grateful to go through this exercise with my team as it was a real struggle trying to map it out on my own!

Persona Development and Experience Mapping

This part of the project took up most of my focus. As a natural storyteller and the daughter of a teacher, building out personas and envisioning the events and emotions of the day came naturally to me. I was fortunate to have teammates who could expand on my ideas and visualize them beautifully! I spent more of my time focused on Carolina (persona 1), so I'll give her more attention in the content below. 

Getting Personal 

We knew that in order to come up with an appropriate intervention for teachers we needed to better understand their wants, needs, and pain points. 

We created two personas that reflected the diversity of teacher demographics and the different challenges they were facing.  

  • New to the teaching profession vs. experienced teachers
  • Teaching in the classroom vs. transitioning to online instruction
  • Living with high-risk people vs. being high risk

Our first persona was Carolina Mendez, a 28-year old entry-level teacher staying in the classroom, and our second was Marilyn Wilson, an experienced 55-year old teacher transitioning to online instruction. 

Creating these personas helped our team empathize with Carolina and Marilyn's unique experiences, and helped us consider aspects of the issue we might have missed otherwise. 

Empathy Map

Once we had created profiles of our personas, we were able to move on to the creation of Empathy Maps to help identify the difficulties teachers were facing both online and in the classroom. 

I found this exercise so valuable for our team to move forward with a fuller understanding of what Carolina and Marilyn were dealing with, and how we might be able to help them both. 

Experience Mapping

Going into details about Carolina's work day helped us get super specific about what her pain points were. It's worth noting that none of us are teachers, and we weren't allowed to reach out to primary sources for information, so we had to make some general assumptions and cast our minds back to our own kindergarten experiences to build out this day-in-the-life. 

Carolina's day teaching kindergarten in-person during the pandemic has peaks and valleys of stressors throughout the day.

Opportunities for Intervention

Once we'd completed the exercises to understand Carolina and Marilyn's struggles, we were able to identify 4 potential areas where we might be able to offer some relief.

  • Technical Troubleshooting - Just because they're online doesn't mean teachers are IT experts.  Yet theyare constantly having to help students and their parentsresolve connectivity issues -- and deal with their own!
  • Student Engagement - The limitation or total absence of close, face-to-facecontact with students makes it difficult for teachers tomonitor individual engagement. 
  • Mental Health Support - Working in a pandemic is incredibly stressful and has significantly affected teachers mental health. They need help to better cope with work-related stressors
  • Lesson Planning - Whether distancing in-person or connecting online, teachers are need to adapt their lesson plans to be effective in physically-distanced and/or virtual environments, and they don't have enough time to do so. 

While it was a big area to wade into, ultimately we decided to turn our focus to Mental Health Support and reframed our design challenge to respond to the following question:


As we turned to the design ideation phase of this project, we set some clear boundaries about what we would consider a successful intervention. We agreed that the solution needed to preserve certain aspects of the education system and teacher roles, while also not adding additional burdens or making the situation less safe for students and teachers alike. To that end we developed a set of criteria that indicated what the solution must and must not do. 

The Solution Must

  • preserve the physical institutional benefits of public schooling (i.e., childcare)
  • be implemented before the end of this school year
  • preserve the integrity of the teaching profession (maintain core job responsibilities) 

The Solution Must Not

  • add to the list of net requirements & responsibilities expected from teachers 
  • compromise current levels of public education quality 
  • pose additional health & safety risks for teachers or students 
  • detract from funding received by schools or school boards 

Once we knew what direction we wanted to focus our intervention, it was time to get creative. To get into the mood, my teammate led us in a brainstorming session to generate stress-busting ideas for kindergarten teachers. We clustered our ideas and then voted on those we liked best. 

After we had narrowed down our options to a top two (investing in modular classrooms, and providing more in-class support for teachers), we split into two groups and did some top-level research to assess the viability of those ideas. 

The Proposed Solution

Student Teachers and Virtual Assistants

We determined that what teachers were lacking the most was support. By utilizing tools like Strategyzer's Value Proposition Canvas and Business Model Canvas, we were able to ensure that our proposed solutions would satisfy our solution criteria, meet the needs of the teachers, and create value. To that end, we came up with two complementary programs.

1. Student Teacher Placements

In Ontario, Student Teachers are required to complete teaching placements in the classroom in order to fulfill their program criteria; candidates must finish four 20-day placements, adding up to 80 days total. My teammates dug into the status of what effect COVID had had on these placements and found that a staggering 40% of student-teacher placements had been cancelled. This kind of delay would have an immediate impact on Student Teachers being unable to complete their programs, and could potentially create a bottleneck for future placements. 

Our proposal was to reconfigure the placement structure and have Student Teachers fulfill their entire 80-day placement in one classroom. This would limit their interactions and effectively integrate them into the classroom "bubble". We also reasoned that a longer placement would be more helpful for teachers as they wouldn't have to bid farewell to their Student Teacher just as they'd started getting to know the students and learning about the ins and outs of the classroom operations. 

2. Virtual Assistant Interns

Inspired by the difficulties plaguing Marilyn, our more experienced but less tech-savvy remote teacher, my teammate had the idea to create a virtual intern program for undergraduate students. Similarly to the difficulties faced by Student Teachers, we found data that 35% of Canadian post-secondary students had lost an internship opportunity as a result of COVID. This meant that there was a pool of students who would be eager to gain work experience -- especially those hoping to go on to teachers college themselves, as schools often look highly on applicants showing experience working with children or in school-settings. 

The proposed solution would see undergraduate students taking on the role of a Virtual Assistant to remote teachers. This could entail formatting presentations, finding appropriate online resources for classroom teachers, writing up updates for parents, and even simply monitoring the virtual classroom to help mute or unmute people as needed. We decided that this solution would be best fulfilled through universities that already have an affiliated teachers' college as they would already have the connections in place to coordinate the placements. 

Our Value Proposition Canvas outlines our personas pains, gains, and tasks, and how they fit the solution. 

Our Business Model Canvas is a snapshot of how the business model for our solution would work.


We thought the most effective way to prototype our solution would be to tell a story of a day-in-the-life of both Carolina and Marilyn, before and after our solution was implemented. For each persona, we hand wrote a diary-style entry (and yes, that's my penmanship below), while our wonderful teammate drew the visuals you see below as a storyboard to complement the written entry. 

Our prototype included hand-drawn storyboards and handwritten diary entries from Carolina and Marilyn. These extra touches helped to bring the situation to life. 

Our future state prototypes allowed us a glimpse of hope for our teachers, imagining a better future and the positive impact that our intervention would have on their lives.

Implementation Plan

Once we had flushed out what our solution was and how it would look, we had to get into the nitty gritty about how we were going to implement this plan. We knew that in order to maximize effectiveness, we would need to act quickly to get these changes rolled out and taken advantage of in the classroom. Using a timeline to clearly outline what should be happening when, as well as a RACI chart to outline the necessary steps and who would be responsible for fulfilling them all, we were able to present a thought-out and detailed plan of action. 

It bears calling out: While I was involved in team discussions for this portion of the project, I definitely did not lead the charge on this section! 

Team Acknowledgements & Thank You

Thank you, thank you, thank you to my amazing teammates! This was the first project of our Masters program and I couldn't have asked for a better group. I'm so proud of all the work we did and I'm so grateful for all of you. 10/10 would work with again. 

Shaun Alfonso

Shaun volunteered to draw our storyboards and when he revealed the final product to us our jaws dropped! He also split the persona work with me and took the lead on desk research around market forces and possible barriers to innovation. He also took on the thankless task of getting our presentation deck cleaned up and ready to hand in! 

Joseph Baroud

Joseph took on the project manager role early on and gave the rest of us the gift of the most organized project we'd ever worked on! Joseph always had another model to suggest for us to showcase our information (check out that RACI chart!) and he took the lead on the intimidating financial breakdown! Joseph kept us on track and was a wonderful team lead. 

Nicole Brkic

Nicole's mind works in the most beautiful and creative way, which resulted in so many of the stunning and effective visualizations of our data. Nicole also displayed such empathy for the teachers and the students that we were planning for. She was always great about keeping us focused on the bigger picture and a dedicated teammate. 

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