On April 27, MASSAGE Magazine interviewed, via Zoom, the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education’s vice president, Michele Renee, about the status of massage schools and students during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Click “play” above to view the interview, or read the transcript below.

Allison M. Payne: Hi and welcome to massagemag.com. I’m Allison Payne, MASSAGE’s associate editor. Joining us for a Zoom interview today is Michele Renee, vice president of the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education [AFMTE]. We’ve asked her to talk about some of the unique concerns facing massage therapy students, what is going on with massage schools, and what the massage industry may look like for new graduates in light of COVID-19. Michele, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Michele Renee: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

AP: Could you start maybe by telling us a little bit about the AFMTE and what your role in it [is], and more about yourself?

MR: Sure. As you said, I’m the vice president of the board for the Alliance for Massage Therapy [Education], and our mission is to support high-quality education for massage students. We work with massage therapy educators in massage schools. We also work with continuing education instructors, so the full gamut of massage therapy education in the United States. And I live in Minnesota.

I also work at Northwestern Health Sciences University. I was previously the massage therapy program director and taught many classes in the massage therapy program, and now I work as the director of integrative care. So at my institution, I am very much in the thick of it with the rest of massage therapy educators across the country, in terms of figuring out how do we offer a really high-quality education for our massage students and our students in all of our other programs as well? How do we make this hard pivot in the short term, and also how do we prepare ourselves to be there for the long term as well? So that’s the background that I come to this conversation from.

AP: Okay, great. Well, I guess the first thing to ask would be, with so many shelter-in-place orders and stay-at-home orders going on, are a lot of the massage schools pivoting to online education?

MR: Yeah, everybody has pivoted to online education. The school clinics have closed. So there’s really two parts of our education as massage therapists from a school standpoint. One is the didactic learning that takes place in the classroom, and that can be offered online quite easily. It’s just a matter of most of us had not prepared it that way, so it was a bit of a scramble to get it there in a timely fashion. But all schools have done that.

The school clinics are closed for now, so as things begin to reopen, we will figure out how to do that piece. But for right now, the hands-on element of education is closed. And online classes certainly present some unique challenges. So we have, inside of AFMTE, access to some really brilliant and excellent educators like Ruth Werner and Diana Thompson. So we have some bright people helping us figure out what is working, what’s not working, how to give us some guidance.

AP: What have you been hearing have been the biggest challenges for massage students going into all this?

MR: Yeah, good question. I would say first, from a personal standpoint, students like the rest of us, are finding themselves in stay-at-home orders in a variety of circumstances. Some of them have small children at home who are no longer in school, or children of all ages, and maybe they have online learning that they need to coordinate with their children. They might have limited devices, they may have time constraints that they didn’t have before because they have family members to take care of. So there are a number of personal challenges that our students are facing that are somewhat disorienting and distracting, I would say, from the educational process. And I think that our job, our challenge as educators is to help keep those students focused on the long term, on the finish line.

I think it’s very easy for all of us to get preoccupied with the challenges of this moment, and how uncertain the future seems, and when is this going to be over, and what is it going to look like when it’s over, and how are we ever going to get back to life as usual? Our job as educators is to help them keep their eye on graduation, on becoming a massage therapist because the future is certainly going to be there for them. I can say more about that a little bit later, but maybe there are some creative ways that we can do that.

So for example, we can have them do a competitive analysis of other massage therapists that are in their community and look at how some different massage therapists practice. And we could even have them ask some of those massage therapists some questions about what’s going to change for them, as they come back into practice.

They could take the AMTA career path quiz. AMTA has a great resource there to help people sort out where they might want to be in the massage profession. And another option is, not all massage therapists are really cut out to be entrepreneurs. So they might want to start building out sections of their website, so that they could see if that aspect of entrepreneurism is really for them. ABMP has a really great resource on their website, on their student life section where students can, for free, get on that webpage and begin building out what their site could look like. So that’s a great exercise for them to see if that’s something that they would like to do. And then along the lines of that project, they could do things like pick out a headshot that you might like to use. So that way they’re prepared. It helps to get them excited for what their future could look like. And maybe look at some websites that other massage therapists are using, identify some things they like about those websites and compare them with ones maybe outside of their area as well.

AP: Are there many students dropping out of their programs?

MR: I haven’t heard that yet. I think students are waiting to see what we’re going to do. And again, I think it’s just so important for us to reassure them that we are thinking deeply about this, that we’re being creative in our responses, that we’re willing to rethink the way we’re offering their education, so that it’s equally meaningful, that they’re learning what they need to learn, that they will be well-prepared to enter the world. And in fact, our world has changed a little bit. So these changes that we’re making in education may actually better prepare them for what’s coming. So I certainly think that students feel very concerned, and I think that we can reassure them by making the pivots and projecting out into the future that we will be responsive to what comes.

AP: Have you heard about any schools closing because of this?

MR: I have, unfortunately. I think people are making those decisions now, so I’m not sure that we’ve really seen the numbers as yet on that, but I’m certainly hearing that. And there are, I think, a lot of factors there. There are some financial implications for schools. Who could have foreseen the demand of this, with all of us needing to close our clinics, that is for some schools a part of their financial picture. There are going to need to be some changes in schools to be able to maintain proper sanitation. That’s going to be a bigger deal, I think, for some facilities than others. And again, that hard pivot, at least temporarily, to online learning. There’s some expense there to do that. And not all schools had a virtual learning platform. So some people have needed to adopt a new virtual learning platform.

And it’s not really a short-term problem. We don’t really know what this is going to look like, moving into the future, but we need to create some strategies that are going to take us into the coming months and have the flexibility to work with that. So I think that looks different for every school and the faculty that they have, how prepared they are for that, and how willing they are to move into that space. So we’ll have to see how that looks.

But what I will say on a positive note is our community has really come together to support one another, to share resources, to help us imagine what that future could look like. So I feel really proud of who we have been as massage therapists and as educators and supporting one another, and in this area of schools, making that very difficult decision to close, I think we will also be there for one another, to support each other and make sure that those students are taken care of.

AP: What do you believe the future of massage education will look like if the shutdowns continue or remain in place?

MR: Yeah, great question. I think that we have to presume there could be some degree of this, and maybe it’ll wax and wane a little bit, look different in different parts of the country. This is, I think, highly variable across the country, but we have some brilliant teachers, administrators and leaders to help us find our way through the crisis. And we feel strongly that some aspects of education will be even stronger after we make these pivots. I think we’re learning how to embrace technology in a way that we have never before in massage therapy education. I think that this is giving us the opportunity to build some hybrid programs … in states that will allow it. Not all states will allow it. I do think that that is changing opening, so maybe there will be more opportunity to do that in the future, but certainly schools would be more familiar with that possibility. And that offers the opportunity for more types of learners to enter the profession of massage therapy.

So I think there are some exciting aspects of that, in terms of embracing technology, enhancing the education in some ways, when we get out of the face-to-face environment. Yeah, it’s exciting. It could be a real win for massage therapy education.

AP: How are teachers handling these changes?

MR: It’s certainly a shift. I think that massage therapy is so relational, and we’re accustomed to being one-on-one with our clients. We’re accustomed to being in a classroom with a small group of students, so we get to know them very well. We are very dependent upon all of the nonverbal communication and facial expression, and that just really changes when we get into an online format. So I think it’s been challenging for a lot of educators to move into that space. I think that there are, though, some best practices.

And so I think it’s been very helpful in terms of sharing resources again with one another because some educators have been doing this for a long time. They’ve been able to help us see what the best practices are like, how to mitigate some of the challenges in terms of relationship building with students.

Another challenge, I would say, as far as educators go, is it’s not just a matter of moving what was a face-to-face classroom onto an online virtual space because sometimes, students can’t meet for the class at the time that it was scheduled because of again, their new obligations that they might have at home. So we have had to, as instructors, create a lot more flexibility in how we’re delivering information, what we’re expecting of our students, maybe creative opportunities for learning for them, to keep them engaged in some different ways. And most importantly, I would say it’s been a real challenge for us to rethink hands-on learning.

That has, I’d say, a little bit been a sacred cow in massage therapy education, where we have said, “Oh sure, we could put some didactic courses online possibly, but the hands-on has to be taught face-to-face.” Some schools, I think, at this moment are just pushing off hands-on learning until we can get back into a face-to-face environment. And others are really being creative, thinking of how can you teach some of the early basic foundational pieces of face-to-face, like draping for example, in an online setting? Maybe you don’t have to be face-to-face with that. I’ve heard other educators say things like, “Well, I’m not teaching my early hands-on classes that way, but my more advanced students, I’m willing to watch them over the camera, on their computer or phone, provide some massage on someone in their home.”

So there are some different thoughts about this and again, I think that we can come to some really creative and innovative strategies to do some of this online teaching. But that’s the key here is flexibility, willing to do some new things, do it differently. And I think that’s going to open up some important doors for us for the future. It’s been a challenge for many, but also such a joy to see the profession and the community come together.

AP: What do you think the demand for new graduates in the field will be, once … going forward with this in whatever capacity it goes on?

MR: I still think that there’s going to be a lot of opportunity. For one thing, I think people in our communities are really craving massage therapy. Massage therapy is not available anywhere right now, essentially, and I hear people in my community really lamenting that. They miss their massages. They’re very eager to have touch. I think we’re wildly more touch deprived now than we even were before. So people can’t wait to get back on the massage table.

Some massage clinics and spas have been closed, and so the massage therapist have been forced to find work elsewhere. Maybe they will come back to massage therapy, maybe they won’t. So some of those jobs may be open. Franchise massage has been having positions available for massage therapists before this crisis. They will certainly have some available after the crisis. And I think that massage therapists are going to be really well-booked after this crisis is over because people are excited to get back to their massage therapist.

Now certainly we have some aspects of sanitation to work out. We will have some PPE, we will have to be making sure the environments are safe. Maybe we have to make some changes about how people are waiting in the reception areas, things like that. So we need to be looking at our organizations in this country that help us sort out what those guidelines look like, and make sure that we’re practicing safely and doing our part from a public health standpoint. And that certainly will enter into the way we educate our students as well.

AP: Does AMFTE offer any other resources that massage therapists and students might be interested in? Just for more information about all this?

MR: We do. Thank you for asking. We have a great opportunity, in terms of a weekly Sunday conversation webinar. So every Sunday for the last several weeks, we have been offering discussions with panelists from various parts of massage therapy education. Some of them are instructors, some of them are from some of the major organizations, just coming together to share resources that are available, how we’re thinking about this problem as it evolves.

It’s just been such a gift to see, to have that open dialogue, some question and answer session[s], so everybody has opportunities to ask questions after those panelists that have had an opportunity to present what they have for the day. It’s a town hall style of meeting and you can go to our website, amfte.org, and find all of the previous webinars from the Sundays past for the last six weeks and listen to them for free. They’re available there for you. And then you can sign up for future Sunday webinars as well. And we, I think, plan to continue doing them as long as that’s a resource for our community. And to date, it’s been a really powerful one. Such a blessing to be able to see all of those opportunities, come together to have people be able to share what their hurdles and barriers are, and hear what’s working for other people as well.

So we invite everybody to join us for those Sunday conversations.

AP: Is there anything else you would like to add to tell our audience of massage therapy students and practitioners?

MR: Well, I guess I would just say hang in there. It’s a difficult time in that no one can see around the corner. So we all feel, I think a certain level of trepidation, but it’s also a really exciting time for us to imagine a new way. A new way of offering education, a new way of engaging with our students, and to figure out how we can offer the really important work of massage therapy, despite what’s happening in the world in a way that’s safe for our community, for our clients. So as challenging as these days are, it’s very exciting. And again, it’s just so heartwarming to see our community come together, support one another, freely offer all that we have to offer. So I just have a great deal of gratitude for my massage therapy profession right now. Really grateful to be a part of it.

AP: Okay, great. Well, thank you, Michele, for joining us.

MR: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.