As the coronavirus continues to surge across the United States, higher education is cautiously making plans for students to return to campus for the fall semester. The hope is that this autumn will be an uneventful one. However, the pandemic has upended almost every aspect of campus life, from admissions to fundraising, so preparation must be thoughtful and comprehensive even for the most optimistic scenarios. Institutions need to properly plan how students will return to campus.
Schools are implementing on campus, entirely online, or hybrid learning options. For many institutions, their financial future is at stake. The losses from additional revenues such as event rentals, summer programs, and international students are all taking their toll; establishing thorough strategies for learning, living, and working is paramount to their viability.
Safeguarding the health and safety of students, teachers, and administrative staff is the foremost priority for higher educations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Special care is needed for vulnerable populations, and accommodations must be made for high-risk individuals. Even when in-person learning is in place, students should have the option to advance their academic programs remotely.
Housing and classrooms must be laid out so students and faculty can remain socially distant. To accomplish this, some institutions are reducing the number of students on campus. Regardless, institutions that are opening their doors need to measure classrooms and labs to determine the best social distancing plans; desks and lab stations ought to be diagramed and then marked to promote social distancing. Creating rigid schedules for lab research and in-classroom learning will help facilitate social distancing.
A strategy for disinfecting all high-touch surfaces should also be implemented. Rigorous hygiene protocols, including mandates for hand washing and face coverings, must be detailed and enforced. Institutions must have COVID-19 testing plans in place and create policies for students who test positive, including identifying specific housing for students in quarantine and methods to obtain food and medicine. Counseling and advising services should be organized for students in quarantine and for students who are feeling the stress of the pandemic's challenges.
Institutions should consider creating a command center staffed with administration from around campus who can continuously identify areas of risk and their implications. Staff from the command center should meet regularly, develop strategies to address concerns, and test hypotheses. Once policies are determined, short- and long-term action plans can be developed and communicated.
Effectively communicating with students, parents, staff, and faculty is pivotal during these extraordinary times. The command center needs to properly convey its plans to users across campus on an ongoing basis. These plans should be detailed and delivered across various channels, such as email, telephone, and social media, to decrease anxiety and increase transparency.
A crisis plan should include best practices as well as potential scenarios, as well as how to operate during challenging times. This visibility and information sharing can help reduce anxiety on campus and minimize risk for everyone.
Between online teaching and social distancing, faculty and staff are likely feeling the stress of the pandemic. Institutions need to put the appropriate resources and infrastructure in place to help staff teach, conduct research, and communicate and collaborate with students and colleagues. This may include implementing new communications channels, such as video conferencing for remote meetings, and training for how to leverage new tools and implement best practices.
Additionally, if daycare and K-12 schools continue to remain closed, institutions will need to consider additional tactics to provide staff with families the support they need to do their job and keep their family members safe.
Institutions need robust IT infrastructure to support agile, elastic workplaces and learning models. Online learning and remote work require additional security precautions and technologies, which means institutions need to review security protocols and ensure processes are in place to reduce risk. Meanwhile, students and staff will require mobile access to critical systems from their devices so they can manage their day-to-day tasks and interactions, whether they are on campus or remote.
With so much riding on an institution’s IT infrastructure due to the increased prevalence of online learning and remote access, disaster recovery plans from even a few years ago will likely need to be revisited. Decision-makers should outline all regulatory requirements so they can be easily accessed and followed in case of an emergency.
Any plans that are built around COVID-19 need to be carried into 2021, which means strategizing for 2021 enrollment campaigns must continue. It is imperative to examine and revise plans for pursuing students for the winter semester to address any potential changes in association with the pandemic.
No college or university can completely eliminate the risk of the virus. But with careful planning, institutions can prepare for students’ imminent arrival. With the proper strategies and tools in place, higher education institutions can embrace greater flexibility, agility, and responsiveness to the unknown, allowing them to react to unprecedented situations and better support the health and safety of their communities.
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