Higher education’s priorities for fall

The spring semester has ended. A summer of, well, we’re not sure of what, awaits. There’s only one certainty over the next few months for those of us fortunate to be in higher education: All of us must contribute to ensuring our campus is ready for the fall term, no matter how, and when, instruction begins.

You’ll not find “our area’s public health situation” on the following suggested list of priorities for the 2020-21 academic year. Nor will you find “consistent coronavirus testing” or “tracing.” That’s intentional: public health, testing and tracing are givens; if they’re not in place, then almost all of the items you read below become null and void.

Put another way: If the campus isn’t safe, then staying away we must embrace.

The suggested list of priorities below is not hierarchical; that which appears at the top ought not be considered more important than that which appears below it. It also isn’t exhaustive, so I ask that you add your suggestions to the “reply” box below. 

Here we go:

1. Ensuring our faculty are prepared to teach remotely. The transition from on ground to remote teaching in the spring resembled fighting a house on fire: Every available resource was used to tamp down the conflagration. Now we have precious time to assess how we teach while sitting in front of a computer and what assignments and other projects are required for us to meet course objectives. Our institution’s teaching center should be at the ready with training and other programs to assist faculty all through the summer. Likewise, as faculty, we’re obligated to ensure we’re prepared to meet our obligations should we be required to teach synchronously/asynchronously, or through computer-mediated communication with individual students. Let’s be optimistic and say all of this planning won’t be needed. Let’s be realistic and say all of this planning almost certainly will be needed.

2. Understanding the technological capabilities and capacities of our students. This spring, we learned how many students on our campuses rely on the university library’s computers to complete their assignments; that number stunned many of us. Related to that, we also were surprised to learn how many of our students lack broadband Internet access at home (or are struggling because they must share those connections with multiple people who also are working/studying from home). Flexibility in meeting our students’ educational needs becomes more important now because we know some of them won’t be able to do much more than tread water if forced to again learn from home. On campus, they meet us where we are; off campus, we must meet them where they are.

3. Affirming the importance of all staff in identifying how to make the campus sustainable. The men and women who occupy the administrative assistants’ chairs; the men and women who clean the campus; the men and women who maintain the facilities and others like them all must be at the table as decisions about the fall semester are considered. Keep in mind that many of these individuals can’t do their jobs from home; so now is the time to identify how their work schedules will be adjusted and what technology might be made available to them to complete as many of their tasks as possible if they are forced to work remotely. In addition, let’s identify the skill sets these individuals possess so that, if necessary, they can temporarily be assigned to other roles within other departments across the campus and avoid a potential furlough or worse.

4. Stating clearly that layoffs must the last option, and it must be used only after all other cost-saving measures have been exhausted. Any talk of everyone on our campus being part of “the team” collapses if we look the other way while others are handed pink slips. The faculty must take the lead here; their voices must be unanimous and loud in stating that pay freezes, pay cuts, furloughs and other cost-saving options must be used before any talk of layoffs is heard. And all of those mechanisms must be applied to administrators, faculty and staff; if they’re not, then there’s no “team.”

5. Understanding how safe social distancing will look like in classrooms, dorms and all public spaces on our campus. We can agree to keep students 6 feet apart in our classrooms, but that health-mandated regulation will quickly be obliterated once students scamper from one classroom to another and to and from their dorms. I admit, this ebb and flow of people inside and outside buildings concerns me. I don’t have a good answer as to how the required distancing will be ensured; one certainty with coronavirus is that a person can be asymptomatic and transfer the virus to another person.

6. Identifying appropriate work-from-home (or learn-from-home) policies for our vulnerable populations. Any person with a documented medical liability ought to be allowed to work/learn from home for the duration of the fall term. And that policy might need to be considered for the spring term as well. We know how deadly coronavirus can be to vulnerable populations in society. Full stop.

7. Consistent open lines of communication from our president’s/chancellor’s office to the entire campus community. That individual must be a visible and positive presence on the campus, regularly sharing what he/she knows with everyone. He/she must communicate policy decisions/adjustments and pay particular attention to the mood of the campus. It might be wise to set aside open-door times when anyone from the campus community may drop in to discuss the situation on campus.

8. Affirming under what conditions our students who live on campus will be allowed to leave, and what will be required of them when they return. Scenario: Student A heads home, which is three states away, for the weekend for a family wedding. To whom does he/she report those travel plans in advance, and with whom does he/she meet when returning to campus? May the student go to the dorm before meeting with the designated campus liaison? This priority recognizes the necessity to keep the campus as free from outside contamination as possible. Multiple medical reports have indicated that traditional age college students aren’t likely to suffer from the worst effects of coronavirus, but they certainly can unknowingly infect others.

9. Minimal, if any, attendance at athletic and other university-sponsored events. Risking sarcasm here, if Major League Baseball might play its hoped for (and abbreviated) 2020 season with no fans in the stands, then our campus has to accept the same restriction. Yes, that stinks. But that’s the way it has to be. Any event that demands attendance (and as much as I love athletics, it does not) must adhere to social distancing guidelines.

10. Short-term MOUs between the university’s administration and faculty. These agreements must pertain to teaching loads, research expectations, how service can be achieved and more. These MOUs might exist for a semester or for the whole of the academic year; both parties must agree that changes in working conditions almost certainly will be part of the 2020-21 academic year, so put those expectations in writing now.

No matter how much we want the fall term to be “normal,” it really can’t be without a vaccine for coronavirus. And there won’t be a vaccine until 2021 at the earliest. As a result, our institution’s “plan” for the fall (unless that plan is to deliver all instruction remotely for the entirety of the term) is susceptible to the strength of the pandemic. We must not waste this precious gift of time and fail to ensure we’ve identified the priorities for the upcoming term and are already acting on them.

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