How will we be best with what’s next?
So on March 11, 2020 after watching COVID rates rising across the country, while in Sacramento and checking into a hotel room for a conference I was supposed to be attending the next day, I got a call from my Vice-President. The message was return home, all travel was cancelled and the next day we were shutting down the college. The decision had been made to move all classes that could be moved, to online education. This has turned out to be perhaps the most significant day in my over 25 year college career.
For my area of responsibility this meant that about 75% of the classes in my division were canceled for four days, and that for three of my programs classes were suspended indefinitely due to the hands on nature of the courses and/or the fact that their licensing, accreditation or certification agencies didn’t at the time have a provision for students getting credit for lab hours in an online environment.
Over time, those agencies made changes in their policies and classes have been brought back on campus. We have offered students opportunities to complete those classes with only one class left that will start next week. It hasn’t been perfect and we’re working on ways to serve those students who still want to complete, but were unable to make the make-up times that we offered. Nothing is easy in COVID times, but by staying focused on supporting students we’re making things work as best we can.
I bring up this example tonight for a very specific reason, those agencies that initially had no rules about online educational options have since developed them. This was a necessity in these times, because without those changes and flexibility students were not going to be able to meet their educational goals in our current pandemic limited educational environment. This is next level thinking, it’s acting in response to the question, with what’s happened, what’s next? We’ve also seen this type of thinking in how some faculty have addressed their hands on related classes.
We operated in the Spring 2020 semester under provisional and emergency conditions. We did what we could with the expertise that existed. For Summer 2020 we did better, for Fall 2020 we have done much better. My current college, Skyline College, provided paid online training for over 90% of our faculty. Our online support structure under the leadership of Dean Rolin Moe has done a super human job of preparing our faculty. Our faculty have done a better job with their classes, our college and district structures have functioned better after having time to develop and implement policies from access, to safety procedures, infection protocols to assessing facilities for the potential return of classes to campus.
So institutions are doing what they have to in order to adapt to the new normal under pandemic conditions. That’s what we do in education, we adapt. But there is something that I have also noticed over time in this business. Whenever we have extraordinary situations we do a good job of adapting in the moment. However, as soon as the event passes, we have a tendency to fall right back to doing whatever we had been previously been doing.
This time however, the event is both severe and of a significant length of duration. Whether we want them or not, there will be changes this time that will persist past the pandemic. We will be forced to adapt in new ways. There are a lot of questions that have arisen already. We have instructors who are enjoying having a 100% online schedule. We have faculty and staff with off-campus assignments living out of state. Prior to the pandemic there have been times when I’ve requested to work remotely for short periods of time, those requests were declined because we had no mechanism for remote working, we do now. Some students, faculty and staff have truly enjoyed no longer having long commutes to campus, are they going to want to return to hours of driving, traffic and the stress it includes? Some will of course want to come back in person, so how will we deal with the split desires of our faculty, staff and students? How will our administrative responses to those desires impact enrollments and faculty/staff employment satisfaction?
Let me give you an example of how I’ve already implemented some of this reality in my division as a dean. We have talked for at least the last 20 years about the paperless office, ever since we got past the fax roll paper and were able to print faxes on 8.5 x 11 paper. That was of course too early, but with the expanded usage email and PDFs it became more and more possible. And honestly, has been completely feasible for years. But as they say, old habits die hard. With the closing of campus for the pandemic, and our nearly complete remote working environment across campus, the move to electronic documents has become a necessity. Not wanting us to slide backward, for reasons of efficiency and the positive environmental impacts, I recently declared that my division office is now a paperless office. We no longer accept paper documents of any kind, we don’t accept pictures of documents that need additional signatures. We only take signable PDFs, this of course meant that all of the documents we send out, have to be the same. This has meant an initial additional workload on our office, but will bring us longer term efficiency and less work. We have also made it very clear this is not just a pandemic measure, but a permanent change to the way our division will operate. A truly paperless office from now on.
This week, in our upcoming division meeting, we are going to broaden this thinking. The question that we will be addressing in our division, that needs to be addressed across our college, district and every college in America is; How will we be best at what’s next? That of course first means identifying how things have changed, what those impacts are and how we can best respond?
This is a question your department, division, etc… have to be discussing. In higher education particularly, we schedule months prior to actually offering our classes. So to be prepared for what is next, for this Fall 2021 semester, we’ll need to have made those decision by March. That’s right, we’re already too late for Spring 2021, registration for our Spring 2021 semester will start this week. But for Fall 2021 we have four months to identify what will be different and how we will respond. Because that has to be decided before students begin to register for Fall 2021 classes in April. We’ll have an additional 3-4 months to implement the decisions we make, but those decisions have to be made in the next 4 months. Of course, one full month of that period of time will be the holidays, when faculty will be off contract and many of us have time off. So we basically have 12 weeks to identify and plan for how we will be best at what’s next for Fall 2021.
Of course, we all so have some significant unknowns to deal with. First, we have no idea where we will be in August in terms of COVID infection rates. If rates are high, we may continue to be fully online. However, if rates have fallen, then we may be at some level campus return, but how much? And when will governing boards make those decisions, especially if they are publicly elected boards? Those boards are going to want to delay those decisions until they can have as much certainty as possible. However that will be pressured by having to make those decisions in a time frame that allow faculty and staff to prepare. My guess is, that even though students will be registering in April and May, that those decisions will likely come in June. So any planning will have to be feasible under several possible operating environments. Nothing is easy in the pandemic.
Of course that’s just the first step, this has to be an ongoing question across every aspect of our colleges and universities. For many schools, given budget impacts from declining enrollments related to the pandemic and the associated funding decline, we’ll need to answer these questions with less resources. This could be a very depressing time in education as this may seem like an insurmountable challenge. That’s not how I see it. This is one of those rare times in a person’s career when there will absolutely be a paradigm shift. Not a perceived or possible or theoretical shift, but we absolutely know a shift is happening and it’s happening now. This is a time where you can shine, when you can have a significant impact on how education will operate in the near, and possibly the long time future. This is the time for bold and intelligent action, absolutely a time for each of us to shine and demonstrate our leadership abilities.