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Educators and administrators on university and college campuses are weighing a wide range of questions as they strive to understand and prepare for a possible coronavirus pandemic. This essay asks: Is your university/college ready to deal with the associated disruptions in terms of maintaining instructional continuity for the students?

The potential consequences of the worldwide coronavirus outbreak for our institution (Saint Joseph’s University, in Philadelphia) became real when students in one of our international programs in Italy told us that their host university had suspended instruction to prevent the spread of the virus. We recommended that these students consider returning home, but pondered how to help these students complete their spring semester coursework in light of the SJU requirement that they wait 14 days before returning to campus.

Among our questions: Could students realistically be expected to take more than two eight-week online courses to complete the semester? Do we have sufficient appropriate courses developed? Would faculty members be willing to develop independent studies for these students over the coming spring break? Would these independent studies be stand-alone courses or would they try to complete coursework left undone but started overseas? Could elective credit be given for the almost half semester of coursework already completed abroad? There are no easy solutions for maintaining instructional continuity for these students, but planning helps.

Our planning began by building on various pathways for maintaining instructional continuity for students in cases of short-term disruptions such as weather-related school closings, power loss, instructor illness and temporary building closures.

But now, instructors are encouraged to be prepared for three levels of disruptions. A lower-level disruption would affect only specific students and instructors. The institution would continue with normal operations. Moderate-level disruptions may occur if the university would have to close the campus for up to a week and/or during final exam week. A high-level disruption would occur if the campus would be closed for more than one week and/or over final exam week.

When only a few students/instructors are impacted by low-level disruptions such as faculty illness, classmate death, etc., most adjustments could be made using existing processes. For example, course assignments could be revised and due dates could be extended. An extra class session could be scheduled. Individual course completion requirements could be determined, and exams could be proctored by substitute instructors.

However, to be prepared for the entire institution to close for a week or more and/or a final exam week disruption (as could be the case if upon returning from spring break students, instructors and/or administrators fear the spread of the coronavirus), quick preparations must be made by both the institution and the faculty.

At the institutional level, appropriate technologies should be made widely available, and training resources made accessible, especially for those instructors who do not usually rely on a learning management system (LMS) or other computer-based teaching tools. Instructional technology offices may need to hold virtual classroom sessions on the technologies and/or advising sessions for instructors in the event of longer-term disruptions of normal campus operations. A campus point person should be identified who can route questions appropriately. Clearly, campuswide communication strategies must already be in place.

Instructors would likely draw largely upon successful online course instructional strategies in the event of a university/college closure due to a coronavirus pandemic. These may include virtual office hours and instructor conferences, live or recorded lectures made available online, live discussions or discussion boards, and online submission of assignments and other materials for course assessment.

The following chart illustrates some of the options SJU has made available to instructors, beginning with options for those lower-level disruptions that affect only a small group of students and instructors. Note that some of the listed instructional strategies included farther down in the chart require some form of planning prior to the class/course disruption itself, and that all students should be informed now on how faculty plan to maintain communications if courses can no longer be offered on campus.

Instructional Strategy

Learning Activity

Evidence of student attendance or participation

Invite a guest lecturer to speak to the class or ask a colleague to provide course coverage in your absence.

If necessary, students complete an assignment such as a reflection or written summary.

Completion of assignment or assessment on the material (e.g., guest lecturer material will appear on the midterm exam, etc.).


Encourage student attendance at a course-related lecture or extracurricular event.

Students complete an assignment such as a reflection or written summary of the activity. An alternative assignment is available for those unable to participate in the activity.

Completion of assignment or assessment related to event, or completion of alternative assignment.


Condense previously assigned materials to fit into fewer class sessions while continuing to meet course learning outcomes.


Students may be asked to read more pages for a particular class session or to independently review and summarize a skipped reading.

Students meet course goals as verified through assessments.

Conduct a web-conferencing session using campus-supported videoconferencing software at the assigned class time or an alternative time if necessary.


Read a summary of faculty lecture notes or view a copy of the video recording if a student misses the live class.

Attendance and participation are logged during web-conferencing session.

Video lectures or narrated slides of stand-alone topics/chapters. Closed captioning is required.

View video lecture and complete an assignment such as writing a summary, addressing specified questions and/or participation in a blog or discussion board related to the video lecture.


Completion of assignment or assessment on the material.

Independent/take home assignment.

Independently complete assigned additional readings or video viewings. The videos must have closed captioning.


Completion of assignment or assessment on the material.

*Much of the content in this chart comes from guidelines developed and approved by the SJU Instructional Continuity Planning Committee, which worked on guidelines for short-term, low-level disruptions.

These instruction strategies could vary across courses/semesters, depending upon the course content and when the disruption occurs. They could also vary according to the anticipated length of the disruption. Additionally, dance classes, music ensemble practices or private voice/dance lessons as well as such classes as the studio arts, student teaching practicums, internships and co-ops do not easily fall within the scope of such guidelines. Institutions of higher education could seek suggestions for instructional continuity from the departments and programs that offer such courses.

As in all unpredictable circumstances, faculty, staff and students will all need to be flexible with one another and work together if any plan for instructional continuity for the students is going to be effective. With a small number of students involved in our study abroad in Italy, we are currently able to work with them on an individual basis.

But without planning, what will happen if a critical mass of parents recalls their daughters/sons home to protect them and our classrooms begin to empty in the face of the current COVID-19 scare?

That’s not an eventuality for which we were willing to be unprepared.

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