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Should colleges and universities start planning now for worst-case COVID-19 scenarios?

This is a hard question to ponder, as every academic leader has their hands full, trying to navigate the now. The thing about the future, however, is it always comes before we are ready.

The idea that there will be some better time to engage in long-run planning is a fallacy. The needs of today will always swamp the space to plan (or save) for tomorrow. The only way to prepare for what comes next is to start planning.

From a higher education perspective, what are some of the worst-case long-term COVID-19 scenarios?

I’m trying to put aside, for now, the immediate questions of what might happen if a school brings back students to campus this fall. That is the story that everyone will be watching closely in the next few weeks.

Instead, I’m thinking about how the pandemic might play out in academia over the next four years.

Can we imagine a scenario in which today’s freshmen never experience a “normal” residential college experience?

Can we create a story in which a safe and effective vaccine is not produced and universally disseminated within this four-year window?

Might we even be able to assign a probability to this possibility?

If that is so, the correct response would be to begin the planning work now so that the “new normal” that today’s freshman experience across their college career is a high-quality experience. A different sort of college experience than you and I received, but not necessarily a worse experience.

What might this look like?

Truthfully, I have no idea.

How to construct a newly bundled residential experience around the constraints of de-densification, masking and social distancing qualifies as a wicked problem to solve.

My starting place is that the residential experience is critical, crucial and irreplaceable. In coming up with ideas to address a worst-case COVID-19 scenario (no universally disseminated vaccine before 2025), I assume that the traditional 18- to 22-year-old college experience is at least partially and partly a campus experience.

Yes, traditional 18- to 22-year-old full-time residential students indeed represent a minority of all postsecondary students. That does not mean, however, that we should not plan for this group.

How much energy, time and money should a school invest in planning for a worst-case COVID-19 scenario? I don’t know.

The good thing is that none of this planning is likely to go to waste. In the happy event of a quick vaccine, many of the systems and processes designed for a prolonged time of distancing/masking/de-densification could be repurposed.

Public health may become one more element of universal design for learning.

Pedagogies that are effective in contexts designed to prevent the spread of disease may also work well when preventing infection need no longer be the top concern.

With some serious amounts of hard work and creative thinking, we may be able to design a college experience that achieves pre-pandemic outcomes while the pandemic still rages.

Designing this type of experience in the context of the significant financial constraints that every college and university is now experiencing makes this task dramatically more difficult. When money is tight, and everyone is already working to full capacity, it is hard to plan for the edge case of a nonreceding pandemic.

Still, recognizing both the low (or at least unknown) probability of a prolonged time under the current COVID-19 condition and the pressing lack of time and resources, I can’t shake the idea that now is the time to start planning.

How might we start?

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