Efforts to reopen campuses this fall generated mixed results, and the in-person/remote hybrid options were both chaotic and insufficient. With the benefit of hindsight nine months after the unprecedented closing of campus communities in March, it is clear that our institutions must do better.
Colleges and universities have experienced varying degrees of the pandemic’s impacts, yet some universal truths must be acknowledged. One, in higher ed we have a large population of young adults, many eager for the college experience, ready to embrace their freedoms. Two, faculty and staff members are concerned about their own safety and want assurances that campuses are mitigating risks and helping to protect their health. And three, campus leadership teams are concerned about both the risk of opening campuses and the long-term risks of not opening them.
Addressing these challenges requires a blend of technology, duty of care principles and health-care best practices. Simply communicating to the campus community at large and hoping for the best is not enough. Institutions need to gather analytics to confirm receipt of messages and monitor compliance to ensure a safe community.
So, what can institutions do to make improvements for the reopening decisions and processes moving forward? Here are four guiding principles to help campuses reopen responsibly for the spring 2021 semester.
No. 1: Establish a COVID addition to the campus code of conduct. While many institutions have considered waivers, the best practice for helping ensure shared responsibility for the health impacts of COVID is a statement, an acknowledgment, a pledge among all members of campus communities -- students, faculty members, administrators and vendors -- to follow certain protocols. This addition to the code of conduct is essential for an informed re-entry and the ability to maintain a sustainably safe campus environment.
It is also vital that colleges and universities have a way to document the acknowledgment of shared responsibilities to ensure their institution’s duty of care and the community’s duty of loyalty to the agreed-upon parameters. As Nancy Conrad, partner at the law firm of White and Williams, has said, “The liability considerations from the pandemic are both innumerable and unknowable, and it is essential that institutions have well-developed plans and that they actively communicate those plans to the campus community. It is also paramount to monitor and confirm that all community members receive and agree to adhere to the safety protocols contained in those plans.”
No. 2: Enforce clear consequences. Colleges and universities that have taken quick disciplinary action against students who choose to not follow new COVID-related codes of conduct related to social distancing and other preventative measures have set important precedents in demonstrating they will not tolerate reckless choices. We cannot underestimate the impact of young adult behavior. As we saw in August and September, students, after being quarantined for six months, were ready to spread their wings and make their own decisions. Many did not adhere to COVID precautions of social distancing and wearing masks.
Don’t expect things to be immediately different for the spring semester after an extended holiday break or winter quarantine. Act quickly and enforce rules to set the standard and communicate the message of shared responsibility and consequences.
No. 3: Don’t let bureaucracy impede action. Each institution has, or should have, a centralized command-and-control center committee or task force composed of participants with the appropriate skill sets to address, manage and be conversant in risk and health topics. Those participants should represent student affairs, academic affairs, general counsel and public and campus health. This control center committee should recognize what they don’t know and whom to quickly refer issues to as they arise.
These multidisciplinary committees also need strong leaders who can make tough calls and not subject campus communities to extended decision-approval processes and analysis paralysis. Leaders must make thoughtful but timely decisions in coordination with peers. Effective provosts and presidents recognize that COVID information has to be dealt with in real time and empower their teams to do so. Decisions can’t be made with 24- to 48-hour review periods. More like 24 to 48 minutes.
No. 4: Lean in to technology to help manage the process and risks. Institutions need a scalable and customizable technology framework to present aggregated content. Having the capability to collect, collate and deliver the campuswide recommendations and requirements in a way that is accessible and actionable for various campus stakeholders is crucial. This may include a tool for exchanging documents and information related to self-assessments and emergency contact info. Having a platform to centrally collect and communicate information helps institutions maintain a high level of transparency and unified protocols and processes with the ability to continuously push out the latest updates and alerts.
As we all continue to grapple with the multilayered impacts of COVID, it is vital to look closely at campus policies and compliance processes, monitor and communicate with your campus communities to help mitigate risk and drive compliance. The future of your institution depends on it.