June 4, 2020

How Professional School Leaders Thought About Reopening for Fall 2020

Advising Leaders, Forecasting Trends

By Elliot Felix and Kelly Sanford

Editor’s note: In May 2020, brightspot held sessions with professional school leaders to understand how they were responding to the pandemic and preparing for their future. A lot has changed since then but the reason we brought these leaders together remains the same: there is value in collaborating with peers during a time of crisis to share concerns, navigate challenges, and move ahead together – and these ideas remain relevant for emerging from the crisis stronger than before. 

In early May, brightspot held sessions with leaders in student affairs, professional schools, campus architects, and libraries to understand how institutions were responding to the pandemic and preparing for their future. What follows is a summary of three themes cutting across conversations with 38 institutions as well as five lessons learned specifically from a conversation with leaders from eight professional schools. We are sharing what we learned in the spirit of helping others navigate challenges and move ahead. 

“People are accommodating and appreciative this spring, but the bar is going to be higher for the fall semester. We can’t just replicate spring success. We need to improve educational provisioning, contact with faculty, and coordination of services.” – Associate Dean

Colorado State University Mosaic Classroom

Part I: What are colleges and universities most concerned about for the fall?

A. Decision-making in the face of uncertainty is a challenge: Institutional leaders face uncertainty about the future of their institutions, as multiple drivers for decision making remain in flux. Although surveys indicate that many students are still planning to return to campus (or at least remain enrolled in some capacity), it remains unclear how these decisions may change over the summer months.

Along with enrollment uncertainty comes budget uncertainty, compounded by anticipated cuts made to state and federal funding. Finally, absent federal guidelines, institutions are stuck in the tricky place of planning around changing local health guidelines, which not only change in response to local virus prevalence, but also change as we learn about how the virus spreads. In the face of uncertainty, identify the trends – our whitepaper on the future of higher ed can help – and then use scenario planning to create the different futures to plan for. 

Chronicle of Higher Education’s Tracker on Reopening Plans (n = 830 as of 5/29/2020)

B. Adapting spaces for social distancing: Considering changes for the fall, adapting spaces for social distancing was an overwhelming concern across student affairs, professional schools, campus architects, and library leaders. Quantitative guidelines for precisely how much distance should be used for retrofitting new building and furniture layouts are just emerging now (e.g., Does “6’ apart” translate to a 3’ radius, or a 6’ radius, when it comes to furniture placement? FEMA recommends 113 sf per seat) These concerns were especially acute when considering housing and dining facilities which traditionally rely on high density and shared fixtures.

The American College Health Association (ACHA) has released a set of guidelines and weekly webinars discussing various elements of campus life. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has a Reoccupancy Assessment Tool that includes a checklist of considerations and recommendations for reopening facilities.  Regardless of what planning metrics are used, colleges know that the future campus will be less dense, and can start by assessing their existing spaces, tracking assumptions, and aligning strategies to phases set forth by governing authorities.   

AIA Hierarchy of Controls for COVID-19 (adapted from NIOSH)

C. Institutions need new norms for the new normal: In addition to changes in spaces, systems, and operations, new behavioral norms will be needed for testing, reporting symptoms, wearing masks, opting into tracking systems, off-campus activities, and much more. Once norms are defined, institutions must orient members of the campus community through communication and training, and maintain norms by modeling them (such as through designated peer ambassadors) and reinforcing protocols with consistent signage.

Creating and communicating the norms is the first step — monitoring and accountability come next. You’ll need to develop policies and protocols for accountability such as establishing monitors/enforcers, reporting structures for non-compliance, and disciplinary action. There are many resources out there on creating and maintaining norms; among the most accessible are Cialdini’s Influence and Sunstein and Thaler’s Nudge and the Heaths’ Switch. Perhaps the best way to think about this is with an analogy: if space is the hardware, norms are the software. They have to work together.

Participant poll results on the biggest challenge (n= ~60)

Part II: What’s on the mind of leaders of professional schools?

We held a conversation with eight leaders of professional schools across the country, both small and large, public and private. The leaders we spoke to felt the transition to remote work had been successful. They shared the importance of creating guiding principles for planning for the fall, and recognized that no matter what, the fall experience will be a hybrid of in-person and online activities. They are navigating situations in which they are responsible for things they can’t control (e.g., evolving local health guidelines). Finally, they see an opportunity to emerge from this crisis stronger than before.

“Where is the faculty mental map related to teaching in the fall? We can’t make assumptions about who will have the ability to come into the classroom or when the best time to teach will be for faculty, especially those with young children.” – Associate Dean

    1. Remote work is going well. Fortunately, many leaders of professional schools report that their staff have adapted well to the remote work environment. Colleagues are touching base frequently in daily stand-up meetings within and across departments. Leaders and managers are learning to make space for self care – scheduling breaks between meetings and shortening them where possible. Going forward, many seek to formalize remote work programs and policies to determine who returns and who stays remote, along with tools, training, and adjustments to space and schedules. Leaders and managers also want to come up with solutions that are safe so that more vulnerable people can stay online and so decisions about who works when and from where are fair and equitable. This flexwork program we created with the University of Minnesota might be a good model. 
    2. Leaders are defining guiding principles for the fall. To address imminent issues and make good decisions for the fall, many leaders of professional schools are defining guiding principles. These include: anything that can be online should be online, prioritizing use of space for things that can’t be done well online (e.g., clinics, labs, performing arts, etc.), and ensuring equity in terms of schedules – for example, when is the best time for parents with young children to teach their classes? As institutions move forward working toward more equitable access and outcomes, our findings about better supporting underserved students can help.
    3. No matter what, the fall will be a hybrid (and so will everything after). While the effort to pivot to remote teaching and online student services was successful, the bar for the fall will be higher. Given limits on group sizes and activities staying online, the fall will be a hybrid of classes, events, and services that are on-campus and online. As we noted in our recent webinar with Knoll, these worlds were already converging and COVID-19 has accelerated this.
    4. Administrators feel caught in the middle at times, with lots of responsibility but limited control. Decisions about dorms, events, and schedules may be driven by state/local guidelines or other considerations – and what happens off-campus is even harder to control. Besides the classic tips on influencing without authority, one way to get ahead of the curve is to proactively communicate what you can do; for instance, you can determine what your physical capacity is now or start planning hybrid programs.
    5. Professional schools want to emerge from the crisis stronger than before. A crisis is a terrible thing. A crisis is also a terrible thing to waste. Many leaders of professional schools want to be sure they’re not losing long-term opportunities for change with what they do in the short-term. So, maybe now is the time to enable more flexible, remote work and decrease office space or the time to introduce more online learning and repurpose large lecture halls into large active learning labs with tables on tiers? 
Flexible, activity-based workplace for MIT’s Sloan School of Management

We hope these reflections and resources help you move forward and we welcome your thoughts and comments. To complement this information, you can read our whitepaper on higher education after COVID-19 peaks, learn how students are feeling about the pandemic from our student experience snapshot survey, consult the resources we compiled on navigating the crisis, and refer to this article with guidance on reopening with care. Good luck as you move ahead!

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