June 4, 2020

How Student Affairs 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 student affairs 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 that cut across the four conversations with 38 institutions as well as five lessons learned that are specific to our conversation with student affairs leaders at 10 institutions. We are sharing what we learned in the spirit of helping others navigate challenges and move ahead. 

“We are working together – not as offices, but functions – efficiently and effectively filling gaps in communications beyond academics by checking in with students: “How are you doing? How’s your wellbeing? How can I help you?”

Students are most satisfied with their institution’s communication (from recent brightspot Snapshot)

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 also 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.

Poll results on the biggest challenge (n= ~60)

Part II: What’s on the mind of student affairs leaders?

brightspot held a conversation with ten student affairs leaders from higher education institutions across the country, both small and large, public and private. The student affairs leaders we spoke to felt the transition to remote work had been successful, as had the transition to providing support services online. They expressed concern about making decisions quickly but also inclusively, and navigating situations in which they are responsible for things they can’t control.

“Our focus has been on allowing staff to balance multiple challenges happening in their home and helping people feel like they are going to be okay working from home even though it will look different and feel different.” – AVP Student Affairs

  1. Remote work is going well. Many leaders in student affairs shared 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 a remote work program and policy to determine who returns and who stays remote, along with tools, training, and adjustments to space. This flexwork program we created with the University of Minnesota might be a good model.
  2. Providing student services online is also going well and processes got leaner. Student services leaders shared that they were able to pivot services to the online environment. Many did this using tools already available to staff like Zoom, learning management systems, and online chat – and did this quickly, removing layers of approvals and simplifying processes. We did a webinar recently on service design and provided some tips to apply what you’ve learned online to when you start providing in-person again. You can watch it here, see the presentation here, and access the free toolkit here and this post outlines some tips on lean processes. 
  3. Student affairs leaders see themselves partnering with other units within and outside of their institution more in the future. We provide five tips for student affairs and/or academic affairs here and we also provide advice on university/industry partnerships here (with a focus on things like experiential learning, career development, etc.).
  4. Decisions are being made quickly, but not always inclusively. Consensus and inclusiveness can be conflated. One strategy for clarifying this is to decide by consent rather than consensus so people feel heard but don’t all have to agree. This is tip #3 in this article and MIT’s reopening process is a good model for broad input and feedback.
  5. Student affairs leaders feel caught in the middle at times, with responsibility for student life but limited control over it. Decisions about dorms, events, and schedules may be outside of the realm of the student affairs professional, and driven by state/local guidelines or other considerations. Besides the classic tips on influencing without authority, one way to get ahead of the curve is to communicate what you can do; for instance, what events and programs can be done as a hybrid that you can start planning now?
brightspot Online Student Service Design webinar (recording)

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! 

Related articles