As a more “normal” fall semester appears likely with the increased availability of COVID-19 vaccines, many have been reflecting upon what we learned in this past year and what adaptations will become permanent in post-pandemic life. Higher education, long considered tradition-bound and resistant to change, had to pivot, respond, and adapt in record time in order to survive. A legacy of the pandemic could be maintaining this flexibility and embracing change. In addition, higher education’s emphasis on technological advances, access, healthy habits, and responsiveness to student needs during the pandemic are all critical for our future success.
Flexibility. Caught by surprise by the rapid spread of the virus last spring, colleges transitioned to remote learning at record speed. Administrators and faculty were cloistered in home offices, learning how to use Zoom, and realizing that teaching and learning can happen in a variety of settings and modules. Student Affairs staff were uniquely poised to model these new skills as they are well-accustomed to last-minute changes, understand how to communicate with students in the latest modality, and thrive on creating new ideas. Long-held rules, beliefs, and even laws were jettisoned to ensure students’ needs were met, and courses and degrees could be completed. Meaningful and content-rich virtual events were created to celebrate students’ achievements in lieu of the usual awards ceremonies.
Technology. The transition to remote learning required a rapid upgrade of technology infrastructure and skills, even among the most Luddite faculty members and at the least-resourced institutions. Most colleges used the summer to upgrade infrastructure, purchase new hardware, and train faculty on the best software to use for remote learning.
Access. Technological accommodations for remote interaction have opened up access to higher education, student support services, and professional development activities. Prospective and enrolled students can participate in virtual open houses, campus tours, and new student orientation, thus saving valuable travel time and money. Entry-level staff with limited professional development funds can benefit from the content of virtual professional development activities, and our professional organizations can offer the opportunity to interact with speakers and presenters from around the world. Students with family and work commitments can take asynchronous classes. Students who have different learning styles can learn and participate in new modalities – with closed captioning, recorded lectures they can replay, and the chance to use posts and discussion groups to participate in class on their own time and comfort level.
The pandemic also exposed the stark reality of the challenges for college students from lower socioeconomic levels and exacerbated problems of food and housing insecurity. Many students studying from home did not have adequate internet access to participate in remote coursework. Colleges adapted by offering on-campus housing during remote instruction periods, setting up and expanding food pantries, and expediting CARES Act allocations to the neediest students.
Higher education cannot go backward after offering these advances to improve access as well as social supports for students in need. While we eagerly anticipate the opportunity to gather in person for classes and conferences, we must remember how the pandemic improved access to learning and professional development for many. Social supports created to provide basic necessities to students will be needed long after the pandemic subsides.
Healthy Habits. While we look forward to removing masks, gathering in groups larger than our small social pods, attending performances, and hugging our loved ones, public health experts have advised that we may need to incorporate many of these precautions into our post-pandemic lives. COVID-19 is expected to be endemic even after widespread vaccination, and given the interconnectedness of our world, new viruses are expected in the future.
Higher education professionals often have difficulty maintaining work-life balance. As we adjusted to working at home, reduced time wasted in commuting, developed pandemic hobbies, and enjoyed more time with children and pets, many are seeking ways to maintain better boundaries between work and home. Others have a renewed appreciation for family, exercise, friends, and self-care after the devastating losses wrought by the virus.
Responsiveness to student needs. To help students be successful during this stressful time, higher education professionals focused on responding to students’ needs and used the exigency of the pandemic to eliminate barriers and rules which could impede student success. Students were under extraordinary stress. increasingly anxious and in some cases suicidal, due to pressures, social isolation, difficulty with remote learning, and the fear of the unknown. Faculty and staff adapted by extending deadlines, waiving requirements, adjusting schedules, and focusing on student mental health and self-care.
Other examples of pandemic adaptations that higher education and student affairs may maintain in the post-pandemic world:
- Explore options for remote and hybrid work.
- Continue to provide as many touchless interactions as feasible.
- Model self-care and maintain work-life balance for the students we serve by setting boundaries, establishing realistic communication response expectations, and using vacation time.
- Allow residential students the flexibility of take-out as well as in-person dining.
- Continue to assign check-in appointments for Residence Hall check-in.
- Provide opportunities for remote access to admissions and orientation events.
- Offer counseling and student support services in both in-person and virtual modalities.
- Provide a hybrid menu of in-person programming and speakers, recorded events for those who cannot attend in person, and virtual programs for students who prefer that medium.
- Provide virtual professional development activities to reduce costs and travel time, and increase access.
- Live-stream, record, and caption all major events so family and friends can participate from afar.
- Continue to provide remote and hybrid course and meeting options to provide access to students who cannot attend classes and events on campus during traditional meeting times.
- Continue to train faculty to supplement in-person courses and labs with integrated technology to accommodate students’ learning styles.
- Deliver as many services as possible on-line, asynchronously, with fillable forms and electronic signatures.
Abandon the myth that higher education is resistant to change and slow to adapt. We can pivot and change, and we can do so quickly. As a result, we will be far better prepared to respond to the next crisis on the horizon.