By Dr. Krista Vogt
In student services, we often speak of the products of our work – a great workshop, a thoughtful mentoring program, a popular orientation program, etc. In this blog, I’d like to take a look at the administrative side of student success. These last two weeks, I’ve had the privilege to be at the senior leadership table where important decisions needed to be made for the safety, health and continued learning of our students. It’s been a scary roller coaster of a ride, but I am grateful to work at an institution* that is focused on students and kept their needs top of mind as we made our plans. First, a quick timeline of events, and then I’ll walk you through some of the lessons learned.
*I work at a large (17,000 students) Ontario College of Arts and Technology (commonly known in the US as a community college)
Wednesday, March 11
The World Health Organization issues a statement calling the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Travel restrictions and social distancing are not yet being discussed.
The president of the college calls his senior leadership council with guests from facilities, security, corporate communications and student services together for discussion. Our largest recruiting event, our Open House, is in three days. Our discussion is about what to do should things get worse; we decide to keep going with the Open House and assume classes will continue, we order extra cleaning of the campus.
Thursday, March 12
Late in the evening, the local school board announces that all public schools will close until April 6.
Friday, March 13
The president reconvenes his council and we decide to post-pone the Open House, but continue with classes and employees are to report to work as usual. I have a planned vacation with my family to ski in Quebec. All night my husband and I consider our options, mostly we speak of our own need for self-care and the need to be with our teenage kids. We decide that he will stay and the kids and I will go.
Sunday, March 15
The large university in our city announces it is cancelling classes for a few days and will resume their semester online mid-week.
Monday March 16
Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau closes the border to non-Canadian citizens and asks Canadians to not travel out of the country.
Employees report to work and students come to class at the college. Parents and students call our Contact Centre furious that we are still open when the university is closed. The decision is made to cancel classes for the week and resume online where possible on March 23. Employees are still to report to work as usual.
Tuesday March 17
The President’s council meets again, it’s time to send “non-essential” employees home. There is a scramble for laptops and staff rush to grab their resource materials and forward their voicemail. They water the plants, thinking they’ll be gone two weeks at most. Our Contact Centre is deemed essential so a schedule is quickly developed to decide which staff will be on campus.
Wednesday March 18
I drive home from Quebec as I experience separation anxiety from my husband and feel the need to support the staff who report to me as well as my fellow managers who are exhausted. It also seems logical to return home since I had spent most of my time in Quebec on conference calls and responding to emails anyway.
Thursday, March 19 and Friday, March 20
I am working from home, but spending three hours a day on conference calls. The new routine is a phone call with the Office of the Registrar managers, a phone call with the college student services managers, and then phone calls with my staff team. Once new decisions are made, the phone calls with each team go around again.
LESSONS FROM WEEK 1 – as we plan for online learning and online service delivery
The main question of Week 1 was: how do we get staff set up from home so they can support students? Technology was paramount. We quickly discovered who didn’t have reliable Internet at home, who didn’t have home computer equipment, and who didn’t have the technological savvy to learn how to set up a remote desktop session using VPN. Our concern was for students, but our focus had to be on staff. If they didn’t have the tools they needed, they would not be able to support the students. Additionally, the staff needed to be in place of strong mental health to be able to support students who needed it.
My work during week one was about getting staff comfortable – with new equipment, new software, and new routines at home. Many are struggling finding a balance between work and supporting students while also supporting their family – many have children at home. Our college has kept everyone on the payroll, but for many staff members, their partners are being laid off from work as businesses shut down. My expertise is in project management and operations, but this week called for true transformative leadership. What the staff needed was reassurance, help and understanding while learning new ways of working, and to keep well informed of the ever changing decisions being made by the college.
A distant second to supporting staff as they set up from home was figuring out how student services were to be delivered remotely. Daily meetings of the student services managers team were crucial to help each of us in our planning. Counsellors and advisors were set up with the capacity to do online appointments. The Wellness Centre launched Facebook live streaming of fitness classes that could be done at home. For students who could not go home, residence made a plan for food delivery to rooms. We were ready….
Monday, March 23 and Tuesday, March 24
It is the first day of online class delivery. I go to campus but it is a ghost town. Only one door is open; my entrance is allowed because I am on an essential services staff list. Five staff members of our 86 member staff team are in the office – all sitting six feet apart and all there to help run the Contact Centre. The phones are much quieter than we expected. The daily conference calls with college leaders continue. At noon on Tuesday, the president decides that no one should have to be on campus. The Contact Centre is closed and staff are sent home, but my next task is to find a way to open back up again … with the Contact Centre newly configured to operate remotely. We bring all the plants home, unsure of when we’ll return to our offices.
Wednesday, March 25 to Friday, March 27
Everyone is now working from home. Contact Centre staff are answering the emails that are coming in quickly now that students and parents have no one to phone. IT services staff work 12+ hour days reconfiguring the phone network and assisting staff and professors struggling to move to online delivery. My days are spent on the phone – 5 and 6 hours at a stretch. Student services are being delivered remotely. Our focus shifts to how we are going to complete the semester and what we will do about our next semester, with 3000 new students set to start a new college program on May 4.
LESSONS FROM WEEK 2 – as students begin their online coursework
There have been two main issues arising for students as they transition to online studies; technological access and money to support themselves. Our college put 2280 classes online last week. We are hearing from a minority of students that they are just not able to get online. The access issue is one of equipment failure; the students may live in place without cable internet or they simply may not own a computer. We have set up a computer lab, close to a college entrance with social distancing and cleaning protocols in place to assist with this access issues. More difficult to solve is an access issue related to students with disabilities or learning challenges that make online learning impossible. We are working with Counselling and Accessibility Services, Indigenous Services, and the Learning Centre to work with each student individually to come up with a success plan. Professors have also been incredible and adapting where possible.
With businesses closing, our students are experiencing layoffs from work. Many rely on this work to provide for their basic needs. Adapting to online learning is taking a back seat to figuring out how rent will be paid and where the next meal is coming from. We are working on a simplified bursary system as well working with our student’s union to distribute food vouchers.
The reality however is many students will not be able to finish, and this will be the focus of week three. We are working to put a withdrawal form online and remove the barrier of insisting on a 1:1 meeting with an advisor before withdrawal (but offering this service for those who choose it). We will then need to develop a recovery plan to help these students find a pathway to credential completion.
In Ontario, the peak of the outbreak is expected in the next two weeks. Public schools are no longer resuming on April 6. Staff supporting students from home may be our new normal for the foreseeable future. We’re focused on access to online learning and financial hardship faced by students. I wonder what new issues will arise for students in the coming months?
For some levity in a tough situation, I leave you with a game you I will be playing at work today….
How are you leading to support student success in your role? Please “leave a reply” as we would love to crowdsource the myriad of ways people from around the world are getting by in this time of vast uncertainty. Please be well and stay safe.
Dr. Krista Vogt is Senior Associate Registrar, Admissions at Fanshawe College and can be reached on Twitter @vogtkris