By Mary Kate McGrath - April 13, 2020
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has resulted in widespread college or university closures in the United States, as nearly every campus is canceling in-person classes and urging students to move off-campus, as per the New York Times. Decisions to close campus were not made lightly - being forced to leave school and move to an online model posed trials for low-income students, who might not have access to an internet connection at home, as well as foreign students, who were potentially unable to return to countries already battling back the virus and restricted from online learning by visa status.
Epidemiologists warned that dormitories, with communal bathrooms and dining halls with open food buffets, as well as classrooms or recreational centers, force students to be in close-quarters, potentially becoming hotbeds for the virus to spread.
The University of Washington was among the first to suspend in-person courses and send students home; then, in early March, other college and university campuses across the country followed suit, taking precautions to protect students, faculty, and staff from the disease. Now, campus leaders, educators, and staff remain uncertain about the future of their institutions, and how these academic disruptions will impact education long term. Colleges and universities are doing their best to maintain academic continuity for students, implementing a wide range of digital tools to aid learning, including online learning management systems, video conferencing tools, and messaging platforms to facilitate communication between professors and students, according to EdScoop.
College or university leaders and safety teams might feel at a loss amid the current crisis; the scale of the disruption is unlike any the field of education has previously faced. But the current moment is not without precedent. Past disasters might offer a roadmap to the next year; following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 campuses also faced major closures, and more recently, the wildfires in California led to evacuations and cancellations of a similar nature.
Though the coronavirus pandemic poses unique challenges, as the impact will be longer-term and less regional, there are still important lessons safety managers can learn by looking to how past disasters were managed.
Many college or university leaders can look to Hurricane Katrina for critical lessons about the coronavirus pandemic. The aftermath of the hurricane led to over 20 institutions closing, and universities across the country mounted an effort to deliver online courses to students impacted, according to Inside Higher Education. For campuses impacted by the widespread closures and restrictions caused by the spread of COVID-19, many of these strategies remain relevant as higher education officials look to maintain academic continuity.
Colleges and universities should be creating a delivery infrastructure, with a central communications website, moving basic course descriptions, rosters, and outlines onto the platform as soon as possible. Communication is key - moving classes online requires unprecedented interdepartmental collaboration. Throughout the process, cooperation, collaboration, and communication to problem-solve and share resources will be necessary.
One important takeaway from Hurricane Katrina is an understanding that disasters impact students and educators who are already vulnerable particularly hard. Many students who are sent home from college or university cannot afford to return, as evacuating requires resources such as travel expenses, food, money, and a place to go, according to Brookings Institute. Students who are facing housing insecurity will be at a higher risk of contracting or spreading the virus if forced to couch-surf or live in a shelter.
Colleges and universities can play a greater role in aiding the public health crisis by making a plan for vulnerable students facing housing insecurity or other economic uncertainty. Many colleges or universities have already done so during the coronavirus pandemic, such as the University of Chicago and George Washington University, which allowed students to stay on campus if they had nowhere else to go, as per Brookings.
College or university presidents can play a major role in disaster response. In 2006, a paper titled, “The Presidential Role In Disaster Planning and Response: Lessons From the Front,” presidents of colleges across the United States who had been through a variety of extreme circumstances shared their insight. Past disasters, such as the Grand Forks Flood of 1997, the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, informed their belief that college presidents should take the lead in developing and implementing a disaster plan as though lives, their campus, and careers depend on it.
The paper warned that circumstances immediately after a disaster might require decisive, independent action, whereas normal academic culture relies on consensus building and deliberation. Once the initial safety and security of students, faculty, and staff has been prioritized, an institution should define disaster recovery by retaining enrollment and doing their best to accelerate long-term goals of the institution.
Disasters are unpredictable, regardless of their nature, and technology can play a role in keeping the community up-to-date as a situation develops. A mass notification system can play a critical role of keeping students, faculty, and staff informedamid the coronavirus pandemic. Making sure all community-members are safe, maintaining academic continuity, and ensuring that school closures do not take a greater toll on vulnerable individuals are all goals that can be facilitated by a robust emergency communication system. Administrators can notify the entire community via voice, text, email, digital signage, website, social media, or desktop alerts, making sure everyone receives critical updates as the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt in-person education.
If a college or university is being repurposed as a quarantine facility or overflow hospital, it’s important to communicate these changes with any students who have remained on campus. It’s critical that there’s a separate facilities for any students still living on-campus, as well as physical distance from these facilities and any hospitals, testing centers, or triage tents. Ensuring no students, faculty, or staff are exposed to a potentially dangerous situation must be prioritized.
A campus safety app can also help students navigate the coronavirus crisis, providing them with a centralized location to find resources and a directory with contact information. If any student is struggling to access remote learning tools, or has questions about their academic future at the institution, the appropriate department will be easily accessible.
The current situation has created a great deal of uncertainty for students, and by connecting them with campus resources, administrators can better support the community. It’s impossible to quantify the number of students who will be displaced by the coronavirus pandemic, but colleges and universities can take an active role in ensuring those individuals are able to remain on the appropriate academic trajectory and the resources necessary to return to campus once the crisis wanes.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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