4 Non-Negotiables for Reopening Colleges During the COVID-19 Pandemic

There is a seemingly never-ending list of concerns for colleges to consider before reopening, but these four objectives should be top of mind.

4 Non-Negotiables for Reopening Colleges During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Since the first reports of COVID-19 in the United States, the response by higher education institutions to the pandemic has been rapidly evolving.

With the ultimate goals of limiting the rate of infection and the resulting mortality rate, planning and preparations for an unfamiliar situation have coincided with differing organizational responses. With no roadmap or previous experience in this realm, while significantly affecting the campus community on an economic, social, psychological and personal level, the response to COVID-19 is now entering the uncharted recovery phase.

Here, we will discuss institutional challenges and objectives related to preparing for the return to the new “normal” and offer suggestions on how to appropriately plan for a safe and effective return to operations.

Higher Education COVID-19 Challenges and Objectives

With the increasing talk of insufficient testing and growing pressures to return to the way things were pre-pandemic, institutional administrators and leaders are faced with the daunting task of determining how to reopen campus while maintaining the safety and well-being of their students, staff and faculty. As leaders begin to strategize the best course of action for reopening, there are several key challenges that should be taken into consideration:

  1. State and federal directives will likely govern return-to-normal operational policies and procedures. Moreover, guidelines might have inherent contradictions and discrepancies to current normal campus operations or to organizational objectives.
  2. Employees and students may have significantly different perspectives on what constitutes a safe environment.
  3. Varying internal and external factors influence students’ and employees’ abilities to return to normal campus operations. For example, without public schools opening, students and employees might need to take care of their children who are home.
  4. External functions that are a part of “normal” campus operations might have differing timelines and regulations (externships, athletics, transportation, housing service providers, etc.).
  5. Campus openings must remain compliant with the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA) and other ordinances.

Under the assumption that things will not be as they were and will change as time and circumstances evolve, the following objectives define the organizational end goals of the new normal:

  1. Provide a safe learning environment for faculty, students, staff and visitors.
  2. Create a synergy of safe operations between all members of the campus community and with its external partners.
  3. Build trust with the students, staff and faculty that is a visible and tangible manifestation of the common goals.
  4. Design a flexible campus environment that meets the needs of students and staff while contributing to the attainment of institutional goals.

1. Safe Operations in Compliance with Federal, State and Local Orders

Returning to normality after a crisis is hard enough, let alone when the crisis is on a global level of unknown magnitude, deadly in its consequences, and unprecedented in nature. While most individuals are eager to get back to their daily routines and continue working toward their educational, professional and personal goals, it cannot be forgotten that the potential to transmit the virus, even if unknowingly, and contract the virus remains a real and imminent threat. As leaders work to re-open campuses and establish a new normal, it is essential to incorporate safeguards to protect the health and well-being of students, staff, faculty, and visitors.

As institutions attempt to return to “normal,” it is critical that leaders take proactive measures to ensure a safe environment for working and learning. Institutions should verify that they remain compliant and the new policies and procedures are following any local, state or federal requirements that may be in place.

For example, as our corporate office is in Broward County, Florida, we are currently under an executive order from the Governor related to essential business operations, in addition to both a county order and local order in the city of Fort Lauderdale related to the required use of face coverings. Thus, you should engage your general counsel or compliance professionals to be certain you are following the appropriate regulations.

On the federal side, many businesses are familiar with OSHA. OSHA has provided additional guidance related to COVID-19. However, as detailed in their materials, the updated OSHA guidance does not contain new regulations or standards and does not create any new legal requirements. The information provided by OSHA simply contains recommendations related to COVID-19 to assist employers in providing a safe workplace.

OSHA has recommendations in several areas, including developing policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of sick employees; developing, implementing, and communicating workplace flexibility and protections; implementing workplace controls; and information on personal protective equipment.

2. Building Trust Within Your Campus Community

As institutional leaders and administrators begin the process of defining, designing and transitioning to the new normal, it is imperative that they do not lose sight of the needs, goals, and capabilities of their most vital assets: students, faculty and staff. Institutions that do not take into consideration the needs and well-being of their human capital run the risk of decreased learning and productivity, illness, low-quality services, dissatisfaction and attrition. Trust, transparent communication and working toward a common goal are the cornerstones of effective change management.

An institution must first establish an unprecedented trust between all stakeholders. Without trust, the university can physically open, but it runs the risk of students, staff and faculty simply not showing up. Alternatively, students and staff may feel that they have no other option but to return to the campus, which can lead to feelings of resentment and decreased autonomy. These negative feelings are associated with lower levels of morale, performance, productivity, satisfaction and well-being, which are factors that have adverse implications for individuals, institutions and society.

Establishing a level of trust that supersedes, what is for some, an existential fear requires conscious effort from key stakeholders. There are numerous things institutional administrators and leaders can do to cultivate trust with students, staff, and faculty:

  • Institutions can establish trust by clearly communicating their commitment to compliance standards and explaining how the new policies and procedures align with guidelines provided by the local, state and federal subject matter experts. Moreover, the institution can set up procedures to ensure efficient and timely communication pertaining to all updates and changes. For example, the institution can set up a webpage dedicated to updates and send out text message alerts with essential information. Transparent and frequent communication, particularly given the evolving nature of the situation, is vital to building and maintaining trust among students, staff, and faculty.
  • Institutions can seek feedback from students, staff and faculty to help understand the factors contributing to fear and motivation and cultivate a psychologically safe environment. Seeking feedback encourages open and honest dialogue while providing students, staff and faculty the opportunity to voice their feelings, concerns and opinions without fear of sanctions. Based on the concepts of employee voice and student voice, by engaging students and staff in the change process, they are more likely to embrace the change as they have increased feelings of empowerment and value.
  • Institutions can implement tangible operational measures that depict their commitment to the return to a new “normal” while maintaining a safe environment for students, employees, visitors and vendors.

3. Tangible Operational Measures

Institutions must make it abundantly clear that they have protocols in place to protect students and employees to the best of their ability. Campus community members must feel as though their safety and health are the institution’s top priority. Here are some ways to ensure that:

  • Define and execute a “safe learning environment” adhering to common safety guidelines, including social distancing, personal protection equipment (PPE), layers of safety with daily testing and health declarations as an enter/do not enter criteria. Utilize hand bands at a single point of entry.
  • Create clear reentry guidelines — who should and should not come back to school or the workplace.
  • Review program curriculum and assess what components need on-campus learning and what components can be effectively taught online. Allocate physical space accordingly.
  • Limit on-campus gatherings by initially limiting access to certain campus functions such as cafeterias, breakrooms and sitting areas.
  • Control class size and seating arrangements; physical classrooms may require extending hours or a rotating schedule.
  • Utilize teleconferencing and video conferencing software to limit and control physical meetings and other mass employee functions.
  • Avoid unnecessary campus visitors and vendors and create a physical barrier between guests and visitors and the prescreened campus community.
  • Remain transparent and offer flexible modes of learning to students and flexible work schedules to employees.
  • Clearly communicate directives and procedures as they change and evolve.
  • Engage all parties by giving a voice to all groups while displaying ongoing commitment, care and ownership.
  • Closely follow state and federal compliance guidelines.

4. Flexible Arrangements for Students, Employees

As individuals try to navigate personal, professional and family obligations during a pandemic, many are left grappling with the notion of how to effectively manage their multiple roles (e.g., caregiver, parent, teacher, student, employee). Offering flexible work arrangements, as well as flexible modes of learning, is another way the institution can return to a new normal while supporting the diverse needs of their workforce and students.

A growing body of literature has revealed that flexible working arrangements, such as teleworking, flextime, job sharing, compressed workweeks and leaves of absence (paid or unpaid) can improve job satisfaction and productivity, increase employee loyalty and commitment, decrease work-family conflict, and reduce stress and turnover. Moreover, offering flexible modes of learning, such as face-to-face, online and hybrid courses, provides the opportunity to increase accessibility, improve learning outcomes, and decrease school-work and school-family conflict. 

During these unprecedented times, flexible arrangements geared toward students and employees can help reduce the pressures associated with multiple roles, minimize potentially dangerous social interactions, decrease organizational costs, increase satisfaction, improve productivity and learning, and reduce attrition — all of which are factors that contribute to achieving institutional goals.

The new “normal” of higher education is hard to imagine considering the unprecedented magnitude and effects of COVID-19. Never before have higher education institutions had to plan and prepare a recovery process for a rapidly evolving threat with no clear guidelines, contradicting expert opinions, and politically divisive and limited resources. The framework and action plan above is an attempt to set an initial foundation that can be molded and adjusted to the vast variety of higher education institutions.

Considering the possibility of a reoccurring and possibly more destructive second pandemic wave in the winter, the state of the new normal might only last a brief period of time. Nevertheless, as in past events, the law of entropy cannot guide a cyclical response norm. Higher education can and should become a model of proactive and structured response.

Christine Mullendore has a Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and more than 10 years of experience working in higher education. She is the author of “Workplace Deviance: Investigating the Impact of Human Resource Management Practices.” 

Brandon Biederman is the Associate Vice Chancellor of Compliance for a multi-campus university. He has more than 15 years of experience in the compliance and regulatory arena in both the non-profit and governmental sectors.

Oren Alter oversees crisis management for 30 campuses in the Southeast United States. He is a security expert with over 25 years of experience, including service in the Israeli Special Forces, corporate security and higher education crisis management and emergency response.

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