Higher Education

Controlling the Uncontrollable

Well, it is here.  COVID-19 has arrived in New York and Connecticut and the Connecticut State University System is working through our response strategies.  So far there are university travel and event restrictions, guidance on how to monitor one’s health, guidance on good practices (like handwashing), reporting structures for those who might be at risk of exposure or illness, and some conversation about what happens if we need to move things online for a portion of the semester.  The facilities team is working hard at keeping our campus safe, and planning for worst-case scenarios. We are working through everything we can think of, developing good protocols, and trying to keep everyone informed.

Nevertheless, control is an illusion. Our culture (and the world) is simply too mobile. Whether a residential or a commuter campus (we are both), there are too many opportunities for unintentional exposure to really stop the spread of this, or any, illness. All we can do is try to slow the spread and protect the most vulnerable from infection.

The good news is we have already invented online learning, and though it is a stretch for some courses, we can work to keep the semester’s learning on track. Like all campuses, WCSU has invested in a learning management system and everyone has access to it. Indeed, it is standard practice to build a course shell for every scheduled course, so we are off to a good start.  Our instructional design team is hosting sessions for those who do not regularly do online teaching, to help them through some tricky parts. Not all courses will be tricky, but there is a lot we can accomplish there.

It gets harder for the performing arts, lab sciences, and programs that rely on field placements.  We are taking those questions one case at a time, to protect our students and the communities where they might be placed, while trying to ensure the completion of the curriculum. Folks in higher education tend to be creative thinkers, but sometimes it takes us a few minutes to reimagine ways to accomplish our goals.  When these goals are entwined with licensing regulations, it gets tricky.

Then there is there is all the rest.  Our spring break trips, our study abroad trips, athletic events, performances, and so on.  There is a lot of heartbreak and disappointment as we cancel and bring students home. Everyone starts trying to make predictions about when things will be safe again, but who knows? We have to take things in spurts, watching the updates on where the virus has emerged.   It’s a minute-by-minute decision-making adventure.

What I do know is this; following CDC Guidelines is probably our best bet.  After all, I am not a qualified epidemiologist.  Despite the fact that my students are mostly young and healthy, and therefore unlikely to have a life-threatening version of this disease, my campus is made up of people of all ages and conditions of health.  We have to consider everyone in our choices. Travel advisories and self-quarantine protocols seem like good suggestions.

So, we have a team working together to answer questions as they arise, while preparing for all conceivable eventualities. It is a good team, but we are likely to need to clarify and even change recommendations as new information emerges. Such is the role of a leadership team in an quickly evolving situation.  We are charged with trying to control the uncontrollable, which is impossible, but we are pretty good a preparing for multiple scenarios. We’ll do our best to be fair and responsible.

I need to get back to answering email from all kinds of concerned parties, so that’s all for this week. For now, wash your hands, cover your mouths when coughing, reconsider shaking hands, and stay home if you have a fever.

Stay healthy everyone.