Sometimes higher education truly has its collective head in the sand. Institutions have left themselves vulnerable to collapse during a long-term campus closure, despite increased risk from extreme weather events and other unexpected catastrophes. I talked with representatives from across the county to understand their preparedness for an extended campus closure. Their responses illuminate the need for creative, innovative approaches to campus and workplace policies.
Japan’s nationwide shutdown of its schools due to Coronavirus (COVID-19) got me thinking about what would happen if universities in the U.S. closed their doors for a month. Even if it doesn’t happen with this pandemic, some natural disaster or other unexpected events will certainly cause campus closures across the country this year. The higher education workplace is generally unprepared to support employees in continuing operations to serve students during campus closures.
Where I live in Northern California, most institutions closed for up to two weeks in November 2018 due to heavy smoke from devastating fires. Others have experienced closures due to rolling electrical blackouts to prevent fires. Many institutions shut down altogether, and most cease operations and pay “nonessential” employees for the days off. For large institutions that close their campuses and pay employees for days off rather than creating an opportunity for them to work from home, the cost gets into millions of dollars in lost wages. Frankly, this situation is irresponsible in an era of escalating tuition. Institutions in other regions of the country have repeated this pattern during floods, snowstorms, and other closure events.
With the scare over Coronavirus, I was curious if institutions have become more prepared to continue essential functions remotely in the case of an extended campus closure. In the last few days, I polled colleagues at multiple colleges and universities across the country (public, private, 2-year, and 4-year).
What I Found
In short: it varies whether institutions have the infrastructure to continue operations in a campus closure. On the whole, the situation is concerning, but with concerted long-term action, it’s fixable.
Nearly all institutions equip those in leadership positions to function away from campus. Likely, because those roles already involve after-hours work from home, they regularly access essential files and resources remotely.
Student-facing offices and business services offices have a significant gap. Non-supervisory positions in those departments are largely nonexempt and typically can’t work after regular hours.
Some institutions, both large and small, have robust continuity plans and have implemented those plans to ensure successful operation in a closure. For example, these institutions have:
- Switched to laptops/docking stations for all office employees
- Ensured employees have operational VPN to access databases and files securely
- Transitioned all online systems to allow for remote access
- Modernized their telecommuting policies
- Encouraged office employees to occasionally work remotely, in part to test if folks could function away from campus
- Ensured that all professors actively use learning management systems (LMSs) and have practiced teaching online occasionally
Unfortunately, other institutions have taken a different approach:
- Purchasing laptops only for professors and administrators, not for operational staff. Or worse, avoiding purchasing laptops for any positions
- Allowing employees to work remotely only in rare cases, with no systemic approach to ensuring all office staff can function away from campus
- Developing complicated telecommuting policies that actively discourage working remotely
- Not working with unions or faculty leaders to anticipate how institutions can operate in a campus closure
Most institutions I included in my sample are unprepared to keep operations going when folks can’t work on campus.
What Institutions Need to Do to Prepare
Although nearly all institutions have business continuity plans that include some reference to campus closures, many haven’t fully implemented the items on the list below:
#1: Move Toward Buying Laptops/Docking Stations for All Office Employees
If employees use a laptop with a docking station as their regular computer, the learning curve is reduced or eliminated for working from home. For example, employees would not need to adjust to a new computer or install new software.
All office employees must know how to use the VPN and access shared files remotely. IT should ensure all systems operate off-campus, rather than relying on legacy systems only accessible from computers located on campus.
#2: Develop Progressive Telecommuting Policies
Progressive institutions see telecommuting as a tool for cost savings, employee retention, and a practice that helps ensure continuity of operations in a crisis. Unfortunately, many universities’ telecommuting policies seem designed to make it more difficult to work remotely. Multiple institutions reported onerous approval processes for an employee to work remotely occasionally. Current approaches treat telecommuting as a special favor to employees rather than an essential part of modern workforce policy.
#3: Encourage All Employees to Work From Home Occasionally
If employees become comfortable with working from home, they can function more effectively when an inevitable campus closure happens. To provide as much continuity as possible in an emergency or catastrophe, institutions can normalize remote work to make it easier to adjust in a closure situation. This normalization reduces the inevitable strain on IT support during such an event.
#4: Work with Faculty Leadership to Develop Proactive Continuity Plans
Professors can function remotely better than some other groups, especially in departments with heavy use of learning management systems. Faculty regularly work from home and usually have access to their files regardless of location. Vendors designed systems for faculty with the assumption that faculty would access them from many places. For the past 20 years, platforms like LMSs and student grade entry platforms have functioned remotely.
Faculty in lab-oriented disciplines or units with little online teaching and learning have a much steeper learning curve. Institutions must work with faculty leadership to develop practices that encourage faculty to occasionally teach a portion of face-to-face courses online or make heavy use of an LMS. Such a practice would decrease the adjustment needed with a long-term campus closure.
If institutions don’t already have it, they need to build robust instructional support for online teaching. Centers for teaching and learning typically house such services and can provide support for faculty even if an institution has no plans to offer many regular online courses.
#5: Work with Unions to Update Policies and Contracts
Policies have created barriers to remote work in campus emergencies. For example, concerns exist over what to do when some types of employees have a paid day off due to a closure (e.g., custodial, food service). In contrast, other types of employees work remotely (e.g., student services, business services). Multiple institutions identified this concern as a reason they opt for not allowing telecommuting during a campus closure. Institutions need to revisit or renegotiate these policies and practices long before an emergency, given the new reality of extreme events.
#6: Consider How Staff and Students Can Gain Remote Access
Not all employees or students have remote access available from their homes. One institution provides check-out hotspots for staff who don’t have high-speed internet at home. In community colleges and universities serving large numbers of low-income students, some don’t have laptops or connections to use during a shutdown. Since public libraries often provide such access, institutions may need to develop creative alternatives for internet access.
Creating Modern, Flexible Work Environments Provides Other Benefits
Many industries outside of higher education have embraced telecommuting and flexible work locations for years. These practices make sense from an employee morale perspective, for reducing carbon emissions, and for scaling down future campus footprints. One institution, in a state with an emission-reduction program, uses its flexible work policy for carbon emission reductions in conjunction with the continuity plan for campus closures.
Long-term, these practices can reduce the need for additional buildings, building maintenance, and campus parking. Those benefits affect both the environment and finances.
Institutions should get serious now about encouraging large-scale changes to campus cultures and policies to encourage telecommuting. These changes can not only help ensure the continuity of essential functions but can also provide other institutional benefits.
Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash