COVID-19 did not impact all higher education institutions at once. Those in Washington state were first on the frontline in the fight against the coronavirus.
EAB’s Michael Fischer sat down with Shane Martin, Ph.D., Provost of Seattle University, one of the first campuses that chose to cancel in-person classes. Dr. Martin shared insights about the factors behind the decision to move online, the ways they have supported faculty and students through the transition, and advice for other institutions about what comes next. This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
EAB: When did you first start discussing the possibility of cancelling classes?
SM: We made the decision to cancel classes on March 6th, though we had been talking about it the entire previous week. The University of Washington announced they were going virtual on the morning of March 6, and we felt it was important to respond after an institution in our region made that move.
EAB: What ultimately prompted the decision to move online?
SM: Seattle was seen as the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US. We had a range of concerns, number one being the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff. Additionally, we were thinking about our reputation in the community and with stakeholders. Finally, students who tend to be progressive or activist-oriented were asking for solutions that didn’t require them to be on campus. And faculty were also asking what the plan was.
EAB: What sort of remote teaching infrastructure did you already have in place? Did you already offer many online classes?
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SM: We were in the middle of the pack: we were not a leader in distance learning in any way. Our centers for faculty development and digital learning and innovation were able to scale up quickly and provide the guidance faculty needed to move courses to a virtual learning environment while maintaining quality. Of course, there were challenges for lab, clinical, and field experience courses. We have had to look at a range of innovative ways to handle that. We have been able to learn from the California State University System, which implemented a program that includes virtual labs for STEM prior to this pandemic. And fortunately, the Department of Education is allowing institutions to have flexibility on some of these requirements.
EAB: How did you move classes online so quickly? Did you need to invest in any new technology, or offer training for faculty in remote instruction?
SM: Not all of our faculty had the hardware to support virtual learning. We quickly had to assess the status of faculty hardware and attain sets of microphones and cameras so all faculty could be prepared. The biggest thing was training, because this was brand new for many faculty. We quickly developed a series of podcasts and documents walking faculty through how to effectively utilize remote tools and provided one-on-one help for those who needed more assistance. There was a range of user abilities and we found we needed to be flexible. We also identified faculty who were experts in teaching virtually. They were asked if they would be willing to be identified as leaders within their college or school to support their colleagues.
EAB: We’ve fielded a lot of questions about the equity implications of fully remote education. How did you ensure that every student had access to Wi-Fi, laptops, and other technology needed to fully participate in remote education?
SM: Our library has a program that loans laptops to students. We scaled up the number of laptops available in the loaner pool; we made that decision and executed it in about 24 hours. We are also keeping the library open so that students have support, though it is running on reduced staff.
However, you can’t talk about the curriculum apart from the issues of equity and access to things like technology, meal plans, housing, etc. There has been pushback in the media and on social media of institutions who moved quickly to close residence halls. We made the decision that campus is not closed, through many areas are running on reduced crews of staff on rotating days. Many staff can successfully work remotely but we want to maintain presence on campus and in offices. We do not want to appear for practical purposes like we are closed. We don’t want students or parents to be reaching out and not get any response.
One of the biggest challenges is the residence halls. We have let students reflect and make decisions on what’s best for their individual circumstance. About 50% of students left after we announced the winter quarter was going to be virtual. We anticipate many more students to leave after we announce shortly that the spring quarter will also be virtual, and we will encourage that students go home if possible as we believe that is the safest place for their health and wellbeing. However, we are cognizant that international students don’t have a place to go off campus, and students with jobs in the community who rely on those for their livelihood need to stay to keep their jobs.
EAB: I know your team has had to make difficult policy decisions beyond moving online. What other policy decision has been the most difficult to develop?
SM: Cancelling major events on campus or in the community was a difficult choice to make but it quickly became clear that we needed to do that. Everyone has understood and backed that decision.
The hardest decision had to do with study abroad, spring break immersion trips and decisions on international travel, all of which we cancelled; and domestic travel, which we severely restricted. That disappointed many students and faculty. Most of the pushback had to do with trips that were planned in parts of the world which haven’t seen a large outbreak of COVID-19 so far. We took the guidance on the State Department and CDC that the situation will escalate in those areas, even if it has not so far.
The decisions on travel restrictions were similar. First, we thought that we could restrict in only the parts of the world that have been impacted, but we landed on the decision to ban international travel through the end of academic year and restrict non-essential travel domestically. We have had to release guidance on things like reimbursing cancelled travel. We first want faculty and students to work through the various travel providers to try to receive a refund or credit. Where people make a good faith effort to do that and are unsuccessful, then we are dealing with it on a case-by-case basis.
EAB: If you’re able to look beyond next week, what concerns you most about the post-coronavirus world?
SM: We are very concerned about retention and recruitment. Students may not want to come back after going home. Ongoing engagement with our students while they are remote is critical, and we have a team working on that. If students receive high quality instruction in a virtual learning environment, they will continue with us.
For prospective students, we hold many in-person recruitment sessions, and these have a high yield rate for students and families who visit campus. We have had to cancel those events, and are now planning for different scenarios: what if we must continue distance learning through the summer? Through the fall? We are financial planning for a range of possible scenarios.
EAB: What advice do you have for other leaders as their communities begin to feel the impact of the virus?
SM: Three things. First, take this seriously and understand the urgency. There is a strong likelihood that what’s happening in places like New York and Seattle will come to most communities, especially those in urban areas.
Second, having multiple means of ongoing communication is critical. The framing of that communication and showing concern for students, faculty, and staff is critically important. Don’t forget about the staff: they are part of the infrastructure. There is a tendency to take staff for granted and think they will just soldier on, but we need to support them too.
Third, don’t forget the humanity part of this. Caring for our students is critical. We need to think about what life looks like beyond this crisis to provide hope to our campus community. Frankly, if someone asked me three weeks ago about the likelihood of the entire faculty moving to a virtual learning environment, I would have said zero chance. And now we’ve done that. This experience will inform the conversation about virtual learning at our institution and in this country moving forward. I am encouraged that higher ed is stepping up to meet this challenge in a way that some didn’t think was possible.