Responding to the COVID-19 crisis: 5 key areas for student affairs leaders

Expert Insight

Responding to the COVID-19 crisis: 5 key areas for student affairs leaders

As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, the issues and questions facing student affairs leaders continue to evolve rapidly. Ten days ago, most institutions were discussing canceling large events, extending spring break, rolling out procedures for quarantine, transitioning to remote classes, and/or closing the campus. As institutions navigated these decisions and implemented their action plans, new questions and areas for focus have emerged for student affairs leaders in both the short- and long-term.

1. Redefining what student emergency funds support

Traditionally, these funds provided resources to students facing extenuating circumstances, such as expensive car repairs for a commuter student, unexpected medical bills, or needing to travel home for a funeral and being unable to pay for transportation. Across the last few weeks, however, students are reaching out to emergency funds for help with storing or shipping belongings, returning home from a cancelled study abroad, and buying laptops and/or WiFi hotspots in order to participate in remote classes.

As a growing number of students look to access emergency grants, it is important for institutions to consider temporarily expanding what types of expenses can be supported through the fund (dollars permitting). Clarify what the fund can be used for and the process for accessing funds, particularly since large numbers of students are no longer on campus. Finally, proactively reach out to advancement colleagues to discuss fundraising appeals to help sustain the emergency fund and ensure funding doesn’t become depleted.

2. Rapidly creating community online

As colleges and universities cancel all in-person events and move to remote classes, student affairs leaders and their teams are focusing on how to rapidly create community online. Ideas seen in recent days include Zoom coffee breaks with student leaders, first generation student hangouts, virtual trivia breaks, online recovery communities, and “ask me anything” sessions with senior leaders. Across the next few weeks, we recommend tapping into ideas from student leaders, student employees, and younger professionals and also engaging alumni—virtually and in their local communities—as we experiment with how to engage our community in new ways.

3. Engaging and managing remote student employees

Many institutions have committed to paying their student workers and having them work remotely, which is an excellent way to address financial needs and continue the significant learning that occurs through student employment. However, this decision puts supervisors in the position of having to build the plane while flying it. While there are lots of tips on working from home that can be found online, these pieces are written with working adults in mind. Particular challenges for remote student employees are rescoping their roles, figuring out the best tasks to deploy them against, and rethinking check-ins.

One institution taking the lead here is the University of Delaware, which has created a Remote RA Position Description for Spring 2020. Specific responsibilities of this role “include continuing to engage your residents via electronic or video communication and convening two virtual community events designed to brings residents together for connection, referral, and information-sharing.”

4. Practicing self-care in uncertain times

The topic of burnout is one that comes up frequently in Student Affairs, especially for younger professionals and those who live-in and/or on-call. However, the circumstances and events we are currently experiencing are unlike anything we have seen.

It is more important than ever for Student Affairs leaders and their teams to focus on self-care. In particular, how can we support each other virtually?

There is no shortage of creativity as student affairs practitioners tackle this topic. Some teams are doing virtual happy hours while others are offering the option to participate in group meditations while others are creating online discussion boards where people can post successes, funny memes, and feel-good stories. And there is always the value of a free meal for those still working long hours on campus. What is one tactic that you as a leader can commit to trying with your team in the coming weeks?

5. Creating space for reflection

Currently, colleges and universities are being pushed to act fast and innovate at an unprecedented pace. As student affairs divisions try different things and adapt in the coming weeks and months, it is important not to lose sight of the lessons learned. Therefore, we recommend that leaders and practitioners make space to document and reflect both individually and as a group on what worked, what didn’t work, and what they have learned in this evolving landscape. These insights and conversations will provide powerful material for after-action reviews and pull-ups to inform the response to the next crisis situation that is inevitably around the corner.

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