School Administrating in a Time of Pandemic

As regular readers might know, this year I foolishly agreed to be the Undergraduate Director of our program. I figured it was my duty as a good corporate citizen to step up and serve, even though it’s a tiresome role filled with frustrations and endless crises.

Luckily, I have superb administrative staff helping me, and a wonderful department head backstopping the hard decisions. (Shout to KP who might be reading this!) I also have a new Dean who is very supportive of professors, and of whom I’m a big fan. (Shout out, too, to LT!)

The job took a weird turn this week with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. And today it occurred to me how…. interesting… it is that pandemic knocks at our door just as an Epidemiologist takes this role. I’m feeling some pressure to be a voice of reason and forethought.

Ottawa just got its first two cases, and most experts believe we’re about to be hit hard by the disease in the next few weeks. Several American universities, and one or two Canadian ones, have already cancelled classes outright or have moved everything online.

Our plans are in flux, and I’m not about to comment in this public space on whether the official plans are sufficient or rational. Instead I want to take a moment to explain some of the issues we are wrestling with. I would like the general citizenry to understand the complexities that professors and university administration are wrestling with.

First, as mentioned, there is high likelihood that the epidemic is about to be felt by Ottawa. I don’t expect the same harrowing images seen in Iran right now. But there will be increased anxiety –in some cases, panic– and profoundly increased drains on our medical and public health systems.

Ottawa Public Health is doing a great job getting ahead of this. I admire that they have closed public schools for two weeks, and have set up a site for community testing. The latter was clearly in the planning for some time, and the trigger was pulled once the WHO made the declaration of pandemic.

Our winter semester is almost over and we are nearing exam time. We are already seeing spikes in medical deferrals due to the much-discussed mental illness epidemic (yes, I’m calling it an epidemic) affecting North American campuses. This is putting great strain on my department’s administrative staff to accommodate. A new source of medical deferrals will not help the situation.

We want to encourage students who feel suspiciously unwell to stay home and self-isolate in order to slow the spread of the pandemic. But then we cannot punish them if it turns out that they test negative for COVID-19. Doing the right thing should never be punished.

Would this in theory represent a free pass for students wishing to skip an exam? An imagined cough? Or a falsified one? We may have to loosen our exam restriction policies, leading to an explosion of more deferrals, which would be a substantial source of stress on our administrative staff.

If classes get cancelled outright, do we truncate students’ grades? Modify them in some way to account for the reduced class time and possibly cancelled exams? Given our student body’s high reliance on grades for their next career step (i.e., medical school), this might be met with either joy or chaos, or both.

If exams are cancelled outright, how does this affect grades? Scholarships? Students who must now vacate their residences? These are not insoluble problems. But this is where management heroism can express itself to help us navigate through the storms.

Our campus has a small staff of people who photocopy all the exams. (I referred to them as the “reproduction staff” and immediately thought of my penis. Because that’s who I am.) What happens if they get sick and must self-isolate? Students cannot step in and copy exams; that’s a security breach. Our exam production machine then grinds to a halt.

Personally, I would like to see all exams moved online right away. Our LMS is Brightspace, and I have good experiences offering online exams on this platform. But of course there are paedagogical, tech fluency, and workload challenges to making that happen. More immediately, there might be legalistic challenges, as it might not be acceptable by the academic regulations to change the format and style of an exam to differ from what is described on the syllabus. This is where a directive from on high is required, to give professors’ regulatory cover when making such emergency changes.

I’ve had two professors contact me in the past hour to express their readiness and willingness to move exams to Brightspace as soon as I give them permission to do so. (I feel so powerful… even though I have no such power). But it remains unclear if the Brightspace servers can handle that much increased throughput!

If exams are not cancelled or moved online, there will likely be a large number of students either too afraid to show up to the writing halls, presenting with COVID symptoms and therefore self-quarantining, or genuinely infected and unable to write. Accommodating a large number of deferred exams is a huge administrative burden.

And what happens if the pandemic continues into the summer? When would these deferred students get to write their exams? A large number of them had planned on graduating in June. Suddenly, the plans of an entire generation are held up. This is traumatic and expensive.

More immediate challenges have to do with upcoming presentation events. Our graduate students and 4th year students present their independent research at a special event at the end of the month, representing a strong component of their grade.  Will this go on? I don’t know. Should it?

What of in-class group presentations that are forthcoming? If professors move their remaining classes online (as many wish to do) how do we accommodate such presentations? Sure, we can change them. But again, violating what is enshrined in the syllabus is a regulatory faux-pas that has serious legal implications. We await the legal cover from on-high before making such changes.

As a technophile, I lean toward the new media solutions, which were seemingly tailor-made for this scenario. We live in a magical time of synchronous online communication. Many platforms, like Zoom and Youtube Live, can well accommodate such challenges.

All right, I have blabbered enough. Time to go home. I just wanted to share with you some of the challenges facing us as we attempt to shepherd the semester into a soft landing in these weird times of pandemic.

Remember the mantra: we don’t need to stop the disease; we just need to slow it down.