Without exception, the current pandemic presents a challenging time for student housing officers. COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis for which there is no playbook – you and your colleagues are writing it every day. Learning from each other and sharing best practices, successes, and even failures, is never more important than in a time of crisis or rapid change. It is in this spirit that we are proud to launch “Campus Perspectives,” a blog series designed to share experiences and knowledge throughout the student housing profession. Each week we will pose a new question to campus leaders and bring you their responses. Our goal is to provide a resource for those looking for information and guidance through today’s ever-changing landscape.
Question: Housing officers and other campus officials have been on the front lines of the response to COVID-19. As you reflect on the last few weeks, what has been your greatest challenge?
The greatest challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic has been related to the way in which decisions are being made and the pace of those decisions. In normal operations there is time to engage with staff when making decisions of significance. Recently this has not been the case. We are making decisions with very tight timelines, a few hours or less, dictated by the pace at which CDC, Federal and State mandates are coming down. I had a staff person comment to me recently that they didn’t know of a certain direction and I responded that I didn’t either until 2 hours ago when my boss gave me this new information. What has been helpful during this challenge is in the willingness for everyone to come together (zoom is good for that) for a brief chat on an issue at almost any time during the day, weekends included. The need for transparency is even more important as students, families and staff are wanting at least some assurance that you are being as forthcoming as you can. Many of our answers have been “that is a good question we will get back to you with an answer soon” and for the most part our students and families have respected that answer.
The great challenge has been that folks – employees, students, parents – are all looking for stability and nothing is truly stable right now. There have been days when decisions change within a matter of hours. How you start your work day is dramatically different than how you end it. The result of this, as a leader, is that folks look to you to provide what stability and consistency that you can while making it safe to be vulnerable and ask for what is needed. In residence life, managing crises is among our specialties. We train for the worst situations our students can encounter in their lives. It’s heavy when you think about it: Moments that can change young adults’ lives forever often happen in our floor lounges, residence hall rooms, and staff members’ offices. So the resilience that comes from that type of work offers a bit of muscle memory when it comes to decision-making in a time of COVID. However, none of us have trained for this. Even if you are the best prepared campus and organization, you likely have not predicted the impact of a global pandemic of this scale. It’s an exercise daily in giving grace, receiving grace, and doing right by the information you have at the moment with the agility to change course when it’s needed. And we all know that even with the innovative practices many institutions hope to employ at present, we are ill-equipped for agility. We, who rely on academic calendars and the predictable rhythm of each week of the year that is the heartbeat to our work, are used to having that as the backdrop for the energy our students bring to our days. Right now, we are all in it together, sorting through what is muddy at best, and aiming to do right daily by the information we have at the moment. You have to think moment by moment about what is important to share, how it is conveyed, how do we restore a bit of predictability, and continually keeping empathy at the forefront. Grace, agility, empathy, repeat.
The greatest challenge we have faced thus far has been our ability to quickly and effectively communicate decisions and information to students and stakeholders, while leaving open the possibility for expedient change. Countless times over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself ready to execute a plan or pass along critical information, when suddenly I’ve been forced to halt and change course, due to new information coming to light. Although the situation has been extremely challenging, it’s been inspiring to work with people from all levels of the institution to help information reach students, all motivated by the goal to keep students safe and healthy. I have also been amazed at the outpouring of helpfulness and support from colleagues at other institutions who share the same goal. I believe it’s this collective offering of kindness and working together that will help us stand up to, and conquer the next set of challenges likely to come our way.
I am charged with developing a safe living environment for the approximately 350 residents who received permission to continue living on campus. One of the biggest challenges has been to design policies and procedures that keep residents safe while also ensuring safe working conditions for the student and professional staff who have stayed on campus to work and serve on-call. I am laser focused on thinking about precautions that need to be put in place before asking a staff member to do the simplest tasks – such as lockouts, which might require staff to touch at least 10 different surfaces before the task is complete! I feel a huge sense of responsibility to get it right so that I can protect staff lives. Yet I know the success of the elaborate systems put in place are totally dependent on the personal integrity of both staff and residents to responsibly follow social distancing protocols, CDC recommendations, and our departmental procedures.
One of the greatest challenges as we adapted to the pandemic was the pace. I love a high speed environment and have always enjoyed managing in a crisis, but this was FAST. We were getting a constant barrage of requests and questions from above while trying to manage operations. The situation evolved very quickly too. We went from encouraging March break travelers to consider postponing their trips to encouraging all residents to move out very quickly. Institutionally we had already adopted a incident management structure to manage the situation. However, we also shifted our department structure to manage things locally. I placed some people into new roles and flattened our organizational structure to make communication easier and implement decisions more quickly. Although totally unprecedented we had been preparing for a pandemic for 10-15 years. When we were doing all that planning I had never anticipated the pace and dynamism of the situation.
The most significant challenge we have faced in the last few weeks has been effectively communicating to our students through a rapidly evolving situation. In particular it was a challenge to relay to students that although we value that many of them see residence as their home, campus housing may not be the best environment for all individuals during the pandemic. The decision to close our residences to all but international students and domestic students with nowhere else to go was very difficult. Although made in the interest of public safety, this decision created anxiety for many of our students. Due to the nature of social distancing, our communication style in this situation was very centralized, and we did not have the opportunity for much dialogue with our students before they moved out.