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Immediate Impacts of COVID-19

Check out all of our COVID-19 coverage and analysis.

Immediate Impacts of COVID-19

This is Part 2 of a 5-part series on the Strategic Implications of COVID-19 for higher ed. Part 1 of this series outlines the Scale of the Pandemic. Part 3 looks at the Near-Term Impacts (2020-21). Part 4 looks at the Near-Term Strategic Priorities (2020-21). Part 5 looks at the Lasting Impacts beyond 2021 (still in progress).


Fear & Frustrations

Particularly for international students or those living in campus dorms, the gradual escalation of closures and cancellations on campus have created ever-increasing uncertainty and fear for several weeks now. Messaging to students has quickly shifted from “the risk is low” and “we’re open as usual” to “this is an unprecedented health emergency” and “you must vacate residence immediately.” (Some residences across North America are already being offered up to house patients in quarantine, too.)  Directives have been confusing: international students are told to return home, but that the borders are closed and flights are cancelled; parents should come help students vacate immediately, but need to put themselves into 14 days of isolation upon arrival. All of this has been compounded by economic anxiety: many part-time student jobs have been eliminated with the shut-down of restaurants, bars, fitness clubs, and shopping centres.

Student mental health was already a top concern, and anxiety was at an all-time high last year. Now our society is experiencing a crisis unprecedented in generations. The demand for counselling and mental health supports is spiking, just as fitness centres and therapy dogs have been made unavailable.


Studies Disrupted

In the final weeks of term, the abrupt suspension of in-person classes and impromptu shift to online delivery would be a significant disruption to student learning by itself. To compound the challenge for students, after class suspensions ranging from one to five days (or even two weeks in Quebec), most institutions have announced that they still intend to complete the term on schedule, with just a few exceptions (such as NSCC or UoGuelph). Students are scrambling to adapt to a new form of class delivery and a compressed schedule, while also coping with disruptions to their incomes, housing, social lives and activities. Hands-on labs, clinical placements, field studies, semesters abroad, unpaid co-op terms and internships are being suspended or cancelled across the country, removing the “work-integrated” part of learning for virtually every student.

No-one can pretend that this is learning as usual.


Digital Inequality

Already, institutions are recognizing that many students from less affluent households have no access to laptops, tablets, or broadband internet at home. Many depend on a smartphone with a monthly data cap, although some providers are lifting those limits as a temporary measure. Some institutions are attempting to keep open campus computing labs, although mice, keyboards and touchscreens pose a disinfection challenge at the best of times. Others are buying thousands of additional laptops, or repurposing staff laptops, to provide them as loaner devices. Moreover, many students being sent home to rural, remote, and indigenous communities will be disadvantaged by a lack of broadband internet access. (See Near-term impacts of COVID-19, coming soon).

The so-called “digital divide” will exacerbate inequality for many disadvantaged students.


Research Stalled

For faculty members, researchers, graduate students or postdocs involved in laboratory research, health authority orders to socially distance and shut down campuses represent a major disruption to ongoing research which could last months. (See The Scale of the Pandemic.) At most campuses, exceptions are apparently possible for critical projects in which significant losses of test animals or equipment could occur, or for COVID-19 related research, of course. Many faculty and graduate TAs have had to reallocate research time to their learning curve for online delivery of courses. Several universities have already announced that they will be putting “tenure clocks” on hold, in recognition of the significant impact this shutdown will have on academic progression.

Depending upon the duration of this shutdown, career trajectories could be permanently altered for thousands of academics.


Conferences Cancelled

For years now, attendance has been slowly dwindling at many academic conferences, thanks to tightening travel budgets and concerns about carbon footprints. Once the biggest annual opportunity for job interviews, conferences have been gradually replaced by online interviews. But now, with the Coronavirus shutdown, suddenly everything from the Congress of the Humanities and and Social Sciences to the Tokyo Olympics looks like it will be stopped dead. Conference cancellations may challenge the financial viability of many scholarly associations.

Between travel bans and budget cuts, virtual conferences are almost certain to replace in-person ones for the next six months, and possibly for years to come.


Events Cancelled

Government restrictions on large gatherings quickly resulted in the cancellation of campus lectures, year-end recitals, performances and exhibits, and of course sanctioned and even some unsanctioned St Patrick’s Day parties. Disappointed students had to change their Spring Break plans for the sunny south, or proceed despite the health risks. Many varsity athletes found their seasons cut short before regional or national playoffs, and with just days to go before the NCAA’s “March Madness.” About one-third of institutions have finally, reluctantly, announced the cancellation or postponement of spring commencements or convocations as well. Others, like Maine’s Kennebec Valley Community College, are reportedly planning to hold their graduation ceremony in a drive-in movie theatre, with faculty and staff lining the streets in their cars. And Brock University’s Badger Athletics is planning to hold their annual awards gala on Instagram Live.

COVID-19’s impact on student life, morale, and satisfaction was immediate, but in some cases the impacts on careers may last even longer.  


Grades Abandoned

Some of the toughest changes to make on campus involve academic policies, which required a meeting of Senate or Academic Council, unless institutions had an emergency protocol in place already (like York University did).

Virtually all institutions have now acknowledged that final exams cannot be administered in person this spring. Student assessment is being altered at the last minute, at the discretion of individual faculty members. Some are replacing traditional exams with written assignments, take-home exams, or online multiple-choice exams. Others are reweighting assessment so that work completed to date constitutes the full term. Recognizing the significant changes to delivery and assessment, most institutions are extending the voluntary course withdrawal date, often to the final day of classes. Temporary “academic forgiveness” policies are being announced, to allow students to retake courses (such as at uManitoba). Already several institutions have announced a global shift away from course grades to a “credit/no credit” or “pass/fail” system for this term (such as uAlberta), or at least the option (such as uCalgary and Memorial).

Many student transcripts will permanently include a *COVID-19 footnote.

Moreover, around the world major placement exams have been cancelled this spring, from the A-Levels and GCSEs in the UK, to the Chinese Gaokao, and the American SATs. Suddenly the entire higher ed world has been thrust into a test-optional admissions world – which might not be such a bad thing. (See Long-term impacts of COVID-19, coming soon). On many campuses, even teacher evaluations have been cancelled this term, or have been made optional at the discretion of the instructor.


Recruitment Halted

The COVID-19 shutdown hit North American campuses at the worst possible time for student recruitment efforts, just days before scheduled March Break open houses and campus tours that would help most students make their choices for Fall. High school visits were halted abruptly by the closure of school systems across the country. International recruiters had to adjust their itineraries on the go, based on border closures.

Many campus recruiters are still putting a brave face on, continuing with their social media activities and promoting virtual campus tours, but the reality is that recruitment is nowhere near business as usual.

Recruiters and marketing communications departments are going to be doubling down online, with virtual tours, online lectures, webinars, Facebook Live chats, and more in a desperate bid to shore up enrolment for the Fall term. But the reality is that no-one is sure just what that Fall student experience will be. (See Near-term impacts of COVID-19, coming soon, for more about recruitment.)


Working Remotely

Social distancing recommendations, states of emergency, and enforced lockdowns are forcing most institutional faculty and support staff to work from their homes, likely for months. (See The Scale of the Pandemic.) At this writing, more than two-thirds of campuses across Canada have already begun operating on an “essential services” model, in which all student services are offered virtually, online or by telephone (aside from essential health, security, and residence staff). Not only does service delivery need to be rethought, but workforce management will need to change as well. HR departments are developing remote working guidelines and policies at a breakneck speed, including issues of liability and workplace health and safety. Co-workers are adopting software tools like Slack, Zoom, Mural and Microsoft Teams to try to stay connected and coordinated. Most institutions have management styles and collective agreements focused on traditional metrics like hours of work, break times, and so on – but companies managing virtual workforces tend to measure deliverables instead of hours worked.

If campus shutdowns persist for months, management styles, performance evaluations, hiring and even collective agreements may need rethinking.


Strained IT Infrastructure

Shifting thousands of instructors and hundreds of thousands of students from physical classrooms to online classes may place immense strain on internet infrastructure, depending on the tools instructors choose to use. (If they simply post slide decks on the LMS and depend on email, the bandwidth increase will be far less than if they start using Zoom to connect dozens of students in realtime videochats.) Some campuses have already announced investments to increase campus bandwidth by 50% or more (such as Carleton), to support students in residence and employees using VPNs remotely.

With millions of K-12 students moving online shortly too, joining millions of displaced workers at home watching Netflix, expect slower connections for everyone.

In a matter of weeks, your campus IT staff have had to deploy new tools and instructions, configure VPN access for critical system, ramp up cybersecurity protections, and figure out how to work from home themselves. Soon, they will need to figure out how to service malfunctioning equipment in the homes of staff and faculty.


This is Just the Beginning…

Whether or not the COVID-19 shutdown persists into Fall (see The Scale of the Pandemic), its effects will continue to be felt in higher education for years.

Continue reading about the Near-Term Impacts of COVID-19



What were your experiences in the first few months of the pandemic? What did we miss? Please post a comment below!

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