How has COVID-19 impacted your work?
It’s impacted me on two levels. One is just in a general job. We have daily COVID-19 meetings, and we’ve been talking about COVID-19 for a while – I think longer than people might have thought. We were asked to talk about it at the January Board of Trustees meeting, for example. With things changing – sometimes daily, sometimes hourly – we really decided to have daily meetings. We’ve never had a daily meeting on anything before. We have regular standing meetings for lots of different committees, but nothing like this.
I’d say personally what’s really different is our offices are just quiet: no one’s on campus, the campus is closed. The school isn’t closed. I think that’s important to say because that means different things to different people, but the buildings are closed. We’re restricting people on campus and how many people are there for safety reasons. I always have snacks in the office for students, and I finally said to myself, “I’m just going to take the snacks home,” and I have to say I’m kind of teary-eyed taking the snacks home.
What is your role in keeping the University running?
We are figuring out recruitment – how are we recruiting students during this time? We had to make a decision early about canceling student receptions, which was not something anybody was taking lightly. Now we’re looking at, “How do we do recruitment in this new world order?” Students can’t come to campus. How do we get their questions answered? How are we making sure that offices are functioning to do financial aid when obviously students need financial aid.
Residence life reports to the Dean of Students, and the Dean of Students reports to me, so it was about trying to figure out, initially, our isolation plan. How do we get the students back? How do we get them to move out of the residence halls in a fashion that would be safe for everyone? We also work with students with housing and food insecurity. It’s also about making sure that we had a plan for students who were homeless or who did not have safe living conditions. Because – if we’re really doing this for safety – we didn’t want to send somebody back to a situation that wasn’t healthy.
I started a laptop loaner program my second year in this position. But, we already loaned out all the laptops. IT refurbished a whole bunch of laptops that had been turned in and last Friday they delivered 20 laptops to my office.
I’m meeting a student who lives in Worcester. I live in Worcester. We can mail a laptop to a student, but it could take three or four days. I’m going to be meeting her in the parking lot of a McDonald’s because she said, “I don’t have a lot of gas money.” I was thinking, “I live in Worcester. Is there somewhere that we can meet and I can give you this laptop so you don’t have to waste money on gas?”
I do the Student Support Fund, which is one of the funds that helps students in crisis and emergency. We’re trying to figure out internet access things for people, and if we can help either reimburse people or help them get some devices if they have poor internet access, and that will be supported through the Student Support Fund.
There’s just so much stuff going on that it’s not the same, from one day to the next.
Do you have more work than you normally do?
I think there’s a lot of people that are doing more, but for many people it’s different work. Driving to give a student a laptop is not something that I normally do, but it’s not something that I haven’t done in the past. It’s just more of that and less of other things.
We’d be preparing to do new student reception, but instead we’re thinking, “What if we have to do online orientation?” We’re still having orientation committee meetings, but now they’re different.
There’s just a lot more need to collaborate, because there’s so many things that affect so many offices. We had to figure out how to have everybody work remotely. It wasn’t just, “How are people going to deliver their coursework remotely?” It was, “How are we going to do Health Services or Counseling Services?”
Study abroad reports directly to me. We were planning on having a working group to talk about different kinds of policies for faculty/staff travel. But instead – what pushed us into having extra meetings – was when I saw on the news that Austria was stopping train service from Italy. I contacted Jane Decatur who’s the director and I said, “We’ve got to send something out to those students. We need to start encouraging them to come back.” Because if one country is starting to close a border, something’s going on that we don’t necessarily know about.
Have you faced any major challenges in the past few weeks or months?
I think the biggest challenge is having to be as flexible as we’ve been. We’ve made plans in the morning, and then the governor has a press conference, and we’ve had to change those plans. And it’s one thing to say, “We’re changing plans,” and it affects your committee or your group or your team. But to have it affect 3,500 students or all of the residence halls – that’s been a challenge.
Everyone has their own worries. Someone said to me, “Are you tired?” And I said, “Well, my cousin’s a nurse. So every time I think about being tired, I think about her and I know I’m not as tired as she is.” The challenge is helping people manage that anxiety and manage being overwhelmed when there’s 15 different emails and 15 different things coming on.
Doing Zoom meetings is great, but it also means that you don’t often have a lot of breaks. At least, if you have face-to-face meetings, people stop and have to get up and walk to another room. But now you’re like, “Oh, I guess I’m just in the Zoom meeting. And I’ll go to this other Zoom meeting right now.”
One of the biggest challenges is making sure we’re contacting everyone. That was a big struggle. We knew a lot of students weren’t checking email, which is one of the reasons why we actually went to the point of using the alert system to remind people to check their email.
Getting people the information that they need and not having misinformation is a challenge. In this situation rumors can be dangerous. Going forward, the challenge is nobody knows what’s going to happen. Nobody knows when things are going to go back to any sense of normalcy and even what that looks like. So, it’s dealing with not knowing what’s necessarily going to happen tomorrow, and that makes people very anxious and sometimes on edge.
What advice do you have for students?
My general advice to students is don’t be afraid to ask questions. I know a lot of times students don’t like to ask questions because they’re embarrassed or they don’t want to look dumb, but this is definitely not a time not to ask questions. I used to say all the time when I was a faculty member, “There are no dumb questions.”
I taught online before, and advice I used to give to students taking courses online or taking courses remotely, is you really need to set up a schedule for yourself. It’s harder to work remotely than I think a lot of people think. If you’re a student that goes to class and just likes to absorb or not say much, you are still counted as present when you do that face-to-face course. But if you don’t “speak,” and whether you’re typing in something in a discussion board, often you’re not counted as being there. Be honest if you’re having difficulty with technology or you’re having difficulty with your laptop or your internet access. Tell people right away. And also, cut yourself some slack. This is a really stressful time. And, this is unprecedented. No one has lived through anything like this before. No one’s expecting you to be perfect.