Pandemic creates university administrative challenges

What a time in higher education due to COVID-19. The spring semester with the dramatic shift to online classes has ended and virtual graduation ceremonies held. But what plans are being considered for the start of the school year next fall?

I asked Dr. David Bulla, professor and chair of the Department of Communications at Augusta University, to share his outlook from an administrator’s perspective. Bulla, a Civil War historian, taught at Iowa State University and Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates prior to joining the faculty at Augusta University.

by David W. Bulla

The first challenge is the novel coronavirus itself.

David Bulla

David Bulla at Augusta University

Once we return to face-to-face classes, how do we discourage students who exhibit virus symptoms not to attend class? How do we notify the classmates of students who have tested positive? We’re working on that policy right now.

We also have students working on the front lines—students who work in medical centers. After all, Augusta University is the home of the Medical College of Georgia, and quite a few health sciences students take media literacy and health communication classes that my department teaches, and all AU students have to take our public speaking class.

At the same time, while the novel coronavirus has come to dominate all of our waking thoughts and monopolizes the information coming to us from the news media, we really do not know that much about it.

Every day we learn something new, and the symptoms seem to change every time one picks up the New York Times to read about COVID-19. Certainly, folks with pre-existing lung and heart conditions, the elderly, those with diabetes, and those with autoimmune issues are most at risk.

The first wave seems to be slowing down in the big cities of the nation, but positives and deaths are rising in rural areas. Moreover, there is information about another phenomenon related to the virus that affects the young adversely, and the latest is a trend where the illness stays for months, with milder symptoms, and gradually wears down its victims.

The news on the vaccine front has been positive the last two weeks, but a friend of mine who is retired from the Medical College of Georgia says vaccines take a long time to test. He seriously doubts if we have a viable vaccine by the end of the year.

How do we operate in the fall?

Perhaps the biggest strategic challenge is how do we operate in the fall.

David Bulla and River Gracey telecasting basketball game

David Bulla and River Gracey telecasting an AU men’s basketball game in December 2019. Bulla was the producer and the halftime guest, and Gracey was the play-by-play announcer.

There are some 4,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States, and all are grappling with variables never before imagined by administrators. The University System of Georgia (USG) has decided to re-open our campuses in August, but the details are slow to leak out.

While there seems to be a preference for face-to-face instruction, we have the flexibility to teach online only or with a hybrid approach. The unveiling of AU’s plan for the fall will be announced after Memorial Day, so what we have been planning at the department level is tentative.

Child care is an important issue for many faculty. About half of the faculty in my department, myself included, have children at home. A few members of our faculty prefer to teach online because of family situations, and one professor is going the hybrid route because he already instructs online one day of the week and then has open lab the other day—he teaches media production classes. We already were teaching several courses online before the March lockdown this past spring semester. Those, of course, will continue as virtual classes.

As department chair, I need to make sure that the students in the classes that have switched to fully or partially virtual instruction are aware of the change. Again, the situation is fluid, and our college decided last week to list everything that is not already online as being hybrid and that even the most hard-core face-to-face advocates need to have a minimum amount of their course information (syllabus, policies, contact information) in our learning management system.

Logistics of face-to-face classes

I worry about the logistics of returning to face-to-face instruction.

About 30 students have signed up for my media literacy class. The classroom is not big enough to put the students six feet apart. It was suggested that we teach 15 students on one of the scheduled days per week, another 15 students on the other scheduled day, and then have asynchronous instruction for the second class meeting for all 30 students.

David Bulla and Britt Christensen

David Bulla and Britt Christensen discussed media coverage of the 2016 presidential election at the American Community School while Bulla was on faculty at Zayed University.

However, that means the professor will be spending more than three hours a week instructing. Thus, I have decided to teach media literacy online.

Furthermore, nobody has talked about issuing masks to both students and faculty, nor has anyone said anything about social distancing in the hallways, elevators, and non-instructional assembly areas like our building’s small cafeteria.

Student internships

Another issue is that in the Department of Communication we push professional internships, but the face-to-face internships with media companies have been put on hold. The media companies—television, radio and print media—don’t want any more people, including students, in their buildings than necessary. Same for the university’s public relations-marketing arm, which traditionally had been happy to have our students as interns.

An unintended positive consequence is that we are finding internships with smaller and non-profit media organizations for our students that are being done virtually. All of this wipes out our ability to make a site visit, but we certainly can stay in touch with employers via email and video-telephonic sites like Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex or Zoom.

With a dearth of internship opportunities for a half dozen of our students, I decided to serve as the adviser of our student newspaper for the summer. Those students have to work 150 hours for The Bell Ringer, and learning to report during the pandemic is a challenge.

Budget cuts

Meanwhile, USG has decided to cut budgets by 14 percent for Fiscal Year 2020-2021, which starts July.

What does this mean for the departments in my college?

First, it means the cancellation of all research and conference travel funding. This is a no-brainer as most conferences have been either cancelled or are going virtual. Then, though, I find out that the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication is charging $255 for those “attending” online. This is a lot of money for those of us who want to “attend” a virtual conference and pay out of pocket.

The second major cutback involves each faculty member taking furlough days during the academic year. So far, it looks like one day a month of no work and no pay, and there has been little grousing by our faculty. Most are being stoical at this point, accepting the cuts as inevitable given the circumstances of the pandemic.

There are other issues, such as do we go forward with live public speaking events. We have the Constitution Day Lecture and a planned talk about medical ethics by a professor from California that Communication was planning with the Philosophy faculty.

We also have a leftover Future of the First Amendment panel that we cancelled in March. Do we finally run it face to face, or do we run it virtually using, say, Zoom? And what about our scholastic journalism conference? Cancel it for a year or try to run it virtually? It already had been painful but inevitable to cancel our Transnational Journalism Conference, which was to happen this week.

Decisions made by other universities

Every day, news from around the world about what other higher education systems are doing in the coming year makes us reconsider what we are planning here.

Recently, Cambridge University in England decided to go online throughout 2020-2021. Duke University promised to re-open in Fall 2020, but it would not publish the details until the end of June, according to its student newspaper, The Chronicle. The president of the university said the approach would be “the best and safest possible configuration.”

Like Cambridge, the California State University system earlier had decided to continue virtual instruction through the fall semester. Nearby to me, the University of South Carolina has announced it will teach face to face for most of the semester but will go virtual after the Thanksgiving break. Notre Dame has a similar plan.

We also see the University of Akron, Ohio University, and Western Michigan making significant cuts to their programs or laying off professors.

Next, the president of the University of Michigan announced that his football team would not play in the fall unless all students are taught in a normal fashion, meaning most would must have on-campus, face-to-face instruction. The Chronicle of Higher Education says about two-thirds of colleges and universities are planning face-to-face instruction.

The variety of approaches shows the relative uncertainty, and this is planted in the back of the minds of administrators around the country.

Flexibility and creativity

As my president says continually, this is a time for flexibility and creativity, but all of us are a bit uncomfortable with the uncertainty—which of course takes us back to the virus itself.

What will its status be on August 10 when we start our fall semester? How severe will the expected second wave be? At this point, administrators have many more questions than answers.

We will have a plan in place by August, but what will the virus decide to do as time goes by?

Contact David Bulla at dbulla@augusta.edu

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