The coronavirus COVID-19 is the priority on everyone’s minds, and higher ed institutions are responding.

However, there is a lot of confusion, lack of communication, and missed opportunities as leaders attempt to address the crisis from the perspective of campus facilities, students, faculty and parents. Institutions need a resource that will allow them to work together and address this crisis in the most effective way possible.

Here at the Center for Higher Education Leadership, we are dedicated to providing a space for community, sharing of resources, providing vital content and disseminating information that higher ed administrators need to know, along with mentoring, online courses and webinars. Our mission is in supporting higher ed leaders so that they can effectively navigate the issues and crises that face their institutions, to more successfully do their jobs and, ultimately, improve the landscape of higher education for their students, faculty, and staff.


True to that mission, we are providing an array of vital resources on the COVID-19 coronavirus, which has been designated a global pandemic and is affecting higher education campuses around the United States and the world at a rapid rate. The situation seems to change on an hourly basis, as colleges and universities rush to keep their students and staff safe. Some are closing while others scramble to move their education online as fast as possible.

This morning, CHEL presented a live webinar addressing the coronavirus, with several experts to talk about the situation — exactly what it is, responsive and preventative measures, how it’s affecting campuses, and ideas for higher ed leaders moving forward in this time.

Watch a replay of the webinar here:

Coronavirus and Higher Ed Webinar

The webinar presenters included Terri Givens, founder and CEO of CHEL; Professor Kenneth Stedman, aka the “virus hunter,” of Portland State University; Futurist and Professor of English Bryan Alexander; and Eddy Conroy, Associate Director of Research Communications for the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.

Terri opened the discussion with a recount of her experience with the H1N1 crisis in 2009 at the University of Texas.

“One of the things that really struck me was the lack of communication,” Terri said. “It was overwhelming for me as a political scientist to suddenly be in charge of this massive effort. We did survive it with lots of help from the public officials. Luckily H1N1 wasn’t bad enough to talk about closing campuses.”

What exactly is the coronavirus?

She then introduced Ken Stedman, who led an overview of exactly what this particular virus is, how it’s spread, and what higher education leadership can think about in relation to it.

“We are seeing a lot of university closures, and campuses going online,” he said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is coronaviruses have been with us a long time. There have been four or five coronaviruses that have been circulating in humans for a while. They are generally a seasonal cold kind of thing, not really a big deal in terms of infection and response.”

But then, he continued, in 2003 the SARS virus hit. “That was the first of the big coronavirus outbreaks. It’s good that we had been studying them, because we really knew something about them. Lots of what we know about coronavirus today came from that.” He added that the strain that’s going around now, COVID-19, has some important similarities to SARS, as well as some important differences.

“With SARS, people were already really sick before they could transfer the virus. It was fairly easy to isolate, and that worked to get rid of it quickly.”

He said that when it comes to coronaviruses, terminology is important.

“This is a novel coronavirus, and the World Health Organization came up with the name for it. There’s a difference between the virus, and the disease the virus causes. SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus. COVID-19 is the disease it causes.”

On March 11, WHO declared this current virus as a pandemic. “The whole idea of a pandemic means something that is spreading worldwide,” Stedman said. “An epidemic is relatively confined in a geographic area. SARS never became a pandemic, because it never went worldwide.”

How is it spread, and how can we limit transference?

The biggest question people had from the beginning was how the virus is transferred. Stedman explained that it’s a respiratory virus.

“What happens is when you cough, or even talk, you’re producing what we call respiratory droplets. Someone can breathe those in, or they can land on a surface that can then be transferred.”

For example, we touch the area that contains the respiratory droplets, and then touch our faces, and the virus is transferred. Since it’s really hard to not to touch your face, the easiest thing to do is wash your hands and also wash surfaces, frequently.

Stedman addressed the question of how long this particular virus stays infectious on surfaces.

“There’s almost no evidence right now from people actually being affected from touching a surface, and then touching their face. It’s the coughing and talking too closely to someone that has been well shown to transmit the virus. So really, just staying more than a meter away from other people, especially when they’re talking or coughing, is key. Staying far enough away from people is really going to help a huge amount.

People should limit situations where they would be closer than a meter to other people — for example, sitting in a stadium or a crowded classroom. If you’re closer together than a meter, that’s how the transmission can happen.

“Even if you are in a crowd setting, as long as you’re relatively far apart, it’s pretty unlikely people will be exposed directly in those kinds of conditions,” he continued.

“In my lab, for example, we have the luxury of having great space, so we can continue in that space [staying far enough apart] without it being an issue.”

The future: two possible scenarios

Next, Bryan Alexander addressed the webinar attendees. As a futurist and the author of Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education, he said he does many things such as blogging, weekly discussions, and worldwide consulting.

“When it comes to the pandemic we’re experiencing now, this is something people in the futurist field feel has been coming for years, if not decades,” he said. “This is not something that has completely blindsided us.”

He referred to the 2011 movie Contagion, saying that it fairly accurately depicts the life cycle and effects of a pandemic virus.

Alexander offered two different outlooks on the path that COVID-19 could take.

We could see this particular coronavirus become a seasonal version of the flu. If it burns out fairly quickly, in a couple of months, and then returns in November or December, we may just think of this as a variation of the seasonal flu. People would get a covid shot, etc. That’s the low impact scenario.”

When it comes to higher education, Alexander said that what we’re having is a temporary emergency — but come August and September, students will pile back into their dormitories, which he called the campus equivalent of a cruise ship.

“What people are terrified about is, will this be like the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic? That death toll was almost inconceivable. That’s the nightmare scenario that everyone is afraid of now.”

He added that he didn’t believe that drastic of an outcome was any kind of possibility with today’s virus, but there very well could be a long-time scenario that could last months, with higher and higher numbers affected.

That’s the other scenario — a long-term health crisis that may come in waves, in peaks and valleys. In that case, we could see disruptions to society, and people maintaining social distancing. Higher ed would move mostly online, and businesses that rely on face-to-face transactions will be crippled, while others that are online will boom. Everything from dating to sports will be changed.”

Higher education institutions’ responses

After explaining those two possible scenarios, Alexander said that as higher education leaders, we needed to communicate and facilitate conversations around universities’ responses, closures, and actions. He keeps an ongoing, updated Google Sheet outlining college closures and changes.

“It looks like the usual pattern is for a campus to close for just a few days. The purpose of that time is to ramp up their ability to teach online. Following that, they flip over to instruction online. Some say they’ll do this for a week, a month, or until further notice. That’s been the usual pattern, but there are exceptions.”

One such exception is Berea College in New York, which is simply closing down, period, and not moving to online teaching.

“Everyone is copying each other’s language and using boilerplates. My favorite is the phrase ‘abundance of caution’.”

Importance of institutional policy around the virus

The resources for institutions play out, he said, but the more importance aspect is more of a policy question. He gave the example of Harvard University. “They just booted out a bunch of people really fast, and they’re getting a lot of flack about that. It’s really important to understand, do all of your students have homes they can go to if campus is closed?”

Many students do not have a home they can simply and easily return to when a campus shuts down. If they do have a family home, they may have an unsafe family life or be estranged from family. Even if that’s not the case, many students may not be able to afford the trip to get home.

“This is all affected by race, geography, socio-economic status, and the like,” Alexander said.

Then, there’s the huge question of how universities can make the transition to online instruction — especially so quickly. For those campuses that have remained open so far, he said they may have multiple motives.

“Partly they are waiting and seeing, partly they may not have the confidence to go online, or they may have faculty resistance to going online.”

Another major challenge in this situation is that of bias. SARS, which also originated in China, bore out this issue of bias. In last night’s address to the nation given by President Trump, Alexander said the President wrongly characterized COVID-19 as a “foreign virus.”

“Diseases don’t come from countries; they aren’t national diseases,” he stressed. “We need to be very careful of anti-Chinese bias, and you may see that play out in different ways. I’m waiting for the culture wars to play out.”

Online learning, and needs of faculty and students

If the issue for a campus is faculty resistance, how do we address that? Alexander said it’s through fostering the understanding that going online is the best answer in the situation.

Online learning is by far the best way we have for reaching students, that doesn’t involve spreading the disease. People have been working really hard at making online work better and easier. The people building those technologies are largely invisible, but they are the heros right now. Technology is getting better and better. We have extensively better technologies than even 10 years ago. Faculty and students are more acclimated to being online right now.”

Next, he addressed the issue about students who have nowhere else to go and must stay on campus. A big question is, what do those students do about accessing food services?

“I’m seeing dorms staying open for food service, but some are closing down completely. What do you do for food insecure students? Right now it’s completely all over the place.”

Likewise, there’s the issue of the “othering” mindset.

“If you’re less than 50 years old and you contract the virus, the odds of you dying are very small, 1%. If you’re over 60 your odds go up exponentially. Over 80, the odds of dying are very high. We have to really keep in mind the ‘othering’ — saying we don’t need to worry about them.”

Impact on food or housing insecure students

Last up was Eddie Conroy of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.

“I want to frame some of my comments around what we know about what our students look like,” he opened.

Referring back to the Berea College closure, he said that institution’s entire mission centers around enrolling low-income and minority students. “Their whole [student] population looks like the students we often see when we look at those who are hungry, homeless, or housing insecure. A large number of them are affected by food insecurity. Obviously as campuses close, many students can’t just jet off back home. They have nowhere else to go. Some of them, even if they have family, it may be an unsafe situation,” he added, echoing the concerns voiced by Alexander.

“That’s the underlying data we have, to show that these kinds of issues are going to affect a large amount of students as more and more campuses close,” Conroy continued. “If a large proportion of those students don’t have access to safe places to live or food outside of campus, we’re going to be making a vulnerable population, even more vulnerable.”

He stressed the importance of institutions providing resources for how to support students as their campuses close and/or go online.

Communicate to your students with care. There has been a lot of really bad information coming out from colleges, such as Harvard, which say ‘Hey we’re closing, get out by Friday’.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a community college with far fewer resources is much different than a wealthy Ivy League school. Yet some of them are doing a better job of this, he added.

“Even though you don’t have all the answers right now, communicate with care and let [your students] know they are important.”

The technology and access to care divide

Another big issue for students is the technology aspect. Many may not have access to reliable devices, and/or reliable access to the Internet off campus.

“Talk to your campus ISP,” Conroy suggested. “Are they able to provide free or low cost hotspots? Maybe you have something there you can leverage. They might be willing to assist so that students without those resources can still participate in online classes.”

Another big area of concern is the medical care of students. “A health center on campus might be their only access to medical care. How can they still get it? Provide resources. A lot of our students will be thinking about that.”

Conroy said that at the Hope Center, they have been talking a lot about emergency aid funds. With the help of Rise, the center is setting up an emergency Student Relief Fund to help aid students who have no resources to get home, or put their belongings in storage when they suddenly are pushed off campus, or need assistance with food or medical care. Edquity is doing some donation matching to this fund.

The last piece is thinking about your staff and faculty as well, he said. “This is a fearful time for everybody here, not just students. The reality is staff and faculty will have concerns of their own. Not all faculty are well equipped for going to teaching online from a classroom. Going from never having done that to suddenly being thrown into it can be really hard. There are resources out there you can share with staff and faculty as they shift to doing this work online.”

The next COVID-19 & Higher Ed webinar will be Thursday, March 19th at 9am Pacific, 1pm Eastern. Find more information here, and please share this registration link with colleagues who may want to register.


The webinar closed with time for questions from the audience to the panel.

Q: Are you seeing a trend with alumni groups stepping up?

Conroy: The trends that worry me are, I’m seeing a lot more about students supporting themselves, and alumni groups, and outside organizations, than support from within the institutions themselves. It tells me that colleges are not doing a great job of working on this and communicating. I do understand the huge challenges with something like this. But particularly when we look at the high resource institutions, they could be doing a lot better job of this.

Givens: As the parent of a college student as well, I can say that they are often not just communicating badly with students, but with parents and the public as well.

Q: What about campuses that have a large population of international students?

Conroy: A big question is, what will this do to their visas? You usually can’t study remotely on a student visa.

Q: What about the financial aspect – how hard will colleges be hit?

Alexander: The financial aspect is one we aren’t really seeing right now. Higher ed in the U.S. has been in a financial cramp for 12 years. If we manage to burn through COVID-19 in two months, the best case scenario, that means we’ll have at least three months of economic downturn or recession. This will definitely impact higher education institutions. Many have lower endowments, and parents may downshift in cost to what institutions they send their students to. If the situation is longer running and extends, then these issues will be exacerbated. Come Fall, we may see campuses hit with a further bill. This may push some of them into closures, consolidations, or mergers.

Givens: Too may schools, especially small liberal arts colleges, are on the edge financially. They’ll pull out of endowments to keep their cash flow going. They’ll be heavily impacted. My concern is how this is going to impact borderline students, who are suddenly being pushed online, or closures, to deciding they can’t afford to go back. Students with jobs they need, etc — there are so many financial components to this. It’s not just the impact on how to deal with the virus. Institutions have to deal with expenses such as the cost of getting Zoom, their cleaning protocol, etc. A lot of administration has their head down dealing with the immediate thing in from of them. You’ve only got a week or days to make the transition. It’s a huge challenge.

Conroy: We will see a long tail on financial issues for institutions. We don’t know what this will do for admissions and enrollment, especially for lower income students. I’m seeing campuses cut off their campus visit programs. All of this psychological decision-making will happen for many students and families.

Alexander: The perception people have is that if education is online, it must be cheaper. It’s not — it can be more expensive. We may see calls to reduce tuition, when colleges don’t necessarily have the resources to cover that.

A poll was done to see if the webinar attendees were interested in moving this to a weekly session for the next few weeks or months, as long as necessary while dealing with COVID-19. The overwhelming response was yes.

Download a transcript of the chat during the webinar here.

Here at the Center for Higher Education Leadership, we have many resources that we will be constantly updating. You can always click the “Coronavirus Resources” link in the top menu bar to access a constantly-updated library of resources. Please check our site regularly for updates and registration links for upcoming webinars on the topic, and join us as a member for access to a wealth of other resources including mentoring, online communities, exclusive content and courses, and in-depth guides.

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