SJR Column: Dealing with COVID-19, April 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting unprecedented challenges around the world. With the number of cases accelerating across Illinois and the U.S., higher education institutions, including the University of Illinois Springfield, are making proactive decisions almost daily – prioritizing the health and safety of students, faculty, staff and visitors while at the same time continuing to deliver on the educational mission of the university.

How does a university prepare for such an exceptional situation? What assets are most important for successfully navigating such an emergency? How are priorities determined and decisions made? Today’s UIS Perspectives provides a brief window into the UIS response.

As is the case with any emergency, the first critical asset is preparedness. Long before the first case of COVID-19 disease was reported in December 2019, UIS had a well-developed Emergency Response Plan.  A public health epidemic is one of 15 primary hazards identified in the plan, which provides operational guidance and recognizes responsibilities and duties to be assumed in order to protect the health and safety of members of the university community and continue essential operations.

The Centers for Disease Control confirmed the first COVID-19 case in the U.S. on Jan. 21 (in Washington state). By early February, both the University of Illinois System and UIS had activated another critical asset…people – creating COVID-19 response teams that include decision-makers as well as communications and public health experts who have the knowledge and experience to help guide the ongoing response.

With the leadership of Associate Chancellor Kelsea Gurski, UIS quickly developed a communications plan and created a COVID-19 website – an important platform to deploy messages, provide trusted information and respond to questions and concerns.

As everyone now knows, the COVID-19 virus is highly contagious and is spread mainly between people who are in close contact with each other and via frequently touched surfaces. Social distancing is an essential strategy to limit spread of the disease.

Given the social distancing imperative, UIS made the decision in early March to migrate all courses from face-to-face instruction to remote teaching for the remainder of the Spring semester. At the same time, Director of Residence Life Brian Kelley advised residential students, with the exception of international students and students with extenuating circumstances, to move home for the remainder of the term. These actions were implemented with remarkable efficiency thanks to exceptional leadership at the unit level and outstanding cooperation by students, faculty and staff who understood the public health priority.

Provost Dennis Papini has been at the forefront of the transition to remote teaching and learning. “Perhaps the greatest assets UIS already had in place,” he says, “are a world-class faculty, many of whom are already well-versed in remote instruction, and a remarkable team of professional staff led by Vickie Cook in the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service (COLRS) and Tulio Llosa in Instructional Technology Services (ITS).”

“Every employee in COLRS and ITS has been available while working remotely to support both faculty and students virtually 24 hours a day seven days a week,” Papini adds.

UIS Theatre professor Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson refers to Kara McElwrath, Assistant Director of Client Services in ITS, as “Employee of the Millennium.” Collaborating via Zoom remote conferencing, McElwrath helped create a strategy for online instruction for an Acting class, and then met with Professor Thibodeaux-Thompson and her students for a synchronized audio/video session – providing step-by-step instructions on how to record and submit their eventual remote performances during the rest of the semester.

Essential services on campus have continued uninterrupted, with staff adapting to the temporary “new normal” and taking full advantage of digital technologies to stay connected to both colleagues and students.

For those remaining on campus, dining services continues with a “Grab and Go” menu. Student Health and Counseling Services are providing telehealth sessions as well as in-clinic appointments with staff practicing necessary social distancing. Recreational Services is offering activities online like group fitness classes, kickboxing, interactive games and stress management activities.

According to Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Clarice Ford, one asset that has served students well during this challenging time is trust. “We rely on the people we trust to get things done,” she says, “and during this uncertain time students have looked to those they trust – including Student Affairs staff – to guide them through.”

Like many others, I’ve been social distancing and working often from home – using Zoom, email and phone to continue work with colleagues. But as I turned off 11th Street a few days ago for my daily swing through campus, I heard the unmistakable sound of a bat against a ball – something I thought I wouldn’t hear for the rest of this year since spring sports have been suspended. Pulling into the baseball complex, I found two UIS student-athletes, members of the Prairie Stars baseball team, each in a separate batting cage, hitting balls.

“Online classes are going fine,” one of them told me in answer to my question. “We’re going to get through this and we’re going to be back next season – better than ever.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is most certainly presenting unprecedented challenges. But I’m proud to say we’re deploying our assets effectively and, to quote two resilient young members of the UIS community, “We’re going to get through this and we’re going to be back next season – better than ever.”

 

Susan Koch is Chancellor at the University of Illinois Springfield

 

 

Chancellor Susan J. Koch