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University pandemic response 'a marathon, not a sprint'

13 May 2020 | news

“Relentless and all-encompassing—and we don’t exactly know the end point 

That’s how one university staff member has described dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in her university.

“It’s more like a marathon than a sprint,” says Pam Thorburn, Director of Academic Student Services at Victoria University of Wellington.

But it’s a marathon that university staff had been in training for.

“We’ve been dealing with outbreaks of really contagious diseases such as measles really well,” says Pam. “We have skilled staff; we work well with regional public health authorities. We manage these things with a level of expertise that should give a level of comfort that we as a sector take these things responsibly and can manage them in a very organised and logical way.

“The lockdown  demonstrated just how quickly we could shift our student services, including all administration as well as support services, to a remote environment and how we’ve been able to quickly engage with students irrespective of location in New Zealand. We have continued to operate both effectively  and efficiently to support our students.”

Pandemic response

For Wellington University, this meant activating its pandemic response committee and procedures in the early stages of planning (pre-lockdown). When a travel ban was imposed in mid-March, the university’s Trimester 3 was still in progress, so staff were managing business as usual as well as meeting the challenges of the COVID-19 response.

“We had to think about Tri 3 exams,” says Pam. “We had questions about that and Tri 1 (the start of the 2020 academic year) and incoming students—not just international students, but domestic ones too. We had to look at how to get information out to them and to their parents, who were understandably anxious.

“We spent a lot of time making sure our communications were consistent across the university. There’s been a lot of co-ordination and integration between our communications team, academic staff, support services, international accommodation and health services, in particular. A significant challenge has been to support students in financial need and in study environments that may not always be the best experience.

“Volunteer programmes are still operating effectively; health and counselling services are actively working and monitoring more vulnerable students irrespective of where they are,” says Pam.

“One of our biggest challenges is dealing with the perceptions being fed through intensive media and social media, which are sometimes based more on misinformation rather than facts. So having to deal with and respond to that has been a challenge.

“People get hyped up very quickly. Social media channels weren’t as mature during the SARs epidemic, so a lot of effort is going into managing the perception of what is happening rather than the reality.”

International students

The Wellington University International (WUI) team has been working one-on-one with the large number of  international students who were unable to get to New Zealand for their studies. Staff had to crossmatch lists provided from Immigration New Zealand with their own data to confirm who has actually made it to New Zealand, and who was still overseas. Individual study plans were then put in place.

International students face unique challenges compared to domestic students, notes Pam. “Being able to support themselves without the benefit of being able to work is a similar concern to that of domestic students, but international students also have other anxieties, such as being remote from family, getting access to funds from home and concerns over work rights. Visa concerns, in particular, have contributed to heightened anxiety.

“Where possible, we need to be adaptable in these circumstances—otherwise we won’t be able to give students the level of support we need to. Government departments, however, operate under legislation that can constrain them, which doesn’t always help resolve the situation in a timely way.”

Student voice

Hearing from students, and ensuring the student voice is fed into decision making and planning, is also a key focus.

“We have put a lot in place that enables our students to have a voice in shaping what the year looks like and to work with us on quality outcomes in terms of our learning and teaching. Students have also been consulted on the shift to full online delivery of teaching and how we manage assessment in ways that enable us to get students to show they are meeting the requirements of the course.

“Given the speed we’ve had to move at and that fact that we’re in uncertain and turbulent times—we’re not going to get everything right. But we’re willing to show leadership and work toward better outcomes.

“We have had to make decisions on information that’s not always clear. In some circumstances, we have had to progress through huge amount of complexity without sufficient information to enable us to navigate the rocks and snags. We have often been in uncharted territory.

“It’s a really complex environment. Universities are very large, complex organisations that can’t tun on the head of a pin. Research, learning and student experience must all fit together in a way that support each other.

“We’ve had huge losses of revenue and there’s anxiety around that for staff, which filters through to the student community. Students are also anxious about their financial position, and future    workforce opportunities have changed significantly. We need to work with students to help the transition into the new employment environment and guide them into making good choices.”

For Pam, as for all Wellington University staff, central to their efforts is the care and welfare of their staff and students, both in Wellington and those still overseas.

“The health needs of both staff and students will be affected by this. There will be issues of social dislocation, health issues and economic distress over next few months, which must be carefully managed. We are already seeing spikes in people seeking support for emotional, physical and social anxiety.

“While times have been very challenging, it’s been extremely rewarding to see how quickly we can respond and put things in place, and how we might deliver this new way of working. It’s given us a lot to think about for the longer term.”