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Corona-Missive #7: Readiness

Dear All,

I write in the afterglow of the moving and masterful virtual commencement for the Class of 2020. If you did not get a chance to see it in real time, you may find it here.

Now I pivot back to the COVID-driven issues of the day. Uncertainty and divergence remain watchwords—consider uneven virus incidence; evolving external directives; dissimilar individual inclinations; and contrasting plans by higher education institutions across the country—but continued discussions and your feedback have helped refine our thinking and the options before us. Let me share where we are.

Recap

TCNJ and other organizations in New Jersey remain under Governor Murphy’s executive orders requiring us to cease in-person instruction, close libraries and computer labs, limit in-person gatherings of students, faculty, or staff, restrict access to community gathering places (e.g., athletic facilities, student center), and move to remote work environments for as many employees and staff as possible. The Governor’s stay-at-home executive order remains in effect until June 6 at which time the state will determine its continuation.

Lifting these restrictions depends on the state’s performance on six stages outlined in the governor’s “The Road Back: Restoring Economic Health Through Public Health” plan. This journey includes sustained reductions in COVID-19 cases, expanded testing capacity, robust contact tracing, and adequate facilities and resources to isolate and quarantine individuals when necessary. State officials plan to restart economic activity in phases according to risk of disease transmission. Higher education and enterprises in which activity occurs in face-to-face indoor settings are in the final phase.

Advising state officials is a blue-ribbon Restart and Recovery Commission and a constellation of advisory councils and groups. I serve on the Higher Education Restart Advisory Group, which began its work on May 15 and will continue into July.

Also in recent weeks we continued focused planning on the scope, demands, logistics, and budget impact of alternative scenarios for the coming academic year. Emerging from planning are the two basic scenarios for fall 2020, a face-to-face educational experience and an online educational experience, with ability to move between scenarios as conditions allow or demand. (We previously began planning for a delayed face-to-face scenario, but that didn’t prove practical.) The aim of our planning and actions is to be prepared for either of these scenarios.

Readiness

Frustrating as it is to not have certainty from the virus, government, or other factors out of our control, we must thus get ready for more than one future.

We approach readiness planning with an assumption that our mission, strengths, and appeal to our largely traditional-age students make on-campus education the preferred mode of delivery for TCNJ. That said, a core guiding principle is that the health and safety of our community—students, faculty, staff, and campus visitors—is our top responsibility and priority. On-campus education will occur only to the degree that we can put in place health and safety measures to reduce the risk of virus exposure to a tolerable level. In determining that level, we will follow CDC guidelines and State of New Jersey guidelines described earlier.

In the absence of a vaccine for COVID-19, a healthy and safe campus environment requires virus testing capacity, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine spaces, disinfection, enforceable (and enforced) social distancing protocol, and personal protection equipment appropriate to the conditions. This implies the need for lower-than-normal densities on campus and accommodating students and faculty who cannot tolerate a face-to-face environment until there is a vaccine.

Readying for an online educational experience in fall 2020 also has imperatives. We are investing in technology and implementing professional development and training to ensure that faculty have the tools and training to deliver robust, accessible, high-quality online education to learners of varying needs and resources.

Determining detailed practicalities, understanding tradeoffs, and considering financial and other implications of alternatives undergird the determination of what fall 2020 will look like at TCNJ. As noted previously, we will wait to make this decision until later in June, benefiting in the meantime from insights and lessons from virus responses at other institutions and places.

Readiness Task Forces

Numerous groups have been working in recent months on emergency response, policy development, scenario planning, and budget principles and analysis. To pivot our planning from discussion to readiness and to ensure rapid and coordinated decision-making and action, we are building on the work of the College Emergency Response Team (our logistical planning group) to establish five readiness task forces. Co-chaired by a member of cabinet and an “operational lead,” these groups composed of faculty, staff, and students will develop readiness action plans to support both face-to-face and online scenarios.

The five groups are:

  1. Health and Safety

Areas include: virus testing, contact, social distancing guidelines, care and isolation, employee and student accommodations

  1. Student Experience

Areas include: housing, dining, programming, athletics, health services and mental health, career services, transition

  1. Academics

Areas include: online content and support, technology support, advising, research, scholarship, library, community engagement, global engagement, tutoring, student success

  1. Campus Operations

Areas include: facilities, procurement and contracting, IT systems, data governance, HR

  1. External Relations

Areas include: admissions, faculty and staff recruitment, student organizations, alumni relations, donor relations

Co-chairs of each task force will form a coordinating group, meeting frequently together with communications leaders to ensure efficiency and to provide cross-group contributions and communications. The readiness task forces will turn around their work quickly so that we have the practical information needed to make a determination in June about fall 2020. I will report in future communications on the membership, work, and how to provide input to these groups.

The Upshot

Although the coming year will look different under any scenario, we will continue to place the highest priority on what TCNJ values: academic quality, close faculty-staff-student interactions, and the well-being of our community. Regardless of the timing and nature of our return to campus and no matter what procedures and protocol may pertain, our connections to campus and one another, and our flexible, empathetic, and creative responses to support our students and deliver our mission will be paramount.

Thank you again, TCNJ, for staying the course and for your ongoing support and feedback. We are fortunate to have your dedication and duty in abundance.

With gratitude,

Kathryn A. Foster

President