Alex Usher is President of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a consultancy based in Toronto, Canada.

It is finally sinking in that this is a long-duration crisis. Not two weeks long, not two months long: maybe half a year or more. And that means thinking about September starts now. We do not know exactly when this thing will unwind, nor how exactly we will phase back into normalcy. But the frontier is moving back.

Airlines around the world are cancelling flights up to the summer. The Olympics have been postponed for a year. All of which is a pretty good indication that people whose job it is to know about these things don’t think we’re back to a situation where congregations of people will be allowed until mid-summer at the earliest.

If you’re desperate to see the next academic year start on time, you might think that still leaves you with a window of hope for a few weeks, from late July until early September. But think about how we actually come out of the current shelter-in-place arrangements. It isn’t going to happen when we get a vaccine (that’s probably mid-to-late 2021), it’s going to happen when new cases fall to near-zero for a sustained period of time, AND when testing and screening and hospital beds are plentiful enough to deal with the uptick in infections that will occur when we start to mix again.

But precisely because the mixing is going to cause a rise in infections even with ubiquitous screening/testing, it’s probably not going to happen all at once. To keep that rise slow and controlled, the way it has been in Singapore and Hong Kong, the return will likely be partial, gradual and drawn out over a period of weeks. Maybe they’ll do it by birthday (January to March gets to go out on Mondays, April to June on Tuesdays, etc.), or by street addresses or whatever. Regardless, it won’t be instantaneous.

That window of hope for September? It’s getting smaller.

So now, if you are one of those people who have to make a decision about the autumn term (and bless you all, you have a hell of a job), you theoretically have five different scenarios for which you need to prepare.

  1. You can start September “online” – more on what that means in a second – and assume the entire semester will proceed that way (I know the University of Waterloo has already made this assumption for the spring term, others may have as well).
  2. You can start September “online” and transition back to “in-person” when the authorities permit.
  3. You can delay the start of the term until “in-person” is possible.
  4. You can stay closed until January.
  5. You can hope like hell everything is back to something approaching normality in September.

Five is super high-risk: if you’re wrong, your fallback position has to be four, and four is probably a non-starter unless a very large number of institutions agree to it. Three might well turn out to be four, too, because you just don’t know when it will all end and it’s hard to plan a curriculum when you don’t know how many weeks you’re going to be teaching (although, given the number of strikes we have in Canadian universities, this is a problem we have some experience working around).

In the case of both two and three, you have the problem that if the return to normalcy rolls out in stages, then you might not necessarily have the same people in your classes every day, and in any event, there will probably still be rules about congregating that will mean accepting temporary rules about class sizes. That means that your larger classes – that is, the intro classes that really matter when it comes to developing foundational skills and which are often the ones that cause drop-outs because they are alienating to first-year students – are probably still going to be online anyway.

You see where I am going with this? Maybe we luck out and we’re back in September, but there’s absolutely no way any responsible university can spend the summer doing anything but preparing for a term which is genuinely online (or, if you’re really pessimistic, two).

Now an online semester poses all sorts of nasty problems. There are digital divide issues, obviously. But more importantly, if you do a full term online it has to look a lot different than what we’re stumbling through right now.

In the Sciences, Engineering and Fine Arts, you need to work out how to do an entire semester without labs/studios. That probably means juggling which courses get offered next year, front-loading the lecture courses and back-loading the labs/studios and then hoping somehow we can arrange labs/studios to be used more intensively in January (answer, we probably can’t for everyone, which means we’ll prioritise later stage students and try to work everything out for the newer students in 2021-22.)

But look, the bigger issue is: if you want students to show up and pay tuition, you’re going to have to offer them a better experience than what we’re doing now. I know everyone is doing their level best to make the current situation work, but it’s all basically DIY right now, and it’s so far from good enough that there is now an entire sub-genre of humour devoted to it.

Broadband has to get better. There need to be much more thought – collective thought, at the departmental and faculty level, informed by best practices from local teaching and learning centres – about pedagogical design and execution. Because if that’s not there, students aren’t going to show up in September (or if they do, they won’t stay past the withdrawal date). Not domestic students, and definitely not international students. If you think you have financial problems now, just think very carefully about what they will look like if students decide not to come back.

Now maybe the world gets back to normal before September and none of this happens. Maybe. It would be great if this is so. But these back-up plans simply have to be made, whether they get implemented or not. Not to do so would be irresponsible.

Bottom line: your instructional design people, your teaching and learning centre, and the people in your CIO’s office: they’re the most important people on your campus right now. Beef them up. Give them anything they need. They’re what’s separating your institution from a mere unholy mess to a full-blown catastrophe.

At Higher Education Strategy Associates in Canada, we’re curious: what are the areas where your institution is in greatest need of help right now? We’re trying to work out if there are areas where some collective solutions might be possible. Drop us a line at 

6 responses to “The clock is ticking on a decision about September entry

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