COVID-19: Higher ed put to the test

Good planning and crisis management support—and strengthen—Adelphi U community
Christine Riordan is president of Adelphi University in New York.
Christine Riordan is president of Adelphi University in New York.

While all of us in higher education have been dealing with the impacts of the novel coronavirus, and our crisis planning likely shares some common themes, our stories are unique to our campus communities. They are still being written, too, as the crisis continues to unfold.

Adelphi University’s COVID-19 story started January 20 with the news of a new coronavirus emerging in China—just as our students and faculty were planning their return to campus for the start of spring semester.

Our director of health services monitored the global health situation with local, state and national health authorities and prepared to screen and support our returning students from China and Asia. Our core crisis management team began meeting that week and engaged our International Services team to assist 12 students who were suddenly unable to return to the U.S. due to the February 2 travel ban. For them, we arranged remote learning or tentatively scheduled their return for summer or fall.

Read: Continuing with confidence during emergencies—and beyond

Our first campus message was sent on January 27 and included parents. It was the first of dozens of universitywide messages to date. Targeted communications—including translated versions—also went to international students, faculty, parents and guardians, and more. We shared most on our social media channels as well as online, through our newly created and comprehensive coronavirus information and frequently asked questions website.

The initial crisis team was led by our vice president for student affairs in partnership with our director of health services. It included representatives from the President’s and Provost’s offices, University Communications, Public Safety, International Services and Student Life. Our vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion also participated to ensure sensitivity about discrimination.

This pandemic has taken us all by unspeakable surprise—moving swiftly, powerfully, near and far. Our crisis management has been an essential component to keeping Adelphi safe and our mission paramount.

Initiating business continuity planning

By February 24, a full-blown international crisis began to unfold, with its U.S. epicenter soon to move toward metro New York, where Adelphi’s main campus is located.

It seems like months ago now, but that was the day I recommended our university’s escalation to a full threat assessment team aligned with our crisis command plan, and we initiated our universitywide business continuity planning. Our Department of Public Safety led exercises with a hypothetical confirmed case on campus. Our Information Technology department initiated our rapid transition to remote learning support. Our faculty began preparing syllabuses and instructional methods for remote teaching. Our Office of Human Resources began readying for a remote workforce.

Read: Faculty need flexibility to teach and support students’ mental health

With the first case of COVID-19 confirmed in New York on March 1, the eventualities of a pandemic inundating our region and nation became apparent. On March 10, we sent our students home for indefinite remote learning. On March 11, we worked urgently to bring home our students studying abroad before the U.S. borders closed. On March 16, we announced that classes would remain online all semester. As of March 23, only essential personnel remain on our Garden City campus to support critical operations. There are more than 75,000 confirmed cases in New York state—a number that continues to rise.

Managing six pillars of operations

This pandemic has taken us all by unspeakable surprise—moving swiftly, powerfully, near and far. Our crisis management has been an essential component to keeping Adelphi safe and our mission paramount.

Our Level 1 crisis management and communications planning began in January. It escalated in five weeks to a Level 2 response—a threat assessment team with an executive leader responsible for each area (operations, communications, academics, etc.). We were making rapid monumental decisions on daily morning calls. Two weeks later, we moved into a Level 3 incident and emergency management structure, with teams managing six pillars of operations and reporting to one chief emergency director.

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Our executive emergency management team meets each morning—including weekends—and closes each day with situation reports. We continue moving forward with six overarching guiding principles:

  1. Protect the health and safety of all students, faculty, staff and guests from COVID-19 by applying guidance from public health authorities and subject-matter experts.
  2. Take measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
  3. Mitigate risks to the mission and operations of the university.
  4. Anticipate and subvert recruitment, retention and enrollment challenges that may stem from the inability for classes to meet in person, travel restrictions, embassy/consulate closures, and fear.
  5. Plan for and mitigate significant financial challenges.
  6. Promote Adelphi’s values and ensure that our community climate remains inclusive, welcoming and accessible to all.

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Like most institutions of higher education right now, we transitioned to remote learning and working just in time. We were prepared to go online March 23, immediately following the prior evening’s New York state mandate.

We’ve been well guided by our crisis and emergency management and communications preparations, which will continue to be tested as this emergency situation unfolds over time. No doubt we will all be reviewing them again in the near future, with our new lessons learned in mind.

Christine Riordan is president of Adelphi University in New York.

UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.

Christine Riordan
Christine Riordan
Christine Riordan is president of Adelphi University in New York. 

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