A look back at how students, faculty and staff banded together to face unimaginably unexpected challenges in the face of a public-health crisis.
The Thomas Jefferson University community encountered unprecedented challenges in the face of a COVID-19 pandemic which altered every facet of life at the University and beyond.
Terms like social distancing, mask mandates, droplet transmission, super-spreader events and stay-at-home orders entered the lexicon, as people came to grips with the fears of unsettling threats to personal and community safety.
As the pandemic emerged from early reports of an outbreak in Wuhan, China, the University alerted students, faculty and staff, sharing health and travel guidelines on January 26, 2020. (Jefferson Health’s Center for Bioterrorism and Disaster Preparedness had been tracking this virus starting in December 2019.)
It only intensified from there, as the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency four days later, an emergency that would dramatically alter lives locally and globally.
Despite still collectively waiting to see what “the new normal” will look like, reflections on the past year speak to a University well-prepared to pivot to the changing academic landscape.
Even before it became a necessity, the groundwork was being laid to establish remote learning practices for both faculty and students. That flexibility started developing even before—and was bolstered by—the 2017 Philadelphia University/Thomas Jefferson University merger.
In regards to the pandemic’s impact on Jefferson, the starting point was March 9, 2020, when an enterprise-wide Incident Command Center was established to fully implement pandemic planning across the University and health system. (A story about COVID’s impact on Jefferson Health can be viewed via this link.)
The University soon moved all classes from in-person to virtual, as it started applying predictive modeling to inform pandemic planning.
A CULTURE OF ORGANIZED PLANNING
Dr. Matt Baker, senior vice provost for academic affairs, recently spoke about the detailed planning processes that kicked in once it became evident that America faced a once-in-a-generation public-health crisis.
He credited an organizational approach that included daily meetings with leadership, deans and academic leaders delving into the potential impact on instruction, operations and facilities, student health and vaccinations, communications, supply chain (notably, access to PPE) and “everything else in the organization.”
The University had a fortuitous head start with some 50 out of its 220 programs already offering some online facets. (The colleges would go online in March 2020 and then again after Thanksgiving, he noted.)
“We had some experience in this, but we were still predominantly an in-person university,” Dr. Baker said. “We quickly realized that there were many questions that needed to be asked. What hardware did we need that we didn’t already have? What software do we need? In the anatomy program, for example, they needed 3D software to simulate dissection. We needed to expand Zoom, MS Teams and Collab, which we were already using.”
Other important areas were faculty development—more than 100 sessions for faculty members with individual coaching would be offered—and safety in physical spaces for studios and labs which would feature an in-person element once it became safe to do so.
“We needed to get them up and running, and that involved figuring out room capacities, taping off desks, looking at cleaning and ventilation. Hand sanitizers and desk sanitizers were everywhere. Plexiglass barriers were installed,” Dr. Baker recalled of learning spaces for studios and labs which couldn’t be held virtually.
The committee also focused on increasing student support with tutoring, advising, disability services and mental-health and behavioral-health services. Turning ideas into a tangible form would not be enough, though.
“When we were preparing all of that, we knew we had to monitor it. That’s how our dashboard came about,” he said. “What’s happening with COVID on campus and in the surrounding areas? What would be the metrics: Faculty metrics, metrics around the deans, metrics around the classes? We tracked everything. There was a separate dashboard focused on the entire schedule, the cleaning schedule, the compliance line.
“We had surveys and early alerts. We tracked what problems we were having – be that internet, or other facets of online learning. Planning is something we do well. We’re obviously well versed in metric-tracking as well.”
Dr. Baker said that the Incident Command team still meets regularly. He credited robust communications plans for keeping the University moving forward in a positive fashion.
“People have asked how we communicate with people. Did we send emails? Host Town Halls? Share videos? Offer in-service learning? Yes, we did all of that and more,” Dr. Baker said. “We tried to use everything available to us to communicate with people and tell them what was going on.”
Still, Jefferson being one of the first universities in the region to announce an in-person presence for the Fall 2020 semester and one of the only to have remained in-person throughout the Fall and Spring of 2021 speaks to a commitment to safety and security while educating.
Dr. Karen Novielli—vice provost for faculty affairs and professional development and the Sidney Kimmel Medical College vice dean for faculty affairs—noted that one major goal from the pandemic’s outset was preparing faculty to teach virtually.
“We doubled down on faculty development, with virtual workshops and a robust web-based Canvas site that offered many resources to assist faculty. We also identified on-line learning champions in each of the colleges who served as local resources for faculty,” Dr. Novielli said. “Additionally, in order to understand the evolving needs and concerns of the faculty as the pandemic progressed, we met with University faculty leaders every other week. This was a good mechanism that helped us with bi-directional communication between faculty and administration.”
Another priority was focusing on mental health and wellness for faculty and students alike, which was addressed as “part of the enterprise-wide culture.”
“When we look back at the decisions that were made, I felt that they were in line with our institutional values—putting people first, doing the right thing, being bold and thinking differently,” she said. “We were as flexible as we could be. We tried to keep a sense of normalcy by taking many of our normal events such as Faculty Days, peer-to-peer learning, governance meetings and award programs, and holding them virtually during the pandemic.”
From a research perspective, the entire Jefferson enterprise worked to minimize any disruptions, according to Brian Squilla, the University’s senior vice president of administration, chief research officer and chief of staff to Provost Dr. Mark Tykocinski.
Despite a “ramp-down” phase in the spring of 2020, research efforts never closed down, an enterprise-wide team effort which Squilla considers an important distinction from many peer institutions. He also lauded the research incident command center consisting of research leadership and corporate offices which met regularly to plot out a path forward.
“None of this was done in silos. We worked with researchers and offices such as animal resources, IS&T, human resources, marketing and facilities, to ensure we had safe and productive environments for research,” said Squilla, noting that shift work became the norm to abide by special-density guidelines. “There were many significant ‘under-the-hood’ investments made during the ramp-down phase which helped us ramp up.”
There were also unintended benefits of the ramp-down phase, which saw fewer people in the research spaces at any given time, amid face shields and Plexiglass barriers.
“During March, April and May (of 2020), we realized it as a good opportunity to catch up on training,” Squilla said.
Dr. Jeff Cromarty, senior vice president and chief administrative officer, also recalled those challenging days early on in pandemic planning. He agreed that the University’s campus culture was more accustomed to change both due to the merger and an educational evolution which already embraced flexibility.
“The pandemic pivot was significant for us, but over recent years, we have looked into a digital-learning strategy and are still developing it,” he said. “For example, even before the merger, architecture faculty had started thinking about how to do studios online. We started to offer faculty meetings online.”
He added that Dr. Tykocinski “found that technology was already helpful in bringing multiple campuses together. We already accepted it, and knew it was possible, too.”
As with other universities, there were challenges early in the Fall semester with a COVID-case uptick. However, student-leadership and voices had a huge impact in keeping students focused on the end goal of moving forward in a positive fashion, while keeping the in-person elements as intact as possible considering the circumstances.
“There is huge value in peer-to-peer communication. That had a huge impact,” Dr. Cromarty said. “We value the voices of students and realize that everybody is an important member of the community. Students had gotten enough messages from me, and broadcast emails. They knew they may have gotten lax with the guidelines when they started to hear from other students, with the ‘Keep Us Together’ message. It’s a testament to everybody that we did so well.”
Also important was a commitment to transparency, which could be seen in making so much information available via a public dashboard that tracks current positives, prevalence rates and total cases. Not only did that keep those on campus informed but helped dispel misinformation and rumors. That way, students could see with their own eyes data indicating that they may have gotten too relaxed in abiding by COVID guidelines.
Kathy Gallagher, the University’s chief operating officer, credited the commitment of students, faculty and staff to academic progression, continued research and the community’s collective safety as being key to the effort.
“The reason it worked is everybody’s unwavering commitment to doing the right thing,” Gallagher said of the team effort.
Drs. Baker and Cromarty concurred that the University being attached to an enormous health system offered built-in advantages. Having access at daily meetings to infection-control, population-health and other experts allowed for a distinct advantage in health and safety data and procedures.
LESSONS LEARNED THROUGH AN UNCERTAIN YEAR
We have all learned a lot in the year since that work commenced. Through unspeakable loss, the realities of a “new normal” have taken hold. With vaccinations increasing, the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel has become brighter, but lessons learned before now and moving forward are important to study.
The merger provided a roadmap in not only quickly making unexpected pivots but establishing curricular shifts in the direction of the Hybrid Flexible, or HyFlex, model that would define the University’s educational response.
The Spring 2020 semester saw many changes, from commencement going virtual to learning and teaching away from campus. Students channeled their energy and efforts into volunteer projects, as the University launched a forum where students matched their skills and interests to the needs of the Jefferson Health community. They produced PPE, babysat and assisted with telehealth, among other volunteer opportunities.
With the CARES Act stimulus package, the University was awarded grant funding in May to provide students with additional aid to meet the unexpected expenses due to COVID-19. Combined with Jefferson’s COVID-19 Better Together Fund, which was established in March, many students in need got a financial shoulder upon which to lean. The Ramily Market also expanded to Center City in a move designed to help ease students’ food insecurity burdens.
If spring was defined by uncertainty, the Fall 2020 semester saw movement start toward a new normal. In July, the University shared its Academic Relaunch Guide (aka the Coronavirus Health and Safety Plan), which is a comprehensive guide toward resuming in-person operations. In it, policies, procedures and protocols were shared with the University community in advance of new and returning students moving back to our campuses in late August.
Classes—in remote, in-person and HyFlex approaches—resumed on August 24, 2020, fueled by the tireless, behind-the-scenes work of everybody from leadership to operations.
Dr. Tykocinski labeled it as being “arguably the most unique Fall semester in the history of higher education.” That was not an exaggeration.
About six weeks into the Fall semester, things were going relatively according to plan. In mid-October, Dr. Tykocinski announced plans for the Spring 2021 semester. It would start one week later than originally scheduled, with spring break cancelled to avoid potential infections and necessary quarantines.
This mindset was bolstered by a plan of community standards and expectations—titled Home for the Holidays: Preparing for a Safe Return—urging students to abide by the same safeguards as they would on campus at home. Students were also, at the time, urged to avoid social activities and contacts for two weeks prior to departing campus.
That the University is part of the larger Philadelphia community came into stark focus before Thanksgiving as the best laid plans were accelerated because of strengthened “Safer At Home” restrictions announced by the City of Philadelphia and its Department of Health.
Though the University planned for an extended period of remote learning from Thanksgiving through the start of the Spring semester, all Philadelphia colleges went to online-only instruction starting November 20, 2020. These restrictions extended to studio and laboratory work, the closures of the Gutman and Scott libraries and the edict that employees who can work remotely continue to do so.
On December 9, 2020, the transition to double occupancy in residence halls and resumption of spectator-free athletic events was announced for Spring.
2021 OFFERS A NEW START
Winter break ended on Sunday, January 10 as residence halls reopened at noon. Most undergraduate classes resumed on Wednesday January 20, a day when a broadcast email reminded the student body to complete their mandatory attestations and register for participation in a COVID surveillance testing program.
Another positive glimmer surfaced in February when, despite the cancellation of previous commencements, the University announced plans to host in-person commencement ceremonies for graduating students who have indicated they will attend, along with a small number of faculty and staff. (Students will be able to walk across the stage at The Mann Center for the Performing Arts when their names are called, but families will have to watch via livestream.)
Then, as Philadelphia’s COVID timeline turned one in March, plans were announced for Summer and Fall 2021 and Spring 2022 semesters.
“Looking back, I am in awe—and I do use that word literally—of how our University responded to this unprecedented situation, one we couldn’t have imagined that we’d find ourselves in perhaps a year-and-a-half ago,” Dr. Tykocinski said during a March 30 virtual town-hall meeting. “Through the pandemic, we persevered. Yes, we have been by turns uncertain, scared, frustrated, disheartened. But we were also always determined and laser focused. If circumstances threw us off-track, we all worked hard to pursing the goals and reasons we’re part of the Jefferson community.”
University officials tentatively announced that Summer 2021 would be the same format as Spring 2021. Fall 2021 would see a transition to more in-person teaching (with large lectures remaining online) and Spring 2022 could see planning for the “new normal.” It would include in-person education infused with some virtual and technology-enhanced education that will increase engagement and flexibility and ensure that we are teaching our students for the future of work, particularly in a post-pandemic world.
Despite the successes, Dr. Baker stressed the University will continue to abide by City Department of Health guidelines.
“It will take three years go get back to ‘normal’ but we’re optimistic about the future,” he said. “Each semester, it’s getting better, and we get better prepared for the challenges that arise.”
There were many causes for hope, but they were saddled with the ever-present caveat that things could always change on a moment’s notice should the University community let its guard down.
Lessons continue to be learned, but the Jefferson community has much to be proud of in how it faced the COVID pandemic.
“The pandemic has been a stress test in many senses of that phrase for Jefferson’s pedagogical principles, and we passed that test,” Dr. Tykocinski said.
He also credited students for doing their part and adapting to new ways of learning and gaining experience in their chosen professions.
“They demonstrated an ability to learn in a rapidly evolving context, and to apply new ways of interacting with professors and fellow students,” shared Dr. Tykocinski. “This is exactly how we designed our academic programs, with the idea of empowering students to adapt and lead during college and later on in the work world.”
He also lauded faculty for impressively shifting to an all-online educational model, putting “roughly 2,700 courses and sections online” within a few weeks of the pandemic’s start.
“You did so with energy, creativity and commitment,” he said. “It’s been exciting to see how frequently and well you created innovative ways to overcome practical problems and to address needs we never previously had to consider. It was always a can-do spirit and anything-can-be-solved spirit. For that, you have my incredible respect.”
“This past year has reaffirmed that innovation and flexibility are in our faculty’s professional DNA and, if you’ll excuse the pun, you’ve expressed those genes superbly.”
Dr. Tykocinski was also sure to single out staff members, whose contributions often fly under the radar at academic institutions.
“You have been the backbone. Without you, we could not have met the challenges we faced,” he said. “Beyond doing your core jobs brilliantly under very trying circumstances, you often stepped up to take broader responsibilities, and to make unacknowledged contributions.
“When the story is told, there are really countless heroes among you. I am literally overwhelmed by what you accomplished, and I am proud to be your colleague.”