The Hardest Semester of Your Career Fall 2021

Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes its built on catastrophe. ~ Sumner Redstone

Welcome to the Fall 2021 semester, one I’m sure will almost certainly be the most challenging semester of your career. I know, you’re shaking your head for one of two reasons. Either you think, there is no way that this coming semester will touch the madness of Spring 2020. Or you are resigned to it and thinking, when will this ever start getting better. The good news is that I honestly believe this will be the last semester of the pandemic and will fully engage the recovery phase. The Spring 2022 semester should start to look and feel more like the normal we remember.

I really feel sorry for teachers and administrators in the first or second year of their career. I’ve said to a number of them, it isn’t always this hard, but it’s a difficult sell. They know nothing but constant and ever shifting rules, regulations and modes of education. They have never had a year that wasn’t completely and totally politicized, where faculty, staff and students weren’t living under immense stress and pressure with huge levels of uncertainty.

We have all been living through an emergency and there are four phases of emergency management. The third phase is recovery and that’s the phase most of us, particularly community colleges, are entering this fall. Preparedness is the first phase, mitigation is the second and mitigation is really where the action starts. This was where we were when COVID cases were first rising, when we were all scrambling to figure out how to handle our facilities, our employees, students and most of all, how to effectively continue instruction. As we move into recovery I keep hearing the echo of my first emergency operations instructor, recovery is the most overlooked and most difficult phase.

It’s easy to see how this gets overlooked. A typical emergency for a college is a campus closure due to natural disaster. It’s hectic getting people off campus, getting communications out and making sure facilities are protected and people are safe. And this is all typically handled in a few hours, colleges are very good at these types of emergencies and this phase. However, if we carry the example further we start to see quickly how complicated the recovery phase is for a college. The thing is, while you might say, ok, emergency over campus is open again on Thursday, that’s not nearly the end of it.

You have to restart facilities that have been shut down. If the closure interrupted deliveries, they have to be restarted. Events have to be re-scheduled, any classes that have not dropped below minimum hours have to have make-up times. Payroll decisions have to be made regarding who had to and did not have to work during the closure, do some people need to receive hazard pay. Insurance claims have to be filed as well, if the event is a FEMA qualifying event, then FEMA paperwork for federal reimbursements for your emergency operations teams need to be filed. New accounting needs to be established to track all of this. Debriefing documents need to be created, preparedness plans need to be updated, etc…

Now expand that to what we’ve been going through since March of 2020. We have literally changed the way every aspect of our operations have operated. For many of us we have set up our entire faculty and staff, or nearly so, to work remotely. This means people have equipment, reimbursements have been established, perhaps monthly work from home stipends. If you have unions, Memoranda of Understandings (MOUs) have been created with your unions, perhaps even permanent contract changes have occurred. Parking policies have been suspended, health and safety regulations changed, basically every way in which people operate on campus have been changed.

Most of our campuses have been mostly shutdown, and certain services absolutely have been shutdown for over a year. Even mail service on our campus has radically changed including it’s physical location. We have lost staff, and there has been staff turnover. In a recent management team meeting I pointed out that almost 30% of our senior management had worked in their current role for a longer amount of time from home, than they had on campus and that includes me. I had been in my current position for nine months before we went remote and we’ve been remote for 15 months. Our current president hired a little over a year ago just spent her first week physically on campus.

So many things have changed over the last year and now we are shifting back to a higher level of face to face instruction. This has raised so many issues! Which of the changes do you keep? And I want to be clear that some of this has been positive. I have been attempting for over a decade as a dean to bring the divisions I have overseen to a point of being paperless. The pandemic forced us to make that leap and I decreed that we would stay that way going forward, so that’s one positive change that we will be keeping.

Our college is two weeks out from fall instruction. We are currently implementing a vaccine mandate for faculty, staff and students. We have just re-introduced a mask mandate due to Delta Variant driven rise in COVID courses. We’re facing a directive from our board to attempt to have 30% of our classes face to face when we had originally planned for 10-15%. This of course has led to massive schedule changes a month before instruction is starting. This has been impacted by the MOU negotiated faculty, but we still don’t, less than 10 days from their return date, have a finalized MOU laying out conditions of return for our classified professional staff.

All of this on top of a 20% enrollment decline and dealing with all of the fallout associated with that, which of course is coming on top of enrollment declines over the last two semesters. We are unbelievably fortunate on my campus to be in a community funded (property tax supported) district. This means, since property taxes haven’t dropped during the pandemic in our county, we haven’t had the additional stress and pressure of significant budget cuts and layoffs. Many other community colleges in California have been facing similar enrollment hits without this safety net. Locally, City College of San Francisco recently negotiated an 11% pay cut with faculty to avert massive class cuts and layoffs.

What I’m seeing right now, and the main reason that fall is going to be so difficult is the massive amounts of uncertainty. We are going into a semester where we are changing everything, again, often for the second or third semester in a row. We’re all stressed out, worn out and many of us have faced various levels of trauma and loss, for some of us that loss was of people close to us. Our faculty, staff and students who are physically returning to campus will be facing higher than ever levels of anxiety. This is on top of lots of research that has shown our students were, pre-pandemic, facing (2019) historic levels of anxiety. That will just be worse this semester and now we’ll be simultaneously trying to manage that online and in person with fewer resources due to how spread across modalities and schedules our students will be at this time.

We are suddenly once again facing increasing COVID cases, mask mandates and have to wonder, are we on track once again for campus shutdowns? Vaccine and mask mandates are in place, but also being challenged politically and legally. We all wonder how students will respond on campus to these mandates. On my campus there is a lot of anxiety around student attitudes, safety, people are understandably nervous, but in the current political climate this has people questioning air flow testing requirements, classroom capacities and generally being very contentious. And then, with all of the messaging that has come out, all of the changes that have occurred, and all of the misinformation floating around on the internet, students are understandably confused. And this is on top of the fact that our students, who are the most vulnerable in our society, have taken the brunt of the medical, emotional and economic impact of the pandemic.

So as an administrator I have been watching the tension ratchet up over the last few weeks. It’s hitting people that this semester is going to be far more complex and stressful than most people anticipated. I hope you had a restful summer and built up your emotional reserves, we are all certainly going to need them this semester. Good luck, and remember that taking care of yourself, not only makes your life better, but makes you a better leader and manager.

Published by Michael Kane

Michael Kane is a writer, photographer, educator, speaker, adventurer and a general sampler of life. His books on hiking and poetry are available in soft cover and Kindle on Amazon.

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