Ted Wendel, PhD, ATSU’s senior vice president of university planning & strategic initiatives, recalls back to March 20, when the COVID-19 situation was beginning to escalate and the amount of uncertainty was beginning to rise. He remembers a feeling of not knowing what to expect, where things were going, or how long it was going to last.
“We had some idea that this was a really serious threat, but it wasn’t a visible threat,” Dr. Wendel said. “That was really a disconcerting feeling.”
While most students and employees of ATSU began working from home at that point because of stay-at-home orders, there were some essential personnel who remained to keep the campuses secure.
“We locked everything up and left campus to a small group of people who deserve a lot of credit, and that is our Security team,” Dr. Wendel said. “They were there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, protecting our campus. And that went on for a couple of months, because we were all at home.”
Juan Romero, manager of safety & security on the Mesa, Arizona, campus, and his team have kept a watchful eye on the campus throughout the pandemic. Romero has seen many changes over the past few months but recalls the one that hit him the hardest.
“To me, when it really kind of got to me was when we closed the campus and actually locked down the main entryway of the campus,” Romero said. “This was never done before.”
Romero and his team placed a “campus closed” sign to officially lock down the campus as the state issued a stay-at-home order.
“It was so quiet, there was nobody around. It was almost eerie,” Romero said. “It is odd not to hear the students in the hallways or to hear a lecture taking place.”
ATSU leadership was very deliberate in their decision-making process from the start. With top leadership focusing on employee and student needs, Human Resources immediately focused on limiting exposure for employees while ensuring basic functionality for the University.
“The CDC guidelines were signposts for our decision-making processes,” said Donna Brown, MBA, assistant vice president, human resources. “In addition to considering the needs of employees as a whole, a large amount of time was spent working with individual employees related to their specific needs.”
Some employees were considered part of the CDC-defined “higher risk” populations, and others needed assistance transitioning to a work-from-home environment, along with a hundred other specific needs. Human Resources’ goal in this process was to understand the various needs and work with employees and supervisors to meet those needs.
For Bryan Krusniak, MBA, vice president, information technology, the decision to temporarily move activities online across the University meant his department had to act quickly. On the employee side, Information Technology Services (ITS) had to make sure people could work from home. The team scrambled to find and set up equipment, like laptops, and conduct training to help people learn to use new tools, like VPNs and remote workstations.
On the academic side, they expanded use of tools like Canvas and Zoom. They also partnered with the Teaching & Learning Center (TLC), A.T. Still Memorial Library, and Academic Affairs to provide training on how to transition to online delivery of classroom content. The team held weekly sessions and developed “Zoom moderators” to assist faculty in managing larger online classes and exercises.
While ITS met its share of challenges in developing new procedures and new ways of doing business, it was successful in shifting University events, like awards ceremonies, white coat ceremonies, virtual poster sessions, and student orientation, from in-person to virtual formats.
“Fortunately, ATSU already had a culture that encouraged many people to be able to work from anywhere,” Krusniak said. “The events of 2020 have been a mix of quick reaction to an unforeseen pandemic and slow preparation for technology-driven change that has been on the horizon for years.”
Before the pandemic, many employees had already been issued laptops. The University had established a strong adoption of Zoom for online meetings, and it had recently completed a transition to move the learning management system platform to the cloud and standardize on Canvas. ATSU also had an established knowledge base of best practices in online education through ATSU-CGHS, the University’s online college of health studies. ATSU-CGHS’ instructional designers worked with the TLC and Academic Technologies to spread knowledge of online teaching tools and their use. In addition, ATSU already had studio space on the Kirksville, Missouri, campus to record and edit didactic and lab content videos for online delivery.
“We had plans to conduct a business continuity tabletop exercise around a pandemic scenario,” Krusniak said. “Little did we know how real it would become.”
As the pandemic continued, they realized the difference between getting people the ability to work at home and getting them to be efficient at their work in a non-standard office environment. In addition, having so many employees working from home, often on their own personal equipment, emphasized the need for additional information security training and tools for remote work.
With classes and University business operating in a virtual whirlwind, campus life was at a standstill. Tony Magliano, director of facilities, Arizona operations, had been adjusting to a change of pace with the campus shut down to non-essential employees.
“I hadn’t realized how much of my time actually is spent interacting and responding to staff,” Magliano said.
He immediately jumped into a to-do list of projects that normally would have been scheduled around student, faculty, and staff activities.
“We painted all of our curbs that needed to be painted, we organized our classrooms and cleaned,” Magliano said. “We had some major plumbing issues in one of our buildings. The fact that nobody was here allowed us to get a lot done.”
Many departments were able to take advantage of this unique down time to prepare for re-entry and the necessary processes that would soon be in place. As those re-entry discussions began, Human Resources quickly realized one of its main challenges would be figuring out who needed to be on campus.
“Many of us, just a few months ago, would have said being on campus was a necessity for our job,” Brown said. “Four months later, many have found we can be more flexible and adaptable in completing our job tasks.”
Although many people like to work near one another for the camaraderie, today’s technology and ATSU’s support departments, particularly ITS, have allowed for more remote working and learning than previously thought. The situation was an eyeopener for rethinking and redefining roles and interactions.
“In May, we started thinking about coming back to campus and what we were going to do,” Dr. Wendel said. “We came up with the idea that if you needed to be there, then we will make campus safe and secure.”
Safety has always been the guiding principle, which means following CDC guidelines and basing decisions off those guidelines. As plans were made about student re-entry, it became evident while many educational elements could be delivered online, some elements could not.
“We recognized not everything students had to learn could be taught using Zoom,” Dr. Wendel said. “We recognized we had to incorporate that into the plan. If it involved hands-on or clinical simulation, that was going to have to happen on campus.”
Magliano described going through campus and looking at room capacities. They tried to determine how the University could allow social distancing with various factors to consider.
“Some classrooms are shaped differently, some classrooms have round tables, some have rectangular tables,” Magliano said.“But we went through and identified capacities to implement six feet between individuals in a classroom.”
In classrooms and offices, high touch points are being cleaned on a regular basis. Cleaning stations have been provided in common areas throughout all buildings. Some areas have even required new furniture to ensure more effective cleaning.
“A lot of our rooms around here, especially in our patient waiting area, had fake leather chairs,” Magliano said. “We’ve been swapping out and putting in plastic chairs because they are easier to wipe down and keep clean.”
Though the campus was shut down, some campus clinics remained open. The ATSU Gutensohn Clinic on the Missouri campus immediately began adhering to best practices and guidance from the CDC to screen patients and visitors for COVID-19 risks and symptoms. It then implemented a physician-resident platoon system, where teams of physicians and residents worked in different areas to avoid cross-contamination. By the end of March, the clinic started a complete foyer screening and roster system for everyone entering the building. Additionally, the clinic developed and enhanced its telehealth application for 15-20 patients per day on average.
The ATSU-ASDOH dental clinic remained open for emergency patients and those who were mid-treatment. Sneeze guards were installed at the reception desk, and with low patient numbers, social distancing measures were put in place around dental chairs.
“They are increasing the number of patients they are seeing now,” Magliano said. “They’re wanting some more protection around their work areas. So, we are working on helping them get ready to go.”
Following CDC guidance for social distancing, the University is bringing in small cohorts to ensure enough space among students. Rooms that once held 100 students at a time now hold a maximum of 30 students. The change in room capacity is causing some spaces to be temporarily repurposed, like the Thompson Campus Center gymnasium being used for delivery of lab-based education.
“That is social distancing, and that is what it dictates,” said Dr. Wendel. “We’ve worked with the deans and program chairs to try and plot a strategy so they could bring students back on campus and they could be safe, secure, and social-distanced and still accommodate their needs for learning.”
Many protocols were put into place to ensure the safety of anyone who steps foot onto campus. Communication & Marketing produced signage for safety and social distancing instructions. Human Resources and ITS developed an automated check-in process and databases to manage health-related data. Security and other staff stepped up to operate check-in stations. Now, every person who has a need to return to campus is required to follow all new protocols, including getting a temperature check and wearing PPE.
“We put together two forms, the daily health form and the return to campus form,” Dr. Wendel said. “I think that gave everybody the idea that we are serious. And it reminds them every day that we are serious.”
One of the biggest concerns throughout the pandemic has been adjusting to change. Krusniak notes how some employees are overwhelmed with all of the changes while others are anxious to try new tools and adopt new processes to facilitate remote work.
“ITS has to carefully manage projects to provide the benefits to those who need it, while not pushing others over the edge regarding how much change they can handle during this stressful time,” Krusniak said. “We have also tried to find ways to keep some ‘office serendipity’ alive with tools such as Zoom, Jabber, and Google chat/Hangouts.”
The President’s Office, ITS, and Human Resources worked to continually communicate a clear and consistent message among a constantly changing environment. To reinforce activity and help address ever-changing needs, ITS developed weekly Bits & Bytes messaging, and Human Resources sent weekly Q&As. ATSU deans also sent regular communication to their respective schools to keep faculty and staff up to date on the latest happenings.
Furthermore, employees remained positively engaged with ATSU leadership and with professional development opportunities. More than 60,000 LinkedIn Learning videos and 2,750 courses were completed. And, nearly 1,500 courses were completed on UltiPro Learning, Human Resources’ employee management software.
“We saw employees actively working to develop themselves professionally,” Brown said. “We were so impressed with employees’ desire to grow and develop during this time.”
Throughout the pandemic, the President’s Cabinet has continued to meet on a regular basis to address concerns, stay apprised of the rapidly evolving situation with COVID-19, and help keep the ATSU community safe. The overwhelming themes echoed from every corner of the University have been collaboration, compassion, support, problem solving, and flexibility. People have jumped in, without hesitation, to help ATSU move forward when the rest of the world came to a screeching halt.
“I am so proud of a leadership group that came together and did miraculous things,” Dr. Wendel said. “I have a tremendous amount of pride of being a part of a team that was really on top of what was happening and acted the best way they could with the information we had.”