Emergency response and ‘silver linings’

Photo: Clark State Community College

Responding to and managing a crisis is never easy, but community college leaders are prepared to address the myriad of issues that arise during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jo Alice Blondin / Matt Franz

Because innovation and inclusion are in the DNA of community colleges, we as a sector are uniquely positioned to respond quickly with resiliency, flexibility and empathy for our students and employees.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us all, and the disruptions created by it will stay with us for years to come. Clark State Community College in Springfield, Ohio, has capitalized on years of planning and preparation in our response to this crisis, but we have already learned some lessons that we will incorporate into future strategies for addressing and responding to emergency situations. These lessons (already) learned are:

Create a mission- and equity-focused mindset. A shared culture focused on the institutional mission and equity for all among faculty and staff requires years of training, professional development and effective hiring practices in order to execute plans. If the college isn’t focused on mission in its regular operations, operating with the end in mind — student success — will be difficult under the toughest of circumstances. 

A culture focused on student success supports innovation and change. For Clark State, leveraging the training we have received through the American Association of Community Colleges, Association of Community College Trustees, the Higher Learning Commission and the Ohio Association of Community Colleges has been invaluable, as well as the faculty and staff’s unrelenting commitment to student success.

Recognizing that both employees and students alike have different experiences and how we as a college can lift them up is crucial and guides our community college in a crisis.

Understand that planning matters and it takes a long time. Clark State has spent years coordinating with local law enforcement, health departments and other safety stakeholders, and we have done dozens of tabletop exercises with our Emergency Response Team to prepare for an event like this, and yet, we will still make mistakes.

A relentless focus on emergency planning can be a challenge in both time and effort, but the right messaging and buy-in develop a culture that supports preparedness. When you actively engage in disaster/emergency training, it becomes easier to adapt when the training topic turns into a real-world situation while minimizing disruption and misunderstanding.

Planning and training paid off for us in terms of communication, structure and roles for the emergency response, and the mutual respect and collaboration that accompanies strong teamwork.

Involve all stakeholders. Shared governance is both rewarding and challenging, and it is a hallmark value of higher education. Inviting people from across the college to participate in the decision-making process builds trust. This trust is essential in empowering the delegated flexibility and plan execution during a crisis.

When there is a distribution and engagement of people across the institution during a crisis, consistent communication means that everyone hears the same thing, reducing guesswork, supposition and interpretation, allowing individuals to focus on what truly matters — supporting students. Involving all stakeholders such as boards of trustees, foundation boards, faculty, staff as well as student senates, students and employees is essential for communication, policy changes and decision-making.

This work must continue. It is easy to say, “we can do that meeting when we return,” but we have to keep the governance system vibrant — even virtually. Additional stakeholders that require engagement and involvement include employers, clinical sites for students, legislators, accrediting bodies and community organizations that “need to know” what is going on and how they should be engaged in executing plans.

Take risks in decision-making. It is OK to be first. Clark State made the decision to postpone our commencement ceremony earlier than others, and while we took a risk, we knew that it would provide some comfort to students and their families to postpone this important milestone. We also knew our students well enough to know that cancelation was not an option for them. We believed that, psychologically, eligible students had earned the right to and needed the commencement ceremony in sight to complete.

While it takes courage to make hard decisions and choices, we also recognize that not all decisions will be the correct ones — or may be perceived at the time of the decision to be the right ones. Crises, by definition, requires change. Change can be uncomfortable, but being uncomfortable doesn’t have to mean bad. Strategic risk during a crisis can result in people achieving things they never thought possible. Change begets new opportunities to demonstrate added value. Making decisions during a crisis that are based on data and information available — student responses, student progression in courses, credit hours earned and online capability can make all the difference.

As Ohio’s Gov. Mike DeWine has stated recently about this crisis, “Mistakes that I have made throughout my career have generally been because I didn’t have enough facts, I didn’t dig deep enough. So, I made up my mind I was going to have the best information, the best data available.”

Recognize gaps in policy and infrastructure. Clark State has a business interruption policy and business continuity plan, but our telecommuting policy was underprepared for a college-wide telecommuting plan. We need to recognize and use this time to address the gaps in policy, technologies and infrastructure that affect a comprehensive and turnkey response.

Additionally, tracking expenses and lost revenue is critical during this time. Each institution has its own distinctive programming and complexity, and ensuring that we are providing a full accounting of the cost of a crisis to our Boards and other stakeholders is necessary. Clark State has a 1,500-seat performing arts center and a conference center. With events canceled through May, the college is tracking these expenses as well as lost revenue and savings that result. These are just a few of the things we’ve begun to track in order to improve our internal processes and procedures to further enhance our ability to respond to critical situations.

Prioritize communication and engagement with students and employees. Clark State has focused on personalizing messages to students through videos, and we have ramped up the president’s town hall meeting from two to three times per semester to weekly during this unprecedented situation and expanded them to a totally virtual format. This meeting resulted in one of the most attended meetings ever. Shared governance meetings, including senates and standing committees, are encouraged to meet virtually to continue their good work and keep the business of the college moving forward.

Staying connected has become an absolute priority — and we continue to rethink our connectedness with each other through this situation. Today’s environment presents some very real opportunities for people to engage from every part of campus whether they are on our campus or working remotely. Technology can be a tool to increase inclusivity across campus by allowing everyone the opportunity and confidence to participate.

Be honest about the challenges and communicate. Our most important resource is our people. During a crisis, we need to understand that in an era of immediate access to information from many sources creates potential for misunderstanding and confusion. This can lead to fear and uncertainty. As leaders, too often we want to show that we know all the answers, but we don’t. Acknowledging that the process may be imperfect, inspires hope, confidence and unity.

We have to be willing to be as transparent as possible in our decision-making, especially when uncertainty is so pervasive. All of our messaging at Clark State — to employees, students or the community — is designed to be straightforward and crafted with the best information we have at the time. Consequently, we may fail at times in our communication and strategies, and we have to acknowledge that fact.

Find and track the “silver linings.” There are some. They are hard to see right now, but they are there. This is an opportunity for everyone to challenge the status quo. Have you ever heard “this is the way it’s always been?” Now is a great time to empower employees to examine completely new ways of solving problems. The future of telecommuting for employees? The necessity of a 16- or eight-week semester? Faculty office hours policies? Technology purchases and the appropriate distribution of technology? Enhanced online learning? Wraparound student services online?

As we say often, “there is always a crisis.” How we learn from this crisis and the good that comes from it are the silver linings that we must document and inform our practice moving forward.

A student-centered and student success-oriented culture will adapt quickly. Employees will rise to the occasion and perform in creative and surprising ways. Yes, there will be failures and challenges all around, but an organization that is mission-focused, uses these “silver linings” to improve systems and processes, and concentrates its culture on students will have more resiliency and flexibility.

About the Author

Jo Alice Blondin / Matt Franz
Jo Alice Blondin is president of Clark State Community College in Springfield, Ohio. Matt Franz is the college’s vice president for information technology and emergency management.