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What do New Vaccines Mean for Brick-and-Mortar Schools with Online Education Programs?

So what the vaccine rollout means for students all depends on the students themselves and the experiences they seek. I definitely think it will vary regionally.

Nicholas R. Santilli, PhD, Senior Director for Learning Strategy at the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP)

Since the outset of the pandemic, educators globally have responded creatively to ensure access to education for students when countries implemented stay-at-home orders in efforts to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. And while the rapid move to online education options this year by many traditionally brick-and-mortar institutions has been lauded by the broader public, there continues to be somewhat last-minute-planning by institutions grappling to navigate online, offline, and hybrid program offerings.

Fortunately, the rollout of new vaccines has introduced hope that there could be some return to offline programs. Even so, the challenge is no less great. The U.S. education system was not built to withstand extended shutdowns, and transition toward normalcy in the United States will likely consume most of 2021.

McKinsey & Company projects the nation’s possible achievement of herd immunity in the third and fourth quarters, “though the emergence of new strains and a slow start to vaccine rollout raise real risks to both timelines.” spoke with learning strategy expert Dr. Nicholas R. Santilli to learn more about what the global rollout of vaccines means for brick-and-mortar schools seeking to navigate ambiguous future timelines.

Meet the Expert: Dr. Nicholas R. Santilli

Nicholas R. Santilli

Nicholas R. Santilli, PhD, serves as the senior director for learning strategy for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). In this role, he drives the development of learning content for individual practitioners and institutions looking to build the professional competencies of their faculty and staff. He is also the lead for the SCUP Planning Institute, the premier professional development program to create institutional capacity for integrated planning in higher education.

Dr. Santilli is a longtime member of SCUP, co-chairing two SCUP annual conferences; serving on the SCUP board of directors for three years (two years as chair); facilitating for the Planning Institute; overseeing the development of the Planning Institute curriculum; and working with the Planning Institute’s Facilitator Corps.

He joined the SCUP staff after a 34-year career as a faculty member and administrator in higher education, which included positions in the assessment of student learning and development, institutional effectiveness, accreditation, and integrated planning. He also served as a vice president for academic and student affairs and provost. Dr. Santilli is a member of the peer-reviewer corps for the Higher Learning Commission—the largest regional accrediting body of higher education institutions in the United States.

Q&A with Dr. Nicholas R. Santilli Now that the initial rollout of vaccines has begun, what does this mean for brick-and-mortar schools’ programs in the immediate/distant future?

Dr. Santilli: I think vaccinations will help with a sense of normalcy and of bringing some campus operations back up to provide some type of experiences that students are seeking on campus.

On the vaccination side, it’s very promising that institutions can begin to plan for a full transition to on-campus operations, whatever that happens to look like. For many institutions, that looks like bringing students back, bringing faculty and staff back, and doing the kinds of work that institutions do in a face-to-face environment.

And as you know, it’s not just limited to classroom instruction, but it’s all of the other student experience. This includes activities that occur on campuses such as career development, mental health services, and other things that campuses provide. There are also other student experiences that students have, depending upon which age group the students are in.

If you’re looking at traditionally-aged undergraduate students, one of the reasons why they seek a residential experience is because a good bit of it is focused on not just the academic experience but on the full integrated experience on the campus with student life. This can mean things like student organizations and service to the local community, as well as all the other kinds of things like athletics and sports. So these are all things that students who are considered traditional-age students, seek as a full college or university experience.

You look at graduate students and the kinds of things that graduate students do and seek in programs. I would say that some graduate students—master’s and doctoral students—may have been limited with their experience throughout the pandemic. This could be especially true if they’re in the sciences because they may have had no or limited access to laboratories and things like that where they need to be able to do work. And these particular kinds of environments on campus that they seek to have are a critical part of their educational experience.

Then, as you know, there are a lot of adult students, mostly 25 and older, who seek an educational experience where they’re not as concerned about the kinds of things that undergraduates are concerned about regarding their experience. So, they actually are a little bit liberated by not having to come to a campus. This gives them the easier choice of not having to be in a specific place.

And that’s where online and hybrid, I think, really is a nice alternative and a great program for adult students who are managing working family life. They know they don’t have to leave their homes or leave their place of employment depending upon what the circumstances may be, where they are taking a good number of credits online or in a hybrid format, and where they may do any on-campus experience over a weekend.

I supervised the program when I worked on a campus where students had a once-monthly weekend residency on campus. But their program was largely online, and the on-campus experience involved case studies and similar simulations based on the program they happened to be in.

So what the vaccine rollout means for students all depends on the students themselves and the experiences they seek.

But then also, the kind of academic experience that many traditional-aged undergraduate students seek involves the safety of workers on campus like faculty, staff, and administrators. They can be inoculated so that they can fulfill their duties to the extent that they need to on a campus.

And so I know there may be some changes regarding offices and telecommuting expectations. But there are still some things that are valuable from an employee perspective that need to get done in a face-to-face environment. I think that vaccinations will help to bring people back to the environment, and be able to help them continue to do the kind of work that’s necessary for their institution, Do you think that the availability of programs moving forward at institutions varies regionally, if at all? Are there any challenges to be aware of?

Dr. Santilli: I definitely think it will vary regionally, especially in terms of opportunities that institutions have to do some things outdoors.

Institutions that are in the Northeast, in the Midwest—especially the upper Midwest—given the winter and cooler climates will be challenged in that regard. For example, I’m in Cleveland, Ohio. I’m looking out the window out of my office and I have snow on the ground. There’s no way we can do anything outdoors here that could help with teaching courses or other kinds of things in open-aired spaces in person.

But some individuals in the south may still be able to hold classes or meetings or things like that in an outdoor environment set-up and use those outdoor environments to be able to keep working.

So I do think there will be regional variations. I think a good bit of it will be associated with what the weather will allow. In terms of transitioning some activities to outdoors and even creating outdoor environments, these may have some longevity for campuses and maybe even some appeal.

I wonder about the fact that a lot of in-class activities now are also multimedia activities. In what sense can you create a multimedia set-up in an outdoor environment where a faculty member may be using different kinds of presentation technology, audio technology, visual technology that are critical in terms of showing things and doing things in class?

Then also, if you’re going outside and asking students to use their own
their own devices. And how good is your wireless connection for the outdoor environment? So there are a lot of things to consider and these are all planning issues. What strategies have helped educators in tackling ambiguity within the continued pandemic period as they plan to move forward?

I think as institutions begin to think about planning and how we go about a transition back to on-campus experiences they’re doing their best to look at potentials regarding the roll-out to the vaccine. It’s going to take some time to distribute—and it’s gonna take time to build up immunity.

So what we are really thinking about here with respect to colleges and universities is when will they be able to create more dense populations on campus? And that’s just in terms of thinking about the academic in-person experience. What about individuals who are looking for residence hall living experiences—and what happens then to undergraduate and some graduate students who want to take advantage of on-campus housing and what that will need? And then what’s the financial impact of all these kinds of things?

Our association has done a lot of work providing platforms for our members to talk about what they’ve been doing on their campuses to adjust.

Early in the pandemic, we ran a good number of webinars in various kinds of formats where we had some individuals give presentations on a particular topic and what they were doing to respond to the environment. And those were very helpful to our membership, which consists of a combination of people in the corporate world that support higher education, planning and architecture, and construction.

We have a lot of design-build members, and we have a lot of members who are on campus and at institutions. What we saw is that individuals in the design and build area were beginning to develop some on-campus solutions regarding safety procedures. They were also doing things like thinking of helping campuses think about utilizing their space in effective ways.

So when we ran webinars from groups around the country, those brought together individuals from on-campus environments and the corporate environment to talk about what they’re doing to create safe spaces in classrooms, labs, residence halls, and all the other places where people congregate. In this role, we became a convener, basically: a platform for our members to be able to have opportunities to talk to one another and exchange good ideas regarding practices around the challenges presented by the pandemic.

We also developed a number of regional meetings, events, and channels via electronic and social media platforms for individuals to use in help doing their work. There they can help each other come to create dialogue around how campuses are responding across the planning spectrum, whether it’s physical space or financial space—be it academic planning and all of those kinds of things.

What we found is that by serving as a convener we’ve created opportunities for our members to bring their ideas to the higher education world and really respond to what’s going on in the best possible manner.