Dear ACPHS Community Members,
When the history of the 2020 pandemic is written, it will be written in episodes. There are distinct periods in the evolution of the pandemic, each with its set of struggles, working assumptions and decisions made.
The Initial Onslaught
At ACPHS, the first episode began in mid-March with the realization that the pandemic was not some remote distant event in a far off land but was right on our doorsteps. In a matter of days, which fortunately occurred during our Spring break, the pandemic hit home and there was enormous pressure to close the school. In the ensuing weeks a number of remarkable decisions were made. Spring break was extended a week to allow for time to adjust to our radically changed circumstances. We brought back our APPE students that were overseas. We restricted business travel. Shortly thereafter, we decided to go completely online. The campus was then closed except for some 90 students that for various reasons had no other place to stay. New phrases were springing into our vocabulary; "flatten the curve," "an abundance of caution" and "essential workers" became part of the lexicon.
Despite the immense stress and uncertainty, this was a remarkable and highly successful period for ACPHS. In less than two weeks, the community worked together to move the curriculum from face-to-face to online. Dean Ghorpade worked daily with the Department Chairs to insure the transition was complete and addressed many obstacles such as online assessment, laboratory course completion and fulfillment of clinical rotations. The faculty senate worked in collaboration with academic administration to support policies that would insure the students could complete their semester on time. There was a myriad of other issues that had to be dealt with. We still had 90 students living in the residence halls that needed to be accommodated, we had to transition our everyday work life to online and everyone learned to be adept at Zoom. Rapid fire decisions needed to be carefully communicated in a timely fashion. Our transition to the new COVID-19 world was not perfect, but I would say it was a success. Everyone completed their semester on time and the community was protected. I have never experienced such a united effort by an academic community in my career.
The Island of Fear
Personally, the hardest decision was the first one - extending Spring break to allow the conversion to online curriculum delivery. Many of the following decisions were more or less a consequence of the first one. During that period, actions were driven by fear of the impact of the pandemic. There were numerous articles in mainstream and academic media about this being the death knell of the small college. If everyone is going to online, the reasoning goes, then there is nothing to distinguish one college from the next. Students would be driven to the big online institutions that have large portfolios and low cost. We were concerned about the fall semester. Will we be able to reopen? Will anyone want to attend if we have to go online? Will all the graduating high school seniors sit out a year? These concerns were not overblown. Our incoming student enrollment for the fall was looking very bleak.
We were trying to predict our financial situation in a period of great uncertainty. Working closely with our Board of Trustees, a large number of financial decisions were made. We are very fortunate to have such an engaged Board who became actively involved in interacting with the administration to work through many of these issues. We reimbursed the students for residence hall, student activity, parking and food service fees on a prorated basis. We froze tuition at the current level, froze salary increases and new hiring, and reduced benefits for faculty and staff. We did not make any layoffs, but we furloughed about 20 employees.
We were very fortunate to come out of the first phase of the pandemic financially unharmed. Many colleges ended the fiscal year with large deficits, but guided by our Finance Office's careful fiscal management we suffered no deficits. This was particularly heartening as we faced a potentially more serious battle in the fall. As we entered summer, we extended the admissions deadline, kept applications alive and continued contact with incoming students. Student Affairs and Academic Affairs had teamed up earlier to continually reach out with academic counseling services to our existing students. These efforts would serve us well.
We had a large number of undecided accepted students out there. While we did not convince the worried parents of all these students to commit, we had a small but steady stream of deposits over the summer. We also had especially good news from ongoing students. They were not scared away from what happened in the spring. In fact, our attrition from spring to fall was lower than it has historically been. Our students were coming back!
During the early summer, while we were waiting for a clearer picture of fall enrollment, the community worked as hard as in the spring to establish what reopening in the fall would look like. We were committed to a face-to-face opening with social distancing since our small close-knit community has featured that face-to-face interaction since our founding in 1881. The discussion at the time was what limits our capacity? If we do the 6' distancing in the classroom, will we have enough classroom space? If we need to have one person per dorm room, do we have enough residence hall space? What will our constraints be? The other concern was would we even be able to open? NYS had a system of four phases of opening and higher education was in the last, phase 4. Would we even get to phase 4 by the fall?
To make many of our decisions, we needed guidance on what protocols and practices were acceptable. We had the CDC guidance, ACHA wrote a guidance, and CICU (a consortium of NYS private colleges and universities) generated a guidance. There was no lack of guidance documents except for the one we needed most, New York State. We waited anxiously on this one and could not finalize plans until we had it. Finally, on June 28, a week before the Capitol Region entered Phase 4, we received it. This allowed us to finalize the fall operations and infrastructure for face-to-face education with social distancing.
Making the Trains Run on Time
The disappointing part of the NYS guidance was that it was minimalist. It had two sets of guidelines: mandatory and recommended. We were already planning to meet the mandatory guidelines and incorporated the best practices to create the reopening plan for our institution. With this in hand, Academic Affairs identified classroom and lecture hall capacity and began creating a fall schedule that included a blend of online, hybrid or flipped classrooms, and face-to-face instruction. Student Affairs was busy making room assignments to deposited students and identifying quarantine space. Meanwhile, our physical plant workers were preparing the campus with signs, arrows and cleaning stations. We were incredibly fortunate that EYP Architecture & Engineering, the firm we are working with on the Campus Master Plan, offered their expertise pro bono. EYP's expertise, coupled with Colden Corporation, our environmental health and safety consultants, was critical in analyzing the air quality in all of our buildings and retrofitting the older air handlers with more stringent filters to meet recommended COVID-19 standards. This alteration is perhaps the single most important thing we did to the campus infrastructure to promote health and safety.
During the summer, Governor Cuomo made an important Executive Order - licensed pharmacists could administer CLIA-waived COVID-19 diagnostic tests if they applied for an LSL (Limited Service Laboratory) license. With our student operated pharmacies and the Collaboratory in place we actually already had an LSL that could be extended to our campus location. An interdisciplinary team of faculty from Clinical Lab Sciences, Pharmacy Practice, Microbiology and Population Health Sciences worked tirelessly to put screening and testing protocols in place. With our on campus point of care testing capability, we can have a student or employee tested with a turnaround time of less than an hour. This will be instrumental in our early identification of infected individuals and containing any potential spread.
Fall Semester, The Next Episode
The next episode is what the fall semester brings us. Throughout the summer, our main concern was to protect the health and safety of our ACPHS community. At the same time, we want to continue to provide the highest quality education as possible. We want to maintain the important personal interactions between students and faculty and staff. This is a new world for higher education. It is not without its challenges, but I firmly believe that there will be some silver linings here. We have worked hard as a united community and we have made some changes that I think will actually enhance the educational experience.
It is important to go back to our mission and why we are doing all this - we are educating the next generation of health science professionals to improve the health of society. The world needs our students to be educated, graduate and have fulfilling careers in the health sciences and the health professions. This is why we are working so hard on maintaining the ACPHS experience throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Greg Dewey, Ph.D.