A Q&A with Commissioner Kim Hunter Reed of the Louisiana Board of Regents.
1. This is, of course, an unusual school year. What does the fall look like for colleges and universities in Louisiana?
This academic year will be one of the most challenging we have ever faced—with a global pandemic, racial unrest, and significant economic hardships impacting our state and our students. As the fall semester begins across Louisiana over the next two weeks, we will be welcoming students back to campus—mostly online, but some in person. Our institutions are committed to keeping the education and training going safely and effectively. In fall 2020, that will not be easy.
Our focus is on maximizing equity of opportunity for all of our students. Our priority is to minimize disease spread through our campus safety and sanitation protocols, informed by public health experts and CDC guidance.
We have phased in re-entry plans that clearly delineate our expectations and safety requirements. How will it look? Masks will be required on every campus, along with health checks, both on-site or prior to arrival. Large classes will remain online. Smaller classes may be held in larger rooms so social distancing can be achieved or student attendance may be alternating between in-person and online in the same class. Hands-on classes, including technical education, in-person labs, and clinicals will continue with appropriate PPE and social distancing. Sanitization stations will be located across campuses and signage will direct the flow of students and remind them to do their part to keep themselves and their classmates safe.
In residence halls, we are encouraging single rooms and requiring recovery and isolation sites on every campus. These sites will have wrap-around supports to allow for continued remote learning, delivery of medicine and meals and daily check-ins to support each student’s overall wellbeing.
Remote learning must not widen the existing equity gaps in our state, so we created a statewide digital inclusion committee to address the significant number of students who lack the technology to participate in remote instruction. Campuses have also supported faculty, staff, and students with summer professional development opportunities as we focus on improved online learning in the fall.
In a world full of uncertainty and unknowns, we are clear that higher education is a key asset to a strong COVID recovery. We are encouraging our students to be safe and not defer their dreams.
2. What were some of the considerations that went into guidelines across the state?
I would say safety first, guided by the data and science, along with a clear understanding that our guidance would need to evolve as we learned more about this deadly virus. We developed plans to be responsive to any phase of reopening, realizing there was no way to predict where Louisiana would be in terms of case counts and disease spread. We also recognized that campus missions, configurations, and resources are different. All had to be addressed in our planning.
Collaboration was key. We partnered throughout the planning process with Louisiana’s Office of Public Health to make sure education and public safety are closely paired. CDC guidelines have anchored our planning and continue to inform our progress. Our partnership has helped to inform the individual planning processes for all institutions in our state—public, private, proprietary, two-year, four-year, and HBCUs. While we look forward to a physical return to campus, we will do that in a safe manner focused on preventative measures to protect our students and campus communities.
3. What are some ways the Board of Regents is offering support or guidance to institutional leaders as decisions are being made?
We have been collaborating since early March, when Louisiana reported its first COVID-19 case. We developed statewide guidance and in early June hosted webinars with public and private colleges and universities as well as proprietary schools to share the information alongside our state public health experts.
We connected campuses to health care resources through meetings between our state’s Regional Medical Directors and our Campus Medical Directors and Health Center staffs. The meetings were especially critical because our Regional Medical Directors will be long-term partners for testing, tracing, and ongoing, updated guidance.
And we’ve helped campuses “pressure test” their plans, hosting two planning exercises last week with our public health and emergency planning partners. These allowed campus presidents and their leadership teams to walk through various scenarios dealing with potential outbreaks impacting students in dorms, as well as sick faculty. Our campus communities will not be immune to COVID-19, so we have a responsibility to plan well and to practice our effective response, to be ready when an outbreak occurs.
4. Do you think that your response in Louisiana has been different than in other parts of the country?
We certainly are facing the same enormous challenges to safely educate during a time of crisis, but Louisiana is battle-tested, so in that sense we are always crisis ready. Emergency planning is in our DNA. Whether responding to a hurricane or a pandemic like COVID-19, our state has an effective emergency response structure led by our governor that allows for continuous cross-agency communication and collaboration to respond to critical situations. Any time we have a disaster, the lessons learned from large-scale events like Hurricane Katrina are immediately discussed and relevant best practices are implemented.
5. From your perspective, what are some of the biggest challenges for students returning to school this fall?
Where do I begin? We hear from students and parents worried about student safety on campus. Others are financially struggling and can no longer afford tuition, while many of our student parents are trying to figure out if they can balance their children’s hybrid schedules with their own classes. We continue to let students know that there are many academic options and resources available to help keep them on track. Now is the time to double down on education, training and workforce development.
This pandemic has magnified pre-COVID challenges including the lack of technology and access to broadband in both urban and rural communities. We believe that access to broadband is as fundamental as lights and running water. We must #ConnectAllStudents.
Additionally, we recognize that previous college affordability challenges have been exacerbated as the pandemic has left 400,000 Louisiana residents out of work. We cannot increase access and attainment without improving affordability. As we look to the fall and beyond, while the challenges seem daunting, we are seizing the opportunities to innovate, educate, and collaborate to build a more resilient Louisiana.