At around 8 pm on Saturday, March 14, Camosun students were informed by email that the college would be transitioning to alternate modes of instruction and assessment as part of measures to support physical distancing due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Under normal circumstances, a major shift in institutional operations would be the result of long-term planning, discussions, and considerations. However, that specific Saturday was three days after the World Health Organization declared the global outbreak of the COVID-19 a pandemic, so the decision-making had to take place rapidly and effectively.
It’s been three and a half months since that day, and everyone from the college, including students, certainly has their own memories about when the news about the pandemic started to hit us hard and the decision to move classes online was made public. But the story of what happened behind the scenes with Camosun administration the night they decided to make that decision hasn’t been told, until now.
Nexus invited Camosun College president Sherri Bell, vice president of education John Boraas, and Camosun College Student Society (CCSS) executive director Michel Turcotte to look back at the key moments and hours of work that marked the college’s transition into the reality that we have been living in since then. We asked them to reflect on how they feel today toward everything that changed at the college as well as on what they’ve learned from facing the crisis.
Before March 14, 2020
When Turcotte looks back to when things started to change in March, he points out how much faster the ability to make decisions and implement them became.
“It’s been a bit of a blur,” he admits. “I’m amazed at how fast things can change, and how fast organizations can respond and make changes.”
Boraas shares a similar sentiment when he looks back on those days in the second week of March.
“It’s been such a blur of daily challenges and figuring stuff out that we’ve never had to figure out before,” says Boraas. “There hasn’t been much time to be contemplative; it’s been a very reactive period, where it’s just all about immediate realities.”
Bell remembers that week as really dynamic because information was coming quickly and institutions were making fast decisions.
“There wasn’t a collective effort as a province to all post-secondary institutions doing this at the same time,” says Bell. “It was basically listening to what the provincial health officer was saying and looking at our own individual institutions.”
Boraas says that the safety of the students and the people who work at the college was a key factor in moving classes online.
“Going from an absolute assertion that face-to-face instruction was best for students and best for everybody involved to understanding that that ceased to be the most important priority really was a shifting of the priority of different values overtaking others,” says Boraas. “Then it became less an emotional response, a response of how do we make it as good as we can and how do we support people? It completely turned into all hands on deck, let’s roll up our sleeves and get the work done to ensure that students aren’t interrupted in their journeys any more than it’s necessary.”
Turcotte says that the college included the student society in the discussions from the onset of the crisis.
“I can remember it was Friday, March 13,” he says. “Sherri, the president of the college, and I were talking because COVID-19 was becoming an increased surge in the province and during that conversation we were talking about how would we likely respond, and how the college would stay open by implementing the safety measures. But later in that day, after that conversation, UVic made the decision to go online and that had a dramatic impact—it was like this snowball effect associated with that, and, as a result, Saturday the 14th became a very busy day for a lot of people involved in the college.”
March 14, 2020
“That weekend was a non-stop working weekend for all of us and we sought out information from government, certainly, but they consistently provided the message that it was our planning,” says Boraas. “There was no directive that came to us.”
Boraas adds that the executive team at Camosun was in contact with other post-secondary institutions across the province and across the country, as well as asking the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training for advice.
“Ultimately, the decision was left to us, but… as we saw what was happening around the world it became clear that there was no other decision to make,” says Boraas.
Bell also highlights that Camosun was talking back and forth with partners at the University of Victoria during all the conversations that were taking place up to the moment the college made their decision to stop in-person classes.
“It was that Saturday, March 14—that is a day that really sticks in my mind and probably always will—when it felt wrong to be coming back to campus and to be having classes on a Monday,” says Bell.
Bell recalls that a lot of things happened from March 11 through that weekend, describing it as an intense period that culminated in the decision-making on March 14.
“I called a meeting with all of our deans, our registrar, the vice presidents, our Facilities director; I brought a group of people together in on a weekend and we looked at every possibility that we could and worked through different scenarios together in the boardroom,” says Bell. “And by late that afternoon we had come up with a plan and then myself and our communications department had to come up with clear communication, and that actually took a lot longer than what we thought it would.”
Turcotte says that the college was meeting very early in the morning and they were actively consulting with the student society and were communicating with him, and he was passing on information to key members of the CCSS board of directors.
“During that day the decision was made to go online eventually,” says Turcotte, “and so that’s when a lot of the communications were drafted up and the groups, some of the unions, had an opportunity to review some of the communications before they went out to students and other people.”
Turcotte says that once the college had got information to students, the student society published additional information on social media.
“I can remember that Saturday vividly, because it started with some text messages then phone calls, and emails back and forth,” says Turcotte. “It really didn’t end until late that night.”
After March 14, 2020
Starting the following Monday, when the transitioning process to online classes started, Turcotte says that there was meetings pretty much every day; the college also formed the COVID-19 Response Coordination Team committee, which meets regularly to discuss COVID-19-related matters.
“The first time it might have been in person but the rest of the meetings have been a few people in the boardroom and the rest of us online,” says Turcotte. “It’s a committee that includes the college executive team and people from the student society and the three unions [representing college staff and faculty]. The committee still meets every week precisely and discusses the issues that are going on, what the reopening plans are, challenges the college is facing. The college has been very open and transparent, and engaging.”
During all this, the CCSS student board elections took place on April 7, 8, and 9; they met quorum, but Turcotte explains that it would have been an even larger challenge if they had not transitioned to online election software a few years ago. Additionally, he recognizes that there was no easy way for students to campaign during the pandemic.
“When it came to the actual voting days we had to put out extra emails to make sure students were aware of the elections,” says Turcotte. “Voter turnout, I think, was affected negatively as a result because people were so distracted; students were so distracted by trying to take the classes in this new environment that participating in the elections wasn’t the top of their priority list.”
Boraas refers to the use of technology as a tangible key element of managing the crisis.
“I think it will be a matter of parsing through our new way of working and making decisions about what elements of the changes we’ve made should remain and which ones really have to go back to the way we did before,” says Boraas. “But I think there’s a real openness to doing things differently that perhaps didn’t exist before.”
Confessing that he would have questioned the efficiency of virtual meetings with 20 or 30 people before, Boraas now admits that it works pretty well.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a way of bringing people together pretty easily,” says Boraas. “So I think that it’s going to be that role of technology and our comfort with it that changed, and I think it will continue to impact us, even when we’re allowed to come back together.”
Boraas also realizes that prior to the pandemic he wouldn’t even have considered the possibility of making some decisions that started to come up every day during the crisis, such as interrupting Dental Hygiene students’ path toward accreditation by having to cancel all of their work on campus or at practicum.
“It’s just been this roller-coaster of projects and responses,” says Boraas. “Like everyone, anxiety in that first week was intense.”
Not only Boraas was worried about the safety of coworkers and students, he also wanted his family to stay safe; he praises the efforts and commitment of those in the local community.
“The way that we as a community [on] Vancouver Island really saw that social responsibility to be part of the eradication of the virus as much as we can is something I think we all should be proud of,” says Boraas. “Because everybody did play a role as we navigated this.”
Thinking about key takeaways from the crisis up to now, Boraas says that the first thing that comes to mind is gratitude.
“I feel such commitment from so many people that allowed this to work. I’m still quite amazed at the range of the faculty transitioning their lectures to online, putting up labs so they can be filmed and put online for students,” says Boraas. “They have worked so hard.”
Boraas also expresses gratitude to students in recognition that they have been part of a whole adaptation process at the college.
“I’m proud to see the kind of completion rates that students were able to maintain,” he says. “That was a huge fear: would students be able to thrive? It’s hard for some people, but I see some pretty extraordinary stories through the data, looking at completion rates, but also as we welcome students back on campus to complete things that couldn’t be done online, students have been so generous and so creative and so strong, so that’s pretty cool.”
Bell mentions that despite how fast it all took place, even though instructors and students were given just a week to transition from face-to-face to online classes, most people transitioned before that week was completed.
“I have to say I was so proud of our staff, our faculty, our students for how quickly they were able to understand how important it was to not be in large groups on campus,” says Bell. “We wanted to make sure that students had every opportunity to be as successful as possible in that term, so we went from that first week of moving face-to-face classes to online and then the week after that we moved almost all of our services online.”
Bell praises everyone at Camosun for stepping up and making sure that students got what they needed, which includes an emergency bursary launched for students.
“‘What can I do?’ was the common theme, because everyone knew how [as] we were getting close to the end of the semester this was going to be incredibly stressful for students, so we had to try and make it as easy as we possibly can,” says Bell. “Instructors were asked to use their own professional judgment on how they were going to complete the semester with their students, so they were given the freedom to change things, to alter things, in order to be successful, because we haven’t experienced anything like this.”
Turcotte shares his appreciation for college administrators, managers, and employees coming together to help students during this time.
“Talking to colleagues around the province, I’m grateful for the relationship that Camosun College and the student society had with its administration before COVID,” says Turcotte. “Because some other student societies in the province didn’t have that and that made those consultation processes a lot slower.”
Bell says students, staff, and faculty were supportive and ensured the best experience they possibly could under the circumstances. Looking to the fall, Bell recognizes that even with a mix of online and in-person classes, some students would prefer them all to be in person.
“We have small classes and people get really close and connect with their peers and the instructors, so I know for some of our students it’s going to be really difficult,” says Bell. “I just wish I could tell people when this is going to be over, but we can’t, so we’ll just continue to do what we do in the very best way that we can and just thank people for being patient and resilient during this time.”
Comparing the fall to where we are at now, Bell describes it as just dialing it back a little bit to start looking at small groups of students back on campus, particularly the ones that have to finish their portions of the winter semester that they were not able to complete; it’s different than flipping a switch, which is basically what happened in March.
“It was surreal. In my career I’ve dealt with a lot of different crises but this one was unique because it was happening in real time across the province, across the country and, of course, around the world,” says Bell. “It was looking at what we were doing, also talking to people from other institutions, but you didn’t have a whole lot of time to sit and plan. We all came in one day and it was done.”
Boraas recognizes that it was a time of digesting information nonstop but even with a degree of clarity now, a second wave of COVID-19 is possible in the fall, and the college continues to make decisions bearing in mind that the scenario may become entirely different.
“At some point we just had to really go day by day and plan with what we know now assuming that probably down the road our decisions will need to change,” says Boraas.
Thinking about the registration period for fall, Turcotte is aware of some implications.
“There’s a bit of a calm before the storm, because at the top of everyone’s mind at the college and at the student society now, it’s like, ‘How many students are going to register for the fall semester?’ That influences the direction that the college and the student society will take,” he says, “as well as there are financial implications… related to those numbers.”
Bell believes that as a leader, in order to deal with a crisis it’s important to bring people in; that was her first step by meeting with other leaders from the college, talking to the unions, and communicating with the student society.
“We’ve been doing that all along,” she says. “That part is really key, that you have people that are coming from different aspects or different areas of the college to give feedback, to look at it together. But at the same time, there wasn’t a lot of time; we had to move quickly. We have more time now to move to the next phase in a more planned and organized way, but that first couple of weeks, I don’t think I’ve ever been so exhausted at the end of two weeks, because it was so much to consider and nothing that anyone had ever dealt with before.”
For Turcotte, the crisis reinforced the importance of the CCSS and Camosun’s administration team maintaining a respectful and good relationship.
“[We] had that going into this crisis, and I think that has served us well,” says Turcotte. “I would say that the relationship is even better; we can actually collaborate more easily to support students.”
According to Turcotte, the student society was able to have a direct influence in many decisions about matters that would help students during the crisis. He also says there are numerous examples of where the CCSS and the college have come together and mentions the ability of both organizations to adjust.
“At one moment, BC Transit suspended the UPass program for the summer, but then a few weeks later they announced that they were going to be charging for transit again starting in the beginning of June,” says Turcotte. “That forced both the student society and the college to respond in order to make sure that students still had access to a discounted bus pass of some kind.”
As far as the graduating class of 2020 goes, Bell explains that the college wants to give anyone who wishes to walk across the stage the opportunity to do so, once it’s safe to.
“I love looking at the faces of the people in the audience—they’re just so proud of their wife, son, brother, whoever is coming up on the stage, and little kids cheering their parents on, it’s amazing, there’s nothing like it,” says Bell. “If we can’t do it this year, we will provide the opportunity for students to have that experience with their families in another way in another time.”