COVID-19 was the great disruptor of the 21st century, but this unwelcome disruption to the status quo in higher education also shone a bright light on the need for a proactive, thorough, and constant review of health and safety policies and protocols to keep campuses safe and healthy places for learning.
Yolanda Watson Spiva, Ph.D.
President, Complete College America
COVID-19 forced colleges and universities around the world to make huge adjustments. Shifting teaching and learning to digital formats meant upgrading technology to support infrastructural and operational needs, and instructors had to find novel ways of replicating the co-curriculum in a virtual environment. One of the most important shifts was in upgrading campus health and safety policies.
A shift in focus
In recent years, campus safety policies have focused primarily upon addressing sexual violence, loss prevention and mitigation strategies, quelling inter-student disagreements, mitigating risks to students outside of the campus gates, and preparing for and addressing active shooter or other potential violent threats to the campus. In like manner, campus health policies have rightly focused upon compliance with vaccination requirements, suicide prevention and mental health, students’ dietary needs, as well as health and fitness.
These policies continue to be necessary, but an institution of higher education is only as good as its risk-mitigation strategies and the policies and protocols that it has in place to support the existence of unforeseen threats. Although there has long been the looming risk of a pandemic, Americans didn’t believe that it could happen in the United States. COVID-19 should be a wake-up call to all colleges and universities to review and revisit all of its policies and procedures on a rolling basis for the known — and unknown — threats to campus health and safety.
An unpredictable future
Although no one could have predicted that an unseen, silent killer would be able to invade our homes, our college campuses and our lives, undetected, and snuff out nearly one million lives in just over 24 months, the opportunity for it to happen was always there. As a result, those charged with devising or implementing campus health and safety policies must review and revise current policies, procedures, and protocols and devise new ones, with the opportunity of variable threats in mind. As we continue to navigate the Omicron variant of COVID-19, we must not forget that a global pandemic will likely occur again, as well as natural disasters and other unpredictable, exogenous threats.
Many of our nation’s most under-resourced colleges and universities also still need the human and fiscal resources to prepare for the inevitability of another pandemic, potentially occurring in a more insidious form, with more deleterious consequences to student safety or their prospects for enrolling and persisting in college.
Recently, many historically Black colleges and universities across the nation have been receiving a series of bomb threats, but most institutions do not already have a policy or protocol in place to address the active threat of a detonation device. Out west, though wildfires increasingly pose a constant, looming danger, many colleges do not have consistent and centralized electronic file and data preservation systems, student and family tracing and notification systems, or alternative operation strategies should their physical plant be compromised or eradicated.
Colleges and universities should take cues from major corporations and businesses which address potential danger scenarios on a daily basis. A thorough review of one’s policies, procedures, protocols, and practices by institutional leadership and practitioners, as well as frequent gaming out of threat scenarios, will go a long way toward ensuring that colleges and universities can fulfill their core mission of facilitating a quality postsecondary education for learners of all ages and backgrounds.