Really, our hats are off to you, higher ed. You have really had your hands absolutely full lately.  We have seen you move from “maybe we should look at moving to online courses” just a few short weeks ago to a full-blown “everybody go home” mandate, with schools large and small dealing with how to continue to provide quality education and support students in the face of COVID-19.

In this post, we’ve curated and synopsized a variety of really germane articles for you to reflect upon in the hopes that you can begin to draw a breath and consider how to keep yourself, your institution and your students centered as we navigate this.  Links are provided as well as citations at the end of the post.

For teachers and professors, the immediate issue the last couple of weeks was “how do I teach online?”  Our last blog post covered a few options, and of course, you must follow your school’s directives. One of the more important passages in that blog post, though, didn’t have anything to do with tools. 

The more important passage was to absolutely give yourself the grace to know it may not be perfect right out of the gate.

Sometimes with change – especially major, unforeseen change of this magnitude – we hurt ourselves with our own THINKING.  We put it upon ourselves that the new has to be equal to the old or we have failed somehow.  

Let’s back up a bit and look at some interesting facts and circumstances that are involved with this COVID-19 phenomenon that you might not have had time to consider quite yet.  This will help us better understand what we are all going through as humans and learning cohorts. Then let’s begin to layout concrete ways to navigate this very, very “not business as usual” time and might help you cope.

College closures across the country are disproportionately affecting low-income students.

As The Harvard Crimson’s Juliet Isselbacher and Amanda Su wrote last week, the financial weight of their sudden move-out has overwhelmingly affected first-generation and low-income students — many of whom have had to juggle the abrupt change with a slew of unexpected expenses in addition to missing wages that segment of students may have been relying on to support themselves. 

“For a lot of students, college is the only place where they have access to food on a consistent basis,” Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard, tells Inside Higher Ed. “Oftentimes, especially at residential colleges, it’s the only place that they have shelter without the worry of disruptions in utilities, disruptions in terms of feeling unsafe.”

This need to shutter campus operations has served as a reminder that for many students, college provides a support system that goes far beyond the classroom, especially for international students and foster youth, who aren’t able to return home on such short notice.

Concerns about remote internet access, especially, are being felt at a number of institutions. Queens College Professor Kate Antonova told Wired she asked her students about high-speed internet access and found that many didn’t have it readily available.

According to a 2018 study from Indiana University, about 20 percent of college students have dealt with technical difficulties when it comes to schoolwork. Companies including Charter are offering free broadband packages to students who have been affected by these closures. 

Other groups are trying to fill gaps left by colleges and universities

Groups run by alumni and students have rushed to fill the gaps colleges and universities have been unable, or unwilling, to account for.

And many students at different colleges have posted the specific costs they’re facing on social media, with information about their Venmo accounts.

There are other needs as well.

Jeff Rubenstein, Education Technology and Strategy @Kaltura wrote a good article on what’s to come next – after we’ve successfully gotten over the online learning hump.

Advising, physical and mental health, financial aid, immigration services…. some of these services will become more and more acute the longer that students are away from their campus, until online replacements are created.

A large number of residential students rely on campus-based mental health services to deal with the challenges of simply growing up (not to mention those provoked by the stresses of education and financial matters). 

Certainly the immediate concern is to ensure continuity of instruction, as that is required to make sure that students can complete their education (and what they need to do every day). So it makes sense that the first reaction is to make sure that classes can go forward.  But step two needs to be focused on these other ancillary services.

Your leadership skills will be tested.

Korn Ferry contributor Daniel Goldman provides the following overview of emotional intelligence and its role in navigating crises.

Many large organizations have formulated contingency plans for emergencies. But what most of these plans omit is a crucial factor in effective crisis management: emotional intelligence (EI). 

Intelligent handling of the emotions that come with crisis is crucial. An emotionally intelligent leader will handle any crisis, big or small, better than someone without EI competencies. 

The four domains of Emotional Intelligence

  • self awareness, 
  • self management, 
  • social awareness, and 
  • relationship management

Each can help a leader face any crisis with lower levels of stress, less emotional reactivity and fewer unintended consequences.

Self Awareness
You demonstrate Self Awareness when you’re conscious of your own feelings and your thoughts about them. The adage, “Knowledge is power,” holds true here. Being aware of your own feelings puts you in charge, not your emotions. 

Self Control
We may feel frantic about the uncertainty confronting us. Without self control, we will be in the grip of an amygdala hijack and be at the mercy of our feelings. The amygdala, the “fight or flight” section of the brain, responds rapidly to threats, real or perceived, and during a hijack can overwhelm the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for planning and strategizing. Likewise, Jack feels frantic about the tech mess confronting him. 

When you’re in the middle of a crisis, you want the good boss to come to work and exert control over the bad boss. You can train your brain to strengthen the prefrontal cortex’s capacity to exert control over the amygdala. Research done by Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn shows that regular practice of simple yet powerful mindfulness exercises can make employees more resilient. All of this can result in leadership that’s much more emotionally balanced and effective.

Social Awareness
Harriet faces major challenges in dealing with the coronavirus problem and its potential effect on her colleagues. Much of the work before her involves dealing with people who are worried or upset, including potentially sick staff members, the panicky building crew and public-health officials. If Harriet approaches each of these people with empathy for their concerns, she will be much more successful in obtaining their help to resolve the crisis. Likewise, if she has a sense of social awareness for all the ways in which this crisis impacts the business, people, and systems involved in correcting the problem, she’ll be much more likely to succeed in handling it without missing something important.

Relationship Management
When crisis strikes, it is essential to manage many relationships among many people. I call relationship management “friendliness with a purpose,” the ability, through inspiring others, managing conflicts, fostering teamwork, and other competencies, to moving people in the direction you desire. 

Each of these competencies requires self awareness, self control, and social awareness. Developing the competencies will take time and effort, but you will be rewarded for your work. You may not be able to undo a crisis this moment, but emotional intelligence will help make the process of getting through the next one much smoother.

Mark Belles, CEO and Publisher at Inside Higher Ed writes of the following 5 Cs of leading in crisis.

Compassion – First and foremost, we are all human beings and all dealing with this crisis in varying ways. We are experiencing concern, fear, information overload and misinformation, all at the same time. Remember the human element in your interactions and now more than ever, assume positive intent.

Calm – Do not confuse calm with a lack of action. Take a breath (literally) and be thoughtful and measured in your decisions.

Communicate, over and over and over. Talk to your staff, clients, neighbors. Ask them how they are doing. See what you can do to help. And internally, communicate updates and expectations. And as much as you can, leverage video conferencing vs. email for these messages, so people can ‘see’ and feel the intent and compassion.

Clients – I’ve always believed that if you take care of your people and your clients, your business will succeed. Clients are going through the same issues we all are. They are human beings that are scared and have their own challenges. Communicate with them and be flexible. Flexibility builds trust, and trust builds loyalty. And see point one above – lead with compassion.

Community – In times of chaos, we all want and need to be able to act; there is comfort in taking action. Leverage that desire and work with your local schools and make sure kids in your community are getting access to meals while public schools are closed. Check on your older neighbors and make sure they have what they need. Do something. It doesn’t need to be grand. If we all do just one thing, we will feel just a little bit better, and get through this just a little bit easier.

Lastly, take care of yourself through all of this, so you can take care of your students.

Jelena Kecmanovic provides the following on 7 science-based strategies to help deal with coronavirus anxiety.

The following suggestions, based on psychological science, can help you deal with coronavirus anxiety.

1. Practice tolerating uncertainty. 

Intolerance of uncertainty, which has been increasing in the U.S., makes people vulnerable to anxiety. A study during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic showed that people who had a harder time accepting the uncertainty of the situation were more likely to experience elevated anxiety.

The solution is to learn to gradually face uncertainty in daily life by easing back on certainty-seeking behaviors.

Start small: Don’t text your friend immediately the next time you need an answer to a question. Go on a hike without checking the weather beforehand. As you build your tolerance-of-uncertainty muscle, you can work to reduce the number of times a day you consult the internet for updates on the outbreak.

2. Tackle the anxiety paradox

Anxiety rises proportionally to how much one tries to get rid of it. Or as Carl Jung put it, “What you resist persists.”

Struggling against anxiety can take many forms. People might try to distract themselves by drinking, eating or watching Netflix more than usual. Avoiding the experience of anxiety almost always backfires.

Instead, allow your anxious thoughts, feelings and physical sensations to wash over you, accepting anxiety as an integral part of human experience. When waves of coronavirus anxiety show up, notice and describe the experience to yourself or others without judgment. Resist the urge to escape or calm your fears by obsessively reading virus updates. Paradoxically, facing anxiety in the moment will lead to less anxiety over time.

3. Transcend existential anxiety

Health threats trigger the fear that underlies all fears: fear of death. When faced with reminders of one’s own mortality, people might become consumed with health anxiety and hyper focused on any signs of illness.

Try connecting to your life’s purpose and sources of meaning, be it spirituality, relationships, or pursuit of a cause. Embark on something important that you’ve been putting off for years and take responsibility for how you live your life. Focusing on or discovering the “why” of life can go a long way in helping you deal with unavoidable anxiety.

4. Don’t underestimate human resiliency

Many people fear how they will manage if the virus shows up in town, at work or at school. They worry how they would cope with a quarantine, a daycare closure or a lost paycheck. Human minds are good at predicting the worst.

But research shows that people tend to overestimate how badly they’ll be affected by negative events and underestimate how well they’ll cope with and adjust to difficult situations.

Be mindful that you are more resilient than you think. It can help attenuate your anxiety.

5. Don’t get sucked into overestimating the threat

Coronavirus can be dangerous, with an estimated 1.4% to 2.3% death rate. So everyone should be serious about taking all the reasonable precautions against infection.

But people also should realize that humans tend to exaggerate the danger of unfamiliar threats compared to ones they already know, like seasonal flu or car accidents. Constant incendiary media coverage contributes to the sense of danger, which leads to heightened fear and further escalation of perceived danger.

To reduce anxiety,… limit your exposure to coronavirus news to no more than 30 minutes per day. And remember that we become more anxious when faced with situations that have no clear precedent. Anxiety, in turn, makes everything seem more dire.

6. Strengthen self-care

During these anxiety-provoking times, it’s important to remember the tried-and-true anxiety prevention and reduction strategies. Get adequate sleepexercise regularlypractice mindfulnessspend time in nature and employ relaxation techniques when stressed.

Prioritizing these behaviors during the coronavirus crisis can go a long way toward increasing your psychological well being and bolstering your immune system.

7. Seek professional help if you need it

People who are vulnerable to anxiety and related disorders might find the coronavirus epidemic particularly overwhelming. Consequently, they might experience anxiety symptoms that interfere with work, maintaining close relationships, socializing or taking care of themselves and others.

If this applies to you, please get professional help from your doctor or a mental health professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy and certain medications can successfully treat anxiety problems.

It is absolutely normal to feel helpless right now.  You are worried about your family, your students, your institutions and yourselves.  Hopefully, this post will help you see that we are all in this together. And again, hats off to you all for what you do and will continue to do as we navigate this threat.

Resources for Further Reading