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4 Takeaways from the Webinar: Looking Ahead to 2021 for Colleges and Universities

The fall semester has been a learning experience for everyone on college campuses as schools have attempted to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Back to campus plans have been under an extreme stress test as students and staff have returned to campus. As COVID-19 and the testing and protocols that go along with it stretch into the 2021 spring term, the ultimate goal of universities remains the same; delivering excellent education while keeping students and staff safe. 

I had the pleasure to moderate a webinar with two excellent panelists who provided some deep insights into what campus leadership has learned this fall semester, as well discussion around what the spring semester of 2021 may look like. In this Q&A style webinar, I was joined by Bryon Krueger, CFO at Northwestern University - St. Paul, as well as Dr. Jessica Green, CEO of Phylagen and former professor of over 15 years. 

Our discussion covered a wide variety of topics, but here are the four big takeaways for me that every college and university should know. Click here to watch the webinar in its entirety!


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Takeaway #1: COVID-19 fatigue and staff burnout is a real problem on campus

Ten months living through the COVID-19 pandemic have felt like years. Most of us are feeling some fatigue, and students and staff are no exception. 

At University of Northwestern - St. Paul, a study of students and staff was conducted to better understand the challenges they are facing and their overall feelings about the fall semester.

One of the biggest takeaways for Bryon Krueger was the fatigue, isolation, and staff burnout being reported. "The fatigue is both general COVID-19 fatigue that a lot of us are feeling, but also for our frontline people who are monitoring students who are being tested and are waiting for results in quarantine, students who have tested positive and are in isolation, and contact tracing." To combat staff burnout, UNW has hired additional help to lighten the load on COVID-19 testing and monitoring of students. Campus leadership is also pushing managers to focus on the people-management side of things to keep tabs on staff burnout signs and ensure they are getting the support they need. 

To help with the COVID-19 testing fatigue felt by both students and staff, Dr. Green discussed a different testing approach that can be effective in tandem with people testing. "At Phylagen, we are offering customers the ability to do COVID-19 testing on the indoor environment. Indoor testing is a simple, non-invasive way that takes samples from surfaces indoors. When people have COVID-19 or even the flu, they are shedding the microbes that are in their respiratory tract and body. These go airborne, and then settle on the surfaces indoors." 


Takeaway #2 - Don't be shy...Facilities teams need to be seen

Facilities teams today are so good at completing their jobs without disturbing classes and student activities. Like Batman, they work in the shadows, keeping spaces clean and disinfected while ensuring that buildings are operational and comfortable. I for one can barely remember even ever seeing the facilities folks at my college while I was a student.

But COVID-19 has created a paradigm shift where students and staff actually want to see the facilities teams do their work. Even with the best processes and response plans in place, seeing is believing for many people in order for them to feel safe. Krueger highlighted some of the steps that Northwestern University - St. Paul this semester, which included targeted COVID-19 videos done by the university president towards students, prospective students, parents, employees, and donors. He's covered topics ranging from steps being taken by the university to words of encouragement to address morale. 

Software can play a role in delivering this transparency. AkitaBox enables facilities teams to complete cleaning and disinfection rounds digitally, providing a visual, digital audit trail that can be shared to provide transparency and peace of mind for students, staff, and parents. 


Takeaway #3 - Deferred Maintenance and Budget Cuts are a major concern

Deferred maintenance is like long lines at the DMV; There's no way to avoid it, we just find ways to manage it. And while most colleges and university facilities teams are great at managing their laundry list of deferred maintenance, 2020 is creating a vacuum for that list to grow. Lower enrollment and on-campus living means less revenue, which paired with operations budgets being shifted to purchase PPE, hand sanitizer, and other cleaning needs, has created a perfect storm for sharp increases in deferred maintenance in the near future. In fact, in AkitaBox's recent State of Facility Management survey 87% of higher education respondents indicated budget cuts were their biggest challenge heading in 2021. 

While Krueger feels that the COVID-19 related budgetary issues won't be long lasting, he does feel that the larger enrollment issues many schools have felt could be accelerated due the pandemic. As more students decide to forgo college for trade schools, alternative learning environments, or to head straight to the workforce, colleges and universities will need to focus on their value proposition for students and potentially look for alternative sources of revenue. 

For facilities teams, preparing for budget shortages starts with understanding what deferred maintenance they have, what upcoming capital renewals and improvements are needed, and which projects provide the greatest risk to the school, whether that be to student experience, revenue streams, or safety issues. AkitaBox provides colleges and universities with the data they need to answer those exact questions. WIth greater insights into facility and asset condition and risk data, facilities teams, capital planners, and CFOs can better allocate their dollars to high-risk projects, defer maintenance with more confidence, and deliver a better campus experience for students and staff. 


Takeaway #4 - The COVID-19 Vaccine is coming….But it will be awhile before things change on campus

There has been a lot of encouraging news around the different COVID-19 vaccines. While this may seem like the end of the tunnel is coming closer, for college and universities we may not be there just yet. 

There is still a lot of unknown surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines and getting students back to campus. As vaccines are beginning to roll out, it is likely that college students would be some of the last to receive the vaccine. Both Krueger and Dr. Green agreed that we could be at least a year away from campus life returning to normal. "We can't wait for the COVID-19 vaccine to get students back to campus. In my opinion we need to continue to focus on near term solutions," said Dr. Green. She added, "It is possible that like influenza, Coronavirus might not be totally eliminated and may be a virus we need to manage." 

With this in mind, it is important for college and university leadership to continue to look for innovative and cost-effective solutions to manage our indoor spaces not just for now but for the future as well. 


Getting students back to campus won't be easy...

But together we can get it done. Keeping students and faculty safe takes a multifaceted approach from building a culture of safety, providing the right education, conducting the right testing, and having the right software in place. What successes has your college or university had this fall semester? Let us know!


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