Reflections: Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and the Day After: Reflections on Planning in a Pandemic

By Carol Christ    //    Volume 28,  Number 4   //    July/August 2020

The moment when I first realized how profound an impact COVID-19 would have on the University of California at Berkeley came in a talk I heard on Saturday, March 7, 2020, by Nicholas Jewell, an emeritus professor of biostatistics. He made it clear that the virus would spread exponentially, and each day of delay in imposing social distancing measures could result in more deaths. I scheduled an emergency call with campus leadership the next morning, and we made the decision to move to remote instruction and remote work on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Seven Bay Area counties announced shelter in place restrictions on March 17, 2020. It is amazing to me in retrospect how quickly things moved in those early days, how completely we changed the operation of the university in less than a week.

Several lessons emerged from those early days: the importance of constant communication among our executive team (our crisis management group met daily); the importance of communication at the systemwide level (the chancellors and the president also met daily in conference calls); and the critical importance of communication with our many stakeholders and constituencies—students, faculty, staff, donors, alumni. We were fortunate to realize the importance of decisiveness and transparency—two essential values that have informed our every action and communication.

I was moved and inspired by how creative and resilient the campus was in response. Faculty with no experience of online teaching moved their courses to remote delivery in days; scientists changed the focus of their research to COVID-19 testing, to public health measures, to therapeutic interventions. In an op-ed that faculty member David Kirp wrote for the Washington Post, he quoted one of his students: “We have all adapted so quickly and completely changed our lives. Before this, if you asked anyone to change their life completely in a matter of days, they would say it was impossible. In a sense, we are doing the impossible—that shows us how resilient we really are as students, as teachers, as citizens.”

Now that the days of immediate crisis have passed, we are focused on a very different issue: how to reopen in the fall—its timing, its phasing, and the appropriate mixture of remote and face-to-face instruction. As many of you realize, this is a far more complex task than going to remote learning on a time-limited emergency basis. We are enormously complex institutions whose calendars, whose scheduling, whose physical spaces are built on and for community, and congregation. Change the rules—for congregating, by social distancing—and the whole framework needs rejiggering: from dormitory life, to class schedules, to classrooms themselves.

Things are changing so rapidly in our post-COVID 19 world that it is risky to be writing a column in May that will be published this summer. Many things will have changed by the time you read this page; perhaps some uncertainties will be resolved. Nonetheless, I believe some planning principles are emerging. I will identify seven:

First, we are using the expertise of our faculty to advise us about public health measures, and about testing. We established a Public Health and Testing Advisory Group that is advising us about the conditions, criteria, and protocols necessary for reopening, and designing pilot studies to test them.

Second, we have learned to rely on scenario planning as an essential tool, making ourselves contemplate multiple possible futures and their implications for operation. We have concentrated on three: a fall in which instruction is carried out in person as in a normal semester but accommodation is made both for those who are not able to teach in person and those not able to attend in person; a fall in which in-per-son instruction is possible only under strict social distancing and all other instruction is remote; and a fall that is fully remote. We are seeking to plan not just for a hybrid fall, but a fall with different proportions of hybridity.

Third, we have been depending on iteration. Universities, by their very nature, are decentralized; colleges, schools, and departments have different ideas about the best way to deliver instruction in hybrid form, and different needs. Dialogue, and an iterative design is essential.

Fourth, we have been concentrating on ways of building and sustaining community for our students in this more isolated and more virtual world. How do we create conditions in which they can learn from each other in ways that have always been fundamental to the college experience?

Fifth, we devoted a great deal of time and energy to financial scenario analysis and planning as we tried to understand the fiscal consequences of the crisis itself and of the various decisions we could make.

Sixth, we took every opportunity we could to get advice—from our board of visitors, from our foundation board, and from other campuses in the same situation—both in the University of California system and outside of it.

Finally, we never stopped thinking about and planning for the day after. We had launched the public phase of an ambitious fundraising campaign on February 29, 2020, only 10 days before we moved to remote instruction. We kept our focus on our campaign. We looked for opportunities in our sudden shift to remote learning that we could leverage to make us an even stronger institution. And we looked for new partnerships, a search given urgency by need but potentially transformational in impact.

Some four years ago, I wrote a review essay about dystopian fiction. At the time I had been struck by the publication, within the space of a few months, of a large number of novels, offering visions of the future in which some catastrophe—climate change, natural disaster, financial collapse, a pandemic—destroys society as we know it, plunging humankind back into a night-marish anti-Eden. I was curious about what such novels—written by authors who did not characteristically write science fiction—said about our current state of mind, our anxieties and fears. Little did I think they offered a prognostication of the future.

As I reflect on those dystopian visions, I’m struck by their contrast with an actual pandemic, and the many examples I saw of strength, creativity, and resilience. In an email to me, a faculty member quoted Tolkien: “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Carol Christ, PhD, is the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. 

Explore more on this topic:
The owner of this website has made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion, please report any problems that you encounter using the contact form on this website. This site uses the WP ADA Compliance Check plugin to enhance accessibility.