‘A flurry of emails’: How CC's IT staff scrambled to assemble distance learning

Plus, CC offers voluntary furloughs and modifies retirement

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Today, we tell you what the Colorado College IT staff has been doing to support distance learning and take a look at CC’s voluntary furloughs and other similar efforts across the country.

🚨ACTION: We’re still collecting student opinions about fall semester and how they feel about Colorado College’s pandemic response so far. Do us a favor and take the survey here, and be on the lookout for a future newsletter with our findings.

➡️ICYMI: Yesterday, we introduced a new CC COVID-19 archival effort, broke down what to expect from next year’s new “J Block,” and recapped some CC emails you might have missed. Speaking of emails...

Where we’re Zooming from: A CC faculty member’s basement home office

Behind the scenes to your classes by screen

On an ordinary day on campus, staff of CC’s Information Technology Services, known as ITS, might be busy making sure classes run smoothly, providing tech support, fixing the latest WiFi issues, and retrieving passwords. All of that changed in March when word came down that the last two blocks of the semester would likely be online. 

On Monday, the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project fittingly connected over Zoom with three members of ITS to talk about the transition to distance-learning, the decision to purchase a Zoom site-license for the college, and their preparations for the fall. 

When did ITS begin working on a plan for distance-learning?

That’s a day Academic Applications Specialist Jennifer Golightly will never forget. She says it was around 7 a.m. on Saturday, March 7 — three days before CC announced the transition for Block 7 courses to distance-learning — when she woke up to a “flurry” of emails. 

“Emily Chan had already put together an academic continuity plan, and she had named me as the person who would be in charge of helping faculty move their classes online,” Golightly says of the associate professor of psychology who was leading the task force on academic continuity. “And she wanted to know what my plan was.” Golightly put together an initial plan in about 30 minutes and they decided to run with it.

That ability to react and adapt quickly is one of the advantages of the Block Plan, says Chad Schonewill, assistant director of solutions services. “I mean if there’s any place geared to reacting quickly ... that’s bread and butter for the whole college, but certainly also for IT,” Schonewill says.

How did ITS help faculty prepare for the transition to distance-learning classes?

Schonewill and Golightly say one of the things they stressed was online classes shouldn’t just be three-hour Zoom calls. Firstly because they say they didn’t even know if a platform like Zoom was prepared to handle the worldwide transition to working from home. And also for reasons of equity and accessibility, Golightly says, because some students might have to share devices at home, some might have trouble with Internet connections, and others might not be able to look at a screen for three hours straight.

Here are some other ways ITS worked behind-the-scenes to prepare for the distance-learning transition:

  • Coordinated checkouts of equipment like laptops and webcams for people who needed them to work from home.

  • Created how-to guides and resources for people to reference.

  • Coordinated a set of student workers to be “front-line tech support” in the classes they were taking.

  • Helped faculty and staff get used to the technology through test sessions.

  • Handled back-end infrastructure work to prepare a “virtual lab” environment so students and professors could have access to specialized programs from home. 

“I don’t think that Colorado College has sacrificed quality at all in terms of how the courses are being offered now,” Golightly says. “I think that the CC faculty are incredibly thoughtful about pedagogy, about how they teach, about their students in particular.”

(We are interested in student input on this, too. So, again, fill out this survey!)

So what’s the status on the Zoom site license ITS is purchasing for CC?

Say goodbye to those pesky Zoom time limits that accompany a free account. ITS is working on purchasing a Zoom site-license so every CC student, faculty, and staff member can have access without the restrictions of a free account. 

According to Weston Taylor, the user support specialist for cloud technologies, ITS received the license Friday night and are working this week and next on rolling it out. Stay tuned for a later email from them with instructions.

How is ITS preparing for the fall?

Golightly stresses that while no decision has been made yet, she has heard faculty are preparing as if they’ll continue distance-learning, and will translate those plans to an in-person format if needed. “It’s much easier to take a class that you planned to teach online, and translate it to on-ground, rather than the other way,” she says.

Even if campus reopens, Schonewill adds, students and faculty should still prepare for some sort of distance-learning component. For example, what happens if a professor has to quarantine and can’t come into class? One solution is to keep teaching from a distance.

“They did some amazing stuff for Block 7 and 8,” Golighty says. “And I think the fall will be — if we have to do any portion online — will be even better.”

Who wants a time out? CC offers voluntary faculty furloughs 

Last week, CC faculty learned about changes to their retirement programs and about a year-long voluntary furlough. All ongoing benefits-eligibility faculty and staff are eligible for it. 

Unsure of what a “voluntary furlough” is? You’re not alone. Basically, a furlough means participating employees are not being fired or laid off, but they will just stop working for one year. For that year, they’ll forgo a salary and may be eligible for unemployment benefits. Typically, voluntary furloughs are a way for employers to save money.

At CC, voluntary furloughs would last from Aug. 1, 2020 until July 31, 2021. 

“Employees who take advantage of this opportunity will maintain their medical benefits and the college will continue its portion of cost-sharing throughout the furlough,” college administrators wrote in a May 28 email to faculty. “At the end of the furlough you will be offered reemployment in your current position, or a position that is similarly classified.”  

Interested faculty must download and fill out an application by June 30; they’ll find out if they’re approved by July 10. They should speak with their supervisor and can reach out to HR before submitting an application. 

Changes have also been made to retirement plans for faculty over 70 and for faculty who are 59 and a half to 69. They include options for retirement beginning Aug. 1. More information about these changes is available on the HR website

Why a furlough? 

Volunteering to take unpaid time off might sound unappealing, but furloughs can be a way for employers to save money and avoid layoffs. Making the decision to volunteer for one can be tough, especially when finances are tight, but some ultimately decide to do it in order to preserve their job for the future and help save other jobs. 

Colorado College isn’t the only one floating furlough programs right now — other colleges and universities have trotted out varying initiatives. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that as of May 26, 190 higher-ed institutions have some sort of layoff, furlough, or contract nonrenewal program impacting at least 48,000 employees. They define a furlough as “an involuntary, unpaid leave of absence from work for a specific, disclosed period of time. Furloughed employees may be required to take off for a certain number of unpaid hours, days, or weeks.” CC’s program is different in that the furloughs are all voluntary. 

We looked into furlough programs at some similar private, liberal arts colleges and here’s what we found: 

  • Skidmore College in New York began temporary furloughs May 1. They expect all furloughs to end by Aug. 1. In a letter to staff and faculty, Skidmore president Philip Glotzbach defines a furlough as “a temporary arrangement that involves reduced or no work hours, with employees expected to return to their regular schedule after a certain time.” Furloughed employees will retain their health insurance benefits and may be eligible for standard unemployment benefits and benefits from the CARES Act

  • Smith College in Massachusetts has both partial and full furloughs, many of which will take place over the summer. In a May 20 “Letter to the Community,” President Kathleen McCartney and Vice President for Finance and Administration David DeSwert announced furloughs for 231 staff members across the college. “A furlough is in no way a reflection on your value as an employee or the value of your work,” the administrators wrote. “Further, it is not a separation from Smith College. Rather, it is a reflection of the unavailability of sufficient work during our current limited operations.” 

  • Union College in New York began furloughs on April 18. They expect the furloughs to last until Union resumes normal, on-campus operations. While on furlough, employees will not have access to their work email accounts but should work with Human Resources if they need assistance with unemployment or other benefits. Additionally, Union will not increase wages or salaries during the 2020-21 fiscal year and has halted all faculty and staff hiring until the end of 2020. 

CC furloughs could last longer than some others are expected to, but as higher-ed institutions face COVID-19-related financial losses, this likely won’t be the last time we talk about personnel and have to decode some employment jargon together. 

About the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project

The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project is a student-faculty collaboration by Colorado College student journalists Miriam Brown and Arielle Gordon, Journalism Institute Director Steven Hayward, Visiting Assistant Professor of Journalism Corey Hutchins, and Assistant Professor of English Najnin Islam. Work by Phoebe Lostroh, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology at CC and National Science Foundation Program Director in Genetic Mechanisms, Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, will appear from time to time.

The project seeks to provide frequent updates about CC and other higher education institutions during the pandemic by providing original reporting, analysis, interviews with campus leaders, and context about what state and national headlines mean for the CC community. 

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