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Supporting our Higher Education Clients Impacted by COVID-19

Author Pete Bacevice

Tags Insight

Modern conference room featuring rows of turquoise chairs, dark wood-paneled walls, and a sleek lecturer's podium. Overhead, linear lighting complements the room's clean lines.
Fordham University Gabelli School of Business

HLW has a long working relationship with several leading colleges and universities. Higher education is heavily burdened by the current COVID-19 outbreak. The essence of higher education is face-to-face learning, public gatherings and events, and a general convergence of students, faculty, and guests from around the world. However, the dynamic sociability of higher education makes it particularly vulnerable during a pandemic. Furthermore, many larger institutions are often co-located with regional, research-based medical centers. This added feature can further concentrate infected people within an academic community. Naturally, most institutions have shut-down all but the essential face-to-face operations and moved most activities online into an array of virtual media formats. In the short term, this ensures the continuity of the academic calendar. Unfortunately, the effects of a prolonged shut-down will hurt many institutions, and the pain will not be evenly distributed.

According to three epidemiological public health scenarios reported by the consulting firm McKinsey, a best case scenario for higher education is a return to normal face-to-face activities by the fall of 2020.  Achieving this will require very strict public health directives and access to widespread and accurate testing (for the virus and for viral immunity) – both of which appear unlikely in the United States given the inconsistencies in directives among the federal, state, and local levels of government.  Other scenarios predict a longer-term recovery, with suspension of face-to-face activities extending into January 2021 to as late as fall of 2021.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, many colleges and universities throughout the United States were already experiencing or bracing for a large-scale enrollment decline, or demographic cliff,” due to several factors, including a declining birth rate and fewer traditionally college-aged students willing to incur higher education’s increasing costs. These trends were already putting pressure on schools whose budgets were heavily dependent on student tuition dollars. The shock caused by COVID-19 and the long-term campus closures could now prove catastrophic for many institutions – the effects of which may outlive the actual public health pandemic.

As we continue to work with higher education institutions during this difficult time, we are taking stock of the situation while helping them focus on their long-term resilience.  Here are some strategies based on our multidisciplinary experience we are employing with our academic clients:

  • As institutions move more courses and events online (in the short-term and potentially in the long-term), we are working with them to evaluate the range of available technologies and implement them to ensure the optimal experience for all participants. Over the medium-term and long-term, institutions may need to be prepared to shift a greater proportion of their content to online formats. Many people will gradually return to campuses, but institutions will need to be prepared to continue supporting remote access for people who are unable to initially return. Groups like Educause have provided resources for ways in which colleges and universities can support remote learning and remote access. HLW has a wide range of experience working with clients in the broadcast and media sectors, which includes the design of large and small broadcast studios, production facilities, and virtual reality spaces. We are working to help institutions roll-out similar spaces throughout their campuses as a way to enable the production and distribution of media rich online content.
  • We are helping institutions evaluate their food spaces (i.e. dining halls, grab-and-go retail spots, catering areas, etc.) for opportunities to rethink the safe handling and serving of food. Many of our project teams consist of collaborations with specialty consultants such as kitchen designers and engineers. In collaboration with these partners, we are looking into a range of possibilities for safely increasing the number of ultraviolet (UV) light disinfectant points. We are evaluating opportunities for better control of humidity in food service areas to balance the needs for safe food handling and storage while using optimal humidity levels to mitigate against the spread of airborne infectious disease.
  • Over the long term, we know that students, faculty, and researchers will continue to do important work investigating infectious diseases, learning how to treat patients under a range of normal and surge scenarios, and working across disciplines to innovate new life-saving technologies and methods of treatment. These activities will continue to require cutting edge learning environments such as labs, medical simulation centers, flexible classrooms, and other multi-purpose spaces. Over the years we have had the opportunity to work with leading academic institutions, academic medical centers, and companies in the pharmaceutical and tech sectors, in the design of places where this work happens. We will continue to engage these clients as knowledge partners as we explore new design solutions for making a positive impact in the ongoing fight against the transmission of infectious diseases.

As we continue working with clients during this challenging time, we are optimistic that new design ideas will arise that positively impact our work across a range of sectors. We will seek and evaluate credible sources of information as we engage in our design work, and we will pursue solutions that are in the long-term interests of clients and the communities in which we live, work, and learn.

About Pete: Pete is the Director of Research at HLW and Researcher at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Pete’s unique background allows him to integrate academic and professional research to inform insights that support our clients in interdisciplinary and analytical ways.