Every Learner Everywhere

Why An Academic Continuity Plan Is Essential for College and Universities

As the Covid-19 pandemic illustrated, preparation for unexpected disruption is key to keeping a university operating in an emergency. Extreme climate events, facilities failures, gun violence, and political protest are among the ways institutions of higher education are increasingly kept from their core mission of teaching students.

An academic continuity plan establishes protocols for colleges and universities to continue operations despite disruptions from extreme weather and other unanticipated emergencies. Every Learner Everywhere recently published Planning for Academic Continuity: A Guide for Academic Leaders to help institutions of higher education navigate the academic continuity planning process. Patricia O’Sullivan, lead author and Manager, Content Development and Special Projects, collaborated with Every Learner’s student fellows to analyze over 100 academic continuity plans to identify best practices and develop planning resources universities can adapt to their own campuses.

“We hope the guide will help institutions revise their Covid era academic continuity strategies into robust plans that can serve in a variety of unexpected disruptions,” O’Sullivan explains.

“Climate emergencies that make it unsafe to travel to or be on campus are one obvious reason continuity planning is becoming necessary, but another takeaway from Covid is to expect the unexpected. Your campus doesn’t have to be in a region prone to hurricanes or wildfires to get shut down suddenly.”

Planning for Academic Continuity includes templates and models for institutions to use and profiles institutions that have recently relied on their continuity plans. It also outlines reasons universities should prioritize academic continuity planning.

An academic continuity plan manages rather than reacts to crisis

At their best, continuity plans establish processes for decision making prior to a disaster so institutions are prepared to address issues as they develop. Effective continuity planners think through the range of possible crises and put in place strategies that are flexible for different scenarios.

“The best academic continuity plans reflect a deep level of forethought and detail,” O’Sullivan says. “They consider how the institution could continue to function if one of its critical operations were unavailable. UMass Ready at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst is a good example. The goal of their plan is to help the university function in a seamless process, regardless of the disruption that has occurred.”

A profile of University of Massachusetts-Amherst included in Planning for Academic Continuity describes how their plan has been used to sustain teaching and learning during a plumbing failure that affected one building for one day, during a weather emergency that shut down campus for a few days, and during the Covid emergency that influenced operations for several semesters.

Effective academic continuity plans remind employees of the communication channels they should access and trust during a time of crisis and document strategies for communication with students.

“Communication, particularly to students, is extremely important,” O’Sullivan notes. “In a crisis situation, students may be absent from campus or may not have reliable internet access. How will the institution stay in contact with students if those situations arise? What communication systems can they establish before the crisis occurs?”

An academic continuity plan clarifies lines of authority

Academic continuity plans document decision-making responsibilities and organizational structures that help stakeholders know their roles in an emergency. They define responsibilities for various units, departments, and individuals so everyone can take action immediately.

For example, who can approve using the hotel budget for skeleton crews, or assign instructors to new online sections of essential courses? A good academic continuity plan facilitates quick decision making.

“When Covid hit, many campuses were caught off guard and had to scramble even to organize an emergency planning group,” O’Sullivan observes. “Post-Covid, colleges have a chance to devise plans to normalize operations during the next disruption.”

An academic continuity plan identifies resources

Planning for Academic Continuity particularly focuses on the role of digital learning to sustain learning. Video-conferencing software like Zoom is now a familiar example. Many colleges and universities maintain access for administrators, faculty, and students for use during climate events or other crises.

Another is the “Keep Teaching” resource pages many institutions established during the Covid emergency. “Some of the institutions we talked to described keeping those pages updated and in draft mode, ready to turn on when needed,” O’Sullivan says.

“Academic continuity plans establish resource libraries like tutorials about the tools faculty can use for emergency remote learning. A good plan accounts for turning on universal access to these tools so faculty don’t have to request them.”

An academic continuity plan minimizes trauma

A university shutting down can be traumatic for students for a variety of reasons. In some cases, their home communities are in danger. For other students, shutting down campus may mean returning to homes where they feel less safe.

A robust academic continuity plan ensures confusion doesn’t exacerbate this trauma. It should also outline plans to reach out to and help students who are affected by the event. Planning for Academic Continuity describes how some academic continuity plans offer students who do not feel physically safe the option to take classes remotely, which is what happened when four students were murdered during the fall 2022 term at the University of Idaho.

“There is often a lot of grief associated with these events,” says O’Sullivan. “Whether it is a hurricane that destroyed a family’s home or a school shooting where classmates or teachers were killed, students will be dealing with trauma. Schools need to have plans in place beforehand to help students in need and make it possible for them to continue learning in a capacity and ability that they are able.”

An academic continuity plan centers equity

A resource for remote learning that is accessible to 90 percent of students may seem “good enough” in an emergency, but it will reinforce inequality if minoritized and poverty-affected students are overrepresented in the 10 percent who don’t have access.

An effective academic continuity plan centers equity by accounting for how all learners will access resources. Universities must consider how students and employees with the least resources will still be served when a crisis occurs. For example, planners might consider how to offer services for basic necessities like food and water, in addition to academic practices like using openly resourced textbooks and subsidizing personal internet hotspots.

“The focus should be on caring for students, all students, in times of crisis,” O’Sullivan explains. “The plans we read in our analysis validate students’ lived experience and respond compassionately.”

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