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COVID-19 Comes to Campus: What Hurricane Katrina Tells Us About the Current Campus Crisis

Dr. Mahauganee Shaw BondsDr. Mahauganee Shaw Bonds

We are living in pandemic pandemonium, where panic is the prevailing mode of operation. Every college and university is operating with all hands-on deck, altering their operational norms; the result is that campus employees—academics, practitioners, and leaders—are beyond exhausted. Yet, for those of us who have witnessed campuses in crisis, all of this feels eerily familiar. As two higher education professionals and scholars who worked on the ground through Hurricane Katrina and studied campus crisis response, we are extremely reflective and vigilant about how we move forward in this new reality.

When Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast region, it left college and university campuses devastated and desolate. Many campuses evacuated prior to the storm reaching their city, never understanding that they would not be able to reopen the physical campus or to resume normal activities for an indefinite period.  Respectively, we were each members of campus communities in Fall 2005—Mahauganee, the assistant dean and director for student engagement and leadership development at Dillard University and Nadrea, a continuing senior at Xavier University (LA). Immediately after graduating in the summer of 2006, Nadrea became a program coordinator in student affairs at Xavier and joined Mahauganee with helping each institution cope in a post-Katrina New Orleans.

While there are major differences between an environmental disaster and a public health emergency, there are some parallels between Katrina’s impact on daily operations and what we currently face with COVID-19. We’d like to explain those parallels and how understanding the response to an incident like Katrina can help inform the response to the current (inter)national emergency. In both instances, campuses made the initial choice to close and, as reality of the situation set in, institutional leaders, their employees, and their students realized those closings could be indefinite.

Dr. Nadrea R. NjokuDr. Nadrea R. Njoku

Then and now we are continuing to push our work forward remotely. However, in 2005 some courses moved online and many students found a sense of normalcy at institutions who welcomed Gulf Coast students for the fall semester until their home institutions were reopened. Today, strikingly different and most alarming, there is nowhere in the world where we can escape to normalcy.

This pandemic has led all schools to move a majority, if not all, of their all courses to remote access, a move that is uncovering several logistical issues.

As first-hand witnesses to the post-Katrina recovery, we understand the importance to move decisively and as quickly as possible in a time like this. Yet, we also recognize that you can’t rush a response to a developing emergency. Katrina continued to develop after landfall, with the biggest issues coming after the levies broke. COVID-19 is yet developing, and there is no telling what will be the “levy breaking point” of this disaster, but given the impact the virus has had in other countries we know one will happen.

Moving forward we recommend the following:

1.) Remember that this is, by definition, a disaster—both for your campus and in the personal lives of students and colleagues. During disaster response, it is easy to focus on the need for response and forget the need for rest and rejuvenation. The campus colleagues who are mounting your institution’s response need a break. They need to be reminded to focus on their physical and mental health amid the stress of this moment, and then given the time and space to do so.

2.) We advise caution in making decisions that totally remove traditions or key milestones at a time when the future seems uncertain (i.e., canceling commencements or Spring campus traditions). Higher education’s rituals distinguish the experience and help retain students. Beyond Katrina, there are examples of emergency events that devastated a campus and upended a semester leading to a postponed graduation ceremony. While all students won’t be able to participate in a postponed ceremony, they and their supporters absolutely deserve the option. Commencements were postponed during Katrina. Nadrea’s graduation from Xavier occurred in August rather than May of 2006.

3.) Consider campus-to-campus collaborations and shared services. After Katrina, four local New Orleans’ universities (Dillard, Loyola, Tulane, and Xavier) mobilized their existing relationship to share resources and knowledge in a manner that aided the strong return of all four to the city. Our historically Black institutions and other small institutions across the country need to think strategically about how to support students and harness collective strengths to protect against the challenges on the horizon. These types of collaborations prove vital for institutions that are not already part of a university system where resources are shared.

4.) Commit to transition more campus services online than just courses. Some examples that can help student and employee morale include: mental health services for students and staff, campus events and gatherings that happen in hangout sessions, listening sessions to involve the campus community in the evolving response and recovery effort, remote access to alumni to career services, virtual methods of conducting service learning initiatives, and so on. If your courses are online, consider what services students will need to continue their coursework (e.g., library resources, writing tutors, supplemental instruction, etc.), and devise virtual solutions to bridge them to those services.

5.) Focus on community partnerships and recovery. Undoubtedly, campuses have countless partnerships and agreements with other organizations within their local community. Research has found that in order for a campus to recover from an event that has impacted campus and community operations, other community entities must also survive the closure. When the pandemic is history, campuses will still need partners in order to operate efficiently. Thus, it is important to not lose sight of community needs while focusing on your response to campus needs and it is advisable to find methods to partner with community organizations, even during closure.

6.) Turn to Millennials and Generation Z for creative digital community building. We’ve watched them respond by reconnecting online and through social media. They are making history with their cultural communities to stay positive and thrive in dark times. How can we scale campus programming to social media platforms with Millennials and Gen Z as thought leaders?

The current response effort is a reaction to the information and lack of information available on COVID-19. Understandably, the response will continually evolve alongside new developments in this emergency situation. As institutions move forward in the face of uncertainty, we don’t deny the importance of responding swiftly; yet, we want readers to remember that it is prudent to pause. While not identical, it could be helpful to look at what campuses learned from previous crisis, such as Katrina. Students will desire to continue to see campuses operates in a manner as close to normal as possible. This is our moment to respond with reasonable and creative solutions that help strengthen our bonds despite social isolation.

Dr. Mahauganee D. Shaw Bonds is an independent researcher and consultant. Her research agenda focuses on crisis management for postsecondary institutions; specifically, she explores moments of crisis and tragedy that impact campus communities, examining organizational behavior and leadership decisions during turbulent times as well as the process of recovery and healing that follows. Through this research and her corresponding consulting engagements, she aims to improve organizational buoyancy within higher education. She can be reached at [email protected].

Dr. Nadrea Njoku is a senior research associate at the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute (FDPRI) of UNCF (United Negro College Fund). Njoku conducts empirical research related to guided pathways and student success, as well as support the evaluation of projects within the Institute for Capacity Building. She brings a critical race and feminist framework that is devoted to disrupting issues of race and gender within the post-secondary education context to FDPRI’s research agenda. She has worked across multiple functions of higher education—housing, student affairs, fraternity and sorority affairs, alumni relations, and evaluation. She can be reached at [email protected].


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