Looking back at a year online as NSS adapted to COVID-19
It is March yet again. The real March, not the one that repeats itself every 30 days or so. This time last year, as the world went into lockdown due to the pandemic, Nashvillians were just beginning recovery efforts from the tornado that not only destroyed parts of North and East Nashville, but also parts of Middle Tennessee as far as Cookeville. That same week, NSS began to consider our response to the pandemic, from the initial plan to keep students safe and our space clean to the rapid shift to a remote learning environment.
As odd as it may feel to already have made another trip around the sun - we thought it was a good time to pause and reflect on our journey through the pandemic, and more importantly, look ahead to a more hopeful year.
March 2020 - The Race To Online
Worried about the signs of a national lockdown ahead, instructors and staff worked hard to create a plan for shifting NSS from in-person to 100% online. While there were a few bumps along the way, we were able to move 11 classes online within a week. We could not have done this without the adaptability of our team and the flexibility of our students, many of whom were starting their capstone projects which is already stressful time for NSS students without the added transition to virtual, synchronous learning.
Getting Used To The “New Normal”
Over the next few months we continued to adapt our instruction and operations processes to the online environment. There were definitely some learning curves for the staff and the students, but everyone made the most of a strange situation. As everyone settled in, instructors and staff found new ways to stay engaged and let their personality shine, from naming Zoom breakout rooms silly names, to the fun questions in daily operations team standup.
Now the question is, what's the "next normal" and when does it happen? How do we return to in-person activities? What's the mix of in-person and remote learning later in 2021 and in 2022?
The Near Future
As we shared in our last official COVID-19 update, our position has been that the earliest we would return to in-person instruction is July. That felt like a pretty optimistic target when we set it three months or so ago given that any return is dependent on multiple factors that are beyond our control. Right now most of those factors are moving in a favorable direction - vaccine distribution has been underway for quite a while now and seems to be accelerating, case counts for COVID-19 are trending down, deaths and hospitalizations also trending down, etc. It seems that while July is, indeed, overly optimistic we will be able to plan seriously for some forms of in-person activities in the September/October timeframe.
When we talk about returning to in-person activities we’re not talking about shifting all classes and all students back into classrooms overnight. We have already said that our policy is that any student who has started a program online will be able to complete that program online. We anticipate that the return to in-person activities and classes will be more gradual and phased than the sudden move from in-person to online a year ago.
If we have learned anything in the past year, it’s that we have to stay flexible with our planning since we are dependent on the pace of vaccinations, the existence of COVID-19 variants, and on what local/state government decides in terms of the broader opening up of the local economy. We also have to be sensitive to how ready our students and staff are to be together, no matter what everyone else says.
All of the above means we can’t be definitive yet about all of our plans, especially the timeline, for returning to in-person. But here’s the scenario that seems reasonable based on what we know now, and some actions we will be taking moving forward:
- Our operations team is preparing our facility for in-person use during July. Initially this will be NSS staff-only use as we make sure that all necessary safety precautions are in place.
- We will resume periodic surveying of our staff and students to assess their readiness and ability to return to in-person activities and to monitor concerns they may have and that need to be addressed as part of our plans to return to in-person.
- We expect that during the mid-August to end of September time frame we will be able to resume some level of in-person activity with students. Not full classes back in a classroom but more likely project teams coming in for a couple of hours or half a day to meet with instructors and work with each other in-person. We will also look to start hosting at least some career development, networking, and community events in-person during this timeframe.
- It seems likely that we will have at least one cohort back to in-person classes in October. This cohort may also have students participating on a remote basis as an experiment with a hybrid (mixed online and in-person) classroom.
- We don’t currently expect that a full slate of in-person classes will happen before January of next year.
- We also expect that in 2022 we will continue to run fully online/remote classes. We’ve gained hard-earned knowledge about delivering effective online classes and we’ve learned that online classes meet the needs of some students better than in-person classes. I’m sure we’ll be making more announcements on this subject around mid-year.
Let’s not jinx things by getting too optimistic about being able to be back together - our assumptions on this front have been overly optimistic pretty consistently for the past year! But know that we’re getting ready and looking forward to the day it happens.