Planning for the fall semester

May 13, 2020 2:00 PM

Dear Members of the Western Community,

With the dusting of snow we experienced here in London earlier this week, it’s not exactly clear that winter has fully given way to spring. I imagine you and your family might have as much cabin fever as I do. That includes feeling eager to get back to campus, back to our ordinary lives.

I’m writing today to update everyone in the Western community about some next steps in our planning for the return to work and for the fall semester. Understandably everyone is eager to have as much clarity as we can about what comes next.

This is a longer update than I usually like to share, but the circumstances are complex and still changing, almost day by day.

It’s been only eight weeks since we pivoted toward a virtual campus.

The efforts of our faculty and staff and students to keep the university moving forward have been nothing short of extraordinary.

Despite the disruptions and challenges, I remain inspired by how we’ve come together as a community to work collaboratively – staying positive and supporting each other, and doing our best to carry out the mission of the university—which is what has drawn us together as a community in the first place. 

I’m so thrilled to have become a part of the Western community. I’ve heard from many of you over the past several weeks, and I always appreciate having the opportunity to understand your challenges and celebrate your successes.

For all your efforts, good humour, compassion toward each other – thank you!


Looking to the fall term

Teams across campus have been planning for the fall. We anticipate a “mixed model” in which some of our courses (or parts of them) will be delivered virtually, and others face-to-face.

Before we lay out next steps, we are finalizing consultations with various employee and student groups as well as with leaders across campus, especially our deans, into whose hands will fall the responsibility of ensuring the high-quality intellectual environment we all prize. These consultations, carried out through the joint University-Faculty committee and with other elected leaders on campus, are progressing well.

While some might say that moving entirely online in the fall semester is the most straightforward solution, I am persuaded that the mixed model would ultimately be better for our community. The isolation of the last two months has reminded us all of the essential value of being together. 

The senior leadership team is working all-out on developing a mixed model that would preserve the safety of our community, carefully follow ministry and public health regulations, and preserve as much of the in-person educational experience for which Western is known. 

The logistical challenges are indeed daunting.  

Beyond organizing more than 3,000 undergraduate and graduate classes, we are also planning for residence spaces, alternative classrooms, transportation, testing centres, expanded food services to accommodate physical distancing, research and clinical protocols, the need to have space for self-isolation for students arriving from afar, ongoing recruitment efforts, communication efforts on all of the above—and more. 

Physical distancing requirements will reduce the capacity of our campus and depending on parameters in the fall, the reductions could be significant. These constraints complicate our planning and we are building out scenarios working with an architectural and space planning firm to help guide us.

The evolving pandemic is still so dynamic, and government and public health authorities rightly need to react, as they do, to new information. We need to do the same. 

We’ll need to be nimble, and plan with the right amount of flexibility for any significant changes that might come. 


Supporting our teaching mission

We will again look to our faculty and staff to work together in extraordinary ways to deliver on our teaching mission this fall.

While Western has put a pause on all non-essential hiring, we have ramped up hiring to support our teaching in the online environment.

We are in the process of hiring eleven more staff with doctoral-level educational design support qualifications for one-year contracts with the Centre for Teaching and Learning. We have also more than doubled the number of trained student staff in the Instruction Technology Resource Centre.

The immediate investment is more than $1.7 million in additional resources to help faculty members adapt course materials for online delivery.

We are also creating roughly 250 student summer internships spread across all faculties to assist instructors with transitioning their course materials online. 

Supporting different models of teaching and learning will be important – while maintaining a high quality of education.

We have earned a reputation for providing an exceptional student experience; being nimble and flexible now will allow us to deliver a great experience again this fall.

Beyond the classroom, important learning happens through experiential learning, co-ops and internships, clubs and extra-curriculars. We will work hard to provide students with as many in-person experiences as we safely can.

We know you have many questions that only time will answer – and that adds to the stress of this situation.

A lot of consultation is still underway, but we are mindful of the need to make timely decisions.

We will do our best to finalize fall plans in advance of June 1.

This will enable all of us – students, future students and their families, staff, faculty members – to organize our own decisions, our own work, and the University’s work in the best possible ways under less-than-ideal conditions.


Faculty and staff: A gradual return to campus

When this pandemic hit, as a community, we moved swiftly to adapt.

Transitioning courses and exams online; supporting our students virtually in new and creative ways; caring for those still in residence; and maintaining the security and safety of our buildings and grounds.

What we have accomplished together through these challenging times sets us up for success as we move to a phased return to campus in the coming weeks.

Our approach will be gradual. In the faculties, the deans have been asked to create phased return to work plans that effectively capture the individual needs of their faculties. The health, safety and well-being of our community will be paramount.

Your dean or supervisor will communicate with you about the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) for your role and the University will be well stocked with the necessary supplies.

Faculty members needing to return to campus offices can do so starting June 3, unless we receive new direction from government or health authorities.

Faculty and staff who can work from home will continue to do so. Those required to return to campus to do their work will be notified by their supervisor, and we will be flexible in developing appropriate plans and making necessary accommodations.

Throughout this crisis a lot of great research has continued that does not require an on-campus presence. We have continued to prioritize COVID-19 related research and some critical longitudinal studies.  

Campus-based research will restart in a prioritized and phased-in manner that will ensure the safety of faculty, students and staff.

More information on the phased return to campus, including research recovery plans, will be shared in the coming days.

There is no playbook for this, and we appreciate the flexibility, support and patience of the campus community as we move through this transition. 

We know the challenges of managing your work are coupled with struggles of working from home, caring for school-age children or aging parents, and other personal trials presented by the pandemic.

Remember to find time amidst the noise to take care of yourself.

If you need help, we’re here to support you:


Addressing the financial needs of our students

This pandemic has presented significant financial challenges for our students.

For many weeks I have been working on behalf of Western students, faculty and staff and collectively with Universities Canada, the U15 and the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) to advocate for the needs of our students.

Our student leaders have been doing the same, and the government is hearing our call.

The Government of Canada’s response was impressive – several initiatives have amounted to more than $9 billion in support, including the Canada Emergency Student Benefit and the Canada Student Service Grant.

You’d have to look hard around the world to find another country that has committed so much to support the next generation.

At the provincial level, the Government of Ontario announced students will not have to make payments and no interest will accrue on Ontario Student Assistance Program loans between March 30 and September 30, 2020. Any payments during this period will go entirely towards loan principal.  

It’s important to note that Western has also stepped up its support for both undergraduate and graduate students.

I am grateful for the support of our students, from both levels of government as well as our alumni, donors and friends during these exceptional times.


Building strength and resilience for the future

I’ve been thinking a lot about our University and the important role we’re playing in grappling with this pandemic.

Our trainees, clinical faculty and graduates are the frontline doctors, nurses and health care professionals who are stepping up in big ways to live out the commitment they made to care for the sick and dying. 

We are supporting our students in learning first-hand what it means to be resilient amidst challenging circumstances.

Our alumni are leading and working at businesses big and small across Canada and around the world – strategic planning, battling financial uncertainty, and pivoting to ensure long-term stability.

More than ever, the world is turning to universities to find solutions to our most pressing problems. 

COVID-19 sits atop that list now and our researchers are working to address every angle: medical, social, economic, emotional.

All of this is a reminder that the work we do really matters.

As a vital public institution, this crisis presents us with the opportunity to propel Western into even greater roles as a national and international leader in our research, teaching, and public service.

To all of you, I extend my deepest appreciation for your ongoing dedication to our University.

Sincerely,

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Alan Shepard