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Coronavirus: Lessons That We’ve Learned, One Year Later

Coronavirus: Lessons That We’ve Learned, One Year Later

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The first coronavirus article on my blog was published on March 5, 2020. I asked our program director for Public Health, Dr. Samer Koutoubi, M.D., Ph.D., to write a guest post about the effect of the pandemic on our schools.

Dr. Koutoubi wrote about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) alert to K-12 schools and daycare centers to take steps to prepare for a potential coronavirus outbreak. With great hindsight, I thought his statement “many questions remain to be answered” and subsequent questions were spot-on. His questions were:

  • How long should schools be closed?
  • Who authorizes the closure?
  • Will the school curriculum be followed and correctly applied in an online environment?
  • How will the students learn in online classes?
  • Will it be synchronous or asynchronous?
  • Should teachers prepare to deliver curriculum content online?
  • Will students’ grades and learning outcome be measured differently?

Sadly, I think there are many school districts that stumbled through the process of converting to online education. If faced with another pending pandemic, they would likely stumble through it again.

Reflecting on how naïve we were about how long closures would last, Dr. Koutoubi wrote that Northshore School District in Washington had closed all of its schools for two weeks, starting on March 5. Dr. Koutoubi also noted that schools in the U.S. closed for four months during the 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic and suggested that all schools should start preparing to offer online courses to deliver their curriculum.

A week later, I penned an article about how American Public University System (APUS) was preparing for the coronavirus. The article was an open letter to our students, letting them know that we would continue to operate online and make every effort to ensure that their studies could continue with no disruption or downtime. I assured the students that our infrastructure could handle changes if our staff who worked in offices were asked to work from home.

Lastly, I asked our students to take care of themselves, first and foremost. I wrote that we were aware that some of them had children in school who may return home if their school districts closed and suggested that they communicate with their faculty and advisors if their own school plans had to be disrupted.

I even provided a link to an article written by our associate dean, Dr. Cali Morrison, about how to work remotely from home. The next day, I found out that my daughters’ college athletic team schedules and championships were cancelled, their classes were cancelled for a week, and they were going online for the rest of the semester.

The following Monday, we informed APUS staff who worked in offices that we were moving all but a few essential personnel to telework in order to comply with the governors’ requests in the West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and DC areas to social distance and work remotely. For staff needing special equipment such as extra monitors or printers, we arranged for shipments directly to their homes.

During that first week of working from home, our business continuity team met every morning at 7:30 to discuss progress on multiple projects, as well as any disruptions or changes to the work from home plans. The rest of the day and subsequent days were spent communicating on a number of items. When Maryland’s governor issued a ban on all gatherings of more than 50 people until May 31, we knew that our graduation ceremonies at the Gaylord Hotel at National Harbor were in jeopardy, and we began planning for a notice to students as well as a plan for a virtual ceremony if possible.

At the end of the first week, I sent an update to our faculty and staff. That was the first of 22 consecutive weekly updates that I sent through my retirement date in August (oh, and our Board of Trustees continued and successfully concluded the search for my successor during the shutdown). Those update letters morphed over the weeks from APUS activities to the impact to higher education in general, our local public schools, local businesses, and our communities. It’s my understanding that Dr. Wade Dyke, my successor, has continued those weekly updates to APUS faculty and staff.

To say that it’s been quite a year would be an understatement. I didn’t try to count the number of articles that I wrote and published about the coronavirus (as well as a few guest blog posts). My most recent COVID-19 article was about a report from the McKinsey consulting firm about the future of work after COVID-19. This one will likely not be the last.

I read this morning that Americans have now received 100 million vaccination shots. President Biden has asked all states to allow all adults to be eligible for vaccination no later than May 1 with a goal of vaccinating all adults by May 31.

That said, the coronavirus continues to impact us. This week, the men’s basketball team at Duke dropped out of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) tournament after a team member tested positive. A day later, the men’s basketball team at the University of Virginia did the same.

The governor of my state, Texas, announced that there will be no state mandate for masks anymore. Despite his announcement, most businesses in the state have announced that if you want to utilize their services, you must wear a mask.

In less than a week, I noticed more maskless people on the sidewalks. I hope that common sense prevails.

In our planning a year ago for asking our staff to work from home, none of us dreamed that the pandemic would last this long. In fact, in the early summer, we thought there was a chance that we would reopen our offices in the fall.

Even though I have received both of my vaccination shots, I have changed few of my social distancing habits. Thanks to CDC guidelines, I am now comfortable dining with a person or two that I know have had their coronavirus vaccination shots. That number is growing, but not fast enough.

As far as meetings go, all of mine continue to operate through Zoom, Webex, or Microsoft Teams. I’m hopeful that some of that can change by this fall. As a friend of mine said to me over lunch this week, “I don’t think I’ll ever fly on a plane again without wearing a mask.” Depending on your perspective, that could be one of the few good outcomes from this coronavirus pandemic.

We’ve learned a lot about our leaders and ourselves over the past 12 months. Hopefully, our leaders will acknowledge their mistakes and hopefully, we will do the same.

Unfortunately, our 500,000+ coronavirus victims in the U.S. will not be afforded a similar chance. Let’s continue our positive safety contributions in order to minimize the incremental victims as well as to make this safer so that we can return to a semblance of pre-COVID normality.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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