Nicola Kleyn, Dean, the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science, provides a detailed report of the School’s response to the COVID-19 crisis during February and March 2020.
The early days of COVID-19
My trip to the EFMD Deans Conference heightened my awareness of the need to investigate the possible implications of the COVID-19 virus. Although GIBS has standard business recovery procedures in place, the executive team were starting to realise that any local outbreak would have significant implications for our teaching at GIBS which is strongly focused on classroom interaction as well as experiential learning which also includes international learning trips for some programmes. In the early days, although we had yet to consider the potentially devastating effects of the virus on human life and our fragile South African economy, we took early steps to fleshed out three initial scenarios which ranged from assuming a fully operational campus with a heightened focus on hygiene habits through to a full closure of the campus.
By the time South Africa’s first positive case of COVID-19 was announced on the 5th March, the School had already provided enhanced hygiene facilities on campus and designed and communicated extensive material to promote appropriate practices to reduce viral transmission. This centred on a social behavioural campaign which was branded #HealthyHygieneHabits. Thanks to good relationships with our suppliers, we were able to get marketing collateral into production and onto screens and walls of the School in record time. At the same time, we had already identified risks of spreading fake news and agreed that our primary sources of advice would be the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, the World Health Organisation; we would also liaise with experts at our own University of Pretoria who were in the process of forming their own task team.
We also recognised how important it was to engage our staff and keep them informed so we also called a special staff briefing which was held on the 6th March where we explained the measures that we were taking to protect all campus visitors which were also communicated in a mail to all staff and to all of our stakeholders shortly thereafter. Within a few days, everyone on the campus was making regular use of hand sanitisers, washing their hands for more than 20 seconds, not touching bathroom doors by using disposable paper towels provided and awkwardly avoiding any physical contact to do all we could to reduce transmission.
The School’s first (and currently only) case
On the 15th March, I was contacted by one of our faculty who informed me that she’d been in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. As per the national health protocols that were in place, she had already made the decision to self-quarantine. On Friday the 20th March, she informed me that she had tested positive for COVID-19. Within hours of learning about the staff member, we had informed the University of Pretoria, told our staff, sent a media release and announced the news publicly. I also participated in a number of media interviews to explain what had happened and what we were doing to inform all those who might have been in direct contact with the faculty member.
In the middle of March, most South African universities announced the suspension of face-to-face teaching programmes. On the 22nd of March, a three-week national lockdown, commencing from midnight on the 27th March was announced.
Managing the School during lockdown
The COVID-19 crisis has required the School to make a number of significant short-term changes to its management routines and practices over and above teaching. Examples include making necessary changes to working practices including rewriting leave categories and practices, tracking the health of employees, students and (until the shutdown, visitors to campus) and redeploying employees to support areas who need them most. We are in the early stages of revising forecasts and trying to assess and predict the financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
Communication with all stakeholders has been an imperative during the past month. In addition to dramatic shifts to our ways of working, we have also endeavoured to support increasing regular communication and requiring all managers to engage synchronously, with at least voice communication on a daily basis. Just before the formal lockdown started, we brought our employee community together via a daily “Zoom at Noon” which enables all of our employees to be briefed, ask questions that they may have in an open forum, and engage as a community.
Academic teaching moved rapidly through the three envisaged scenarios of supporting students who couldn’t attend campus. The first change in the second week in March involved offering any student who was concerned about coming to campus the opportunity to attend their class virtually. By the 16th March, all face-to-face teaching had ceased and the bulk of our employees to work from home. Our faculty started to teach academic programmes using Zoom which continued until the 24th March when we suspended teaching to regroup to evaluate the needs of students and the best course of action. This decision was prompted by four concerns: high data costs for students who now needed to connect from home, lack of connectivity for some students, family responsibilities during the lockdown and the unavailability for some students who were deemed to be workers in “essential services” to attend lectures at scheduled times.
By the 28th March, the School had formulated and documented plans and communication to offer students choices between attending lectures on Zoom, watching recordings or attending lectures later in the year. Later that day, it was announced that a data cable which was key to enabling bandwidth needed to attend lectures had been damaged. Members of the executive team met to reconfigure a student solution that would rely on asynchronous learning that, whilst not as engaging as our standard andragogical approaches, would enable student flexibility and access during the lockdown period. These announcements were workshopped with affected faculty to deepen an understanding of their concerns and were announced to students by the end of March. The School’s online learning support function started working with faculty who were expert in on-line delivery to support them to make the transition from a highly interactive face-to-face approach to asynchronous learning.
In addition to continuing all executive education programmes offered online, the School has also launched “Flash Forums” which are free daily learning opportunities that are marketed to all clients. Other conferences and customised programmes have been delayed until later in the year.
The School’s rapid response to the crisis can be attributed to its entrepreneurial culture which has characterised its character since its inception in 2000. The responsiveness of staff and faculty to the demands placed on them to make substantive changes have been remarkable. The challenges of operating a School in South African environment have no doubt built some capability to adapt rapidly to environmental shifts. Other contributors to the response of employees to date are likely to be high levels of mutual trust within the leadership team, the School’s investment in technology across recent years to enable both on-line delivery and working from home, building a culture that fosters experimentation and does not fear failure and a strong emphasis on regular and open communication.