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What does the new school year look like during COVID-19?

Boise State’s finance vice president and Oracle’s higher education development executive explore the new school year and how campuses are retooling for the road ahead.

By Margaret Lindquist | September 2021

After a year and a half of disruption and uncertainty, higher education leaders are grappling with a question: What pandemic-driven changes will remain a part of the university experience, and what will fade away?

But the biggest decision that schools are making right now is about presence—of students, faculty, and administrators. At the start of the pandemic, when everyone moved off campus, the experience varied widely. Some students welcomed online classes. Some colleges, like Boise State University, were able to move all classes online in a matter of days. Later, the university invested in classroom camera technology that follows a professor around a classroom to better replicate the in-person experience. Those successful experiments could have a lasting effect.

“It's cracked the mindset of higher education, that everything needs to happen in person and on campus,” says Nicole Engelbert, vice president of Oracle Higher Education development. “We’ve moved to a model where we can figure out the best vehicle to deliver a service.”

To explore ways the school experience may change, we talked with two higher education experts—Oracle’s Engelbert, a longtime consultant to the industry, and Jo Ellen DiNucci, Boise State’s associate vice president for finance and administration. They highlighted three of the most pressing changes that universities are grappling with right now.


“You can't eliminate all risks and just stay shut down. That's not a method of delivery that is workable for the college students. It's not the experience they want. If they did, they'd go to an online school.”

Jo Ellen DiNucci, Association Vice President of Finance and Administration, Boise State University

Enhancing teamwork. When employees at Boise State University were sent home on March 13, 2020, most thought they’d be back to the office soon. But that didn’t happen, and after returning the following Monday to pick up their computers, most still haven’t come back into the office. It hasn’t been easy. But there have been unexpected benefits.

DiNucci says that her co-workers had to improve communication within and outside their group, and in doing so, they were able to strengthen their collegial bonds.

“They knew more about what was going on in other parts of the organization,” says DiNucci. And that better sense of connection fostered a new approach to teamwork, such as understanding the different times that spikes of work hit different teams. “This week the finance team is spending time answering student financial aid emails,” says DiNucci. “It’s more about ‘How can our department help your department?’ as opposed to what's in it for me.” The challenge for university managers is keeping that sense of cooperation alive in the months to come.

Offering a new student experience. Prior to COVID-19, the social life at colleges was in residence hall rooms, house parties, study groups, and other friendly get-togethers. Last year, student social life moved outdoors en masse. “They built fire pits, brought out Adirondack chairs and hot chocolate, and all that kind of good stuff,” says Engelbert. The president of Engelbert’s alma mater, Union College, told a group of alumni that's one of those things that would likely persist post-pandemic, even after people stop worrying about social distancing and masks.

In the same spirit, schools are also reassessing the academic experience. When students were sent home in the spring of 2020, as a matter of course their academic experience decoupled from their life on the campus, shining a spotlight on the value and quality of the academics. “Schools were asking, ‘Is that 12-by-18-inch screen the entirety of the academic experience for students?’” says Engelbert. “Maybe I don't really like what I see.” Schools are asking hard questions about how they fuel that spark of intellectual curiosity within their students, with digital versus in-person approaches or small classrooms versus large. As well, schools are looking more closely at student satisfaction measures—and not just student evaluations. Schools are studying level of activity within the learning management systems and even how often students attend class. “If students or their families don't feel that higher education is worth it, they're not going to pay for it,” says Engelbert. At Boise State, all classes were converted to hybrid mode, so that students could attend in person or online. That approach won’t change post-pandemic. “Even if the pandemic didn't exist, it's necessary to reach rural students and people who may have to go take care of a sick parent,” says DiNucci “It's an important evolution in delivery, so that when somebody has to step out for one reason or another, they can have the same experience as the person who stays in class for the whole semester.”

What does the new school year look like during COVID-19?

Classes at Boise State University are now hybrid, so students can attend in person or stay remote.

Turning on the technology. Engelbert has heard repeatedly that schools that invested in cloud technology were better prepared for the mass exodus from classes and offices. But she believes that part of that could be due to those schools’ better agility and aggressiveness in adopting new technologies. “I have not heard an institution say that the last year has made them question the cloud,” she says. “Instead, they’re saying, ‘Okay, we need to get our house in order and move to the cloud.’"

As technology becomes even more critical to universities, the role of the CIO also has risen in prominence. “Requests for budget to ensure the stability and performance of the IT landscape will be less likely to be questioned as to whether they’re mission-critical,” says Engelbert. Technology decisions are being driven by big picture, strategic considerations about security, data governance, performance, and sustainability. “Some of these decisions used to be driven by, say, what’s familiar to an end user in the registrar’s office,” says Engelbert. “They’d say, ‘We need this one bit of functionality so that we can maintain a specific process in a specific way.’” Now, CIOs are able to drive their organizations with sophisticated, enterprise-grade thinking that incorporates business process re-engineering as part of any cloud migration.

As students, faculty, and staff returned to the Boise State campus this fall, one thing was clear. “You can't eliminate all risks and just stay shut down,” says DiNucci. “That's not a method of delivery that is workable for the college students. It's not the experience they want. If they did, they'd go to an online school.” Engelbert believes that this upcoming year will be one where higher education leaders grapple with and address the hard questions that have been around for decades. “We should not strive to return to normal,” says Engelbert. “Rather, we have to move forward, adapt, and embrace what the future brings.”

Photography: Westend 61/Getty Images

Margaret Lindquist

Margaret Lindquist

Margaret Lindquist is a senior director and writer at Oracle.