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HR Plays Critical Role in Pandemic Response at Colleges and Universities

Students wearing face masks in a lecture hall.

​Seth Grossman likened it to "designing a new world." As vice president of people and external relations at American University (AU) in Washington, D.C., he has been faced with challenges he never anticipated during the coronavirus pandemic. Like other HR leaders, he has had to manage vaccination mandates, establish a remote workforce and debate mitigation strategies.

"Human resources has not always been the go-to department. We've been pulled in at a higher level and asked to lead," echoed Amanda Bailey, vice president for human resources at Boston University (BU). 

Emergencies have tested every school's ability to act swiftly. "We had to make very quick decisions, which is unusual in academia," said William Innes, chief human resources officer at Columbia University's health science campus in New York City. Decisions, he said, were "more streamlined than we were used to but still collaborative." 

Likewise, Bailey is part of a community health affinity group made up of different departments at BU. The group meets twice weekly to review information and make recommendations to share with top-level administrators. "This [level of involvement] has really pushed HR forward strategically," she said. 

Grossman has served on cross-functional teams, too. "We could not work in siloes," he said, because decisions about when to allow students back on campus also impact staff. 

Shifting Gears

For Innes, the toughest task has been staying current with communications. "Standards and situations change, and we're constantly having to re-evaluate," he said. Or one website page says one thing, but it links to another page that isn't updated yet, he added.

After the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available, some schools brought students back to campuses. As cases from the omicron variant spiked in December and January, however, many colleges pulled back, either delaying the start of the new semester or starting remotely.

Staff at AU had been working onsite but went back to working remotely in January, as well. Employees will operate under a hybrid model until May, when the schedule will be reassessed, Grossman said. 

BU put new policy guidelines for remote work in place permanently. Employees are permitted to work from home for up to two days per week now. "We looked at the impact data," Bailey said. "Employees appreciate the flexibility." 

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The Great Resignation

Like organizations in other industries, colleges and universities have been hit by the recent nationwide uptick in resignations. Student enrollment also dipped at most institutions, falling as much as 13.2 percent at public two-year colleges since fall 2019. HR had to reduce staff or offer early retirement packages to cut costs at some schools. 

Columbia typically had a 12 percent annual employee turnover rate; the pandemic brought that up to 20 percent, Innes said. With staff spread thinner, some Columbia employees were redeployed to fill in gaps. Mental health support for faculty, staff and students was enhanced. HR set up staff-only buses throughout the city so employees wouldn't have to fear riding the public subway to work. 

BU also has a higher-than-normal vacancy rate, Bailey said. "We're monitoring the culture and letting employees know we value them while actively pursuing professionals and ramping up recruitment outreach." 

AU didn't experience more turnover, but vacancies became harder to fill. 

"The hybrid model helps with recruitment," Grossman said. 

The university drew on its reserves to avoid staff layoffs. "Everyone took one week of unpaid vacation, and retirement matches were suspended for 11 months," he added. 

Perks and Policies to Support Stressed Employees

While universities faced the same pandemic challenges as other organizations, the pressure to stay open was greater because of students. Balancing workforce needs with empathy has been a delicate issue.

BU increased leave time to 80 hours for employees needing to isolate due to coronavirus exposure or infection. The university also offered free virtual child care services for remote workers. While parents attended meetings, volunteers and graduate students entertained kids with music lessons, games and other activities.

Columbia added 10 COVID-19 relief days for employees that could be used if a child's school closed, for quarantine or "whatever," Innes said. As the pandemic continued, five additional "well-being and thank-you days" were added to that.

AU expanded mental health services by bringing in external resources for staff, faculty and students. Everyone had free virtual access around the clock to mental health support through a toll-free phone number, app and website. "[These resources] were very heavily utilized, and we got really positive feedback," Grossman said.

Safety First

Making the workplace safe is a priority at Columbia. All ventilation systems using recirculated air were redesigned. Touchless sinks, toilets and paper towel dispensers were installed. "We had expertise from our labs on how to keep places safe," Innes said.

Columbia also drew on its medical school's resources for testing and vaccinating employees. HR provided contact tracing for any employee testing positive for the coronavirus. Columbia was one of the first schools to require COVID-19 vaccinations for faculty, students and staff after the shots became available, Innes said, noting that the majority of Columbia staff are working onsite now.

BU requires vaccinations and boosters for all employees, and each must get tested once a week for COVID-19. An important part of HR's job has been to inform staff about public health guidelines and help employees understand the rationale of vaccinations and surveillance testing, Bailey said. "Science, data and public health are our core principles in decisions," she said. If anything, the last two years have taught her "you never stop learning."

Eve Glicksman is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.


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