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The 7:30 a.m. Call: Lessons from COVID-19 & Hurricane Ida

Monday, October 18, 2021

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The call happened every day at 7:30 a.m. Representatives from every corner of Tulane stood ready to learn the latest updates and share their expertise, their concerns, and their solutions. We talked about how quickly professors could move their lessons online, and how we would close in the most organized manner possible. We talked about the best ways to notify students and parents, how to communicate rapidly changing conditions, and what could be done in the worst-case scenario.

The topic of those 7:30 a.m. calls was a global pandemic. Outbreaks had mushroomed in New Orleans, and there were far more questions than answers. But our team had experience with these calls that brought together faculty, staff, and leadership. We used them every year during hurricane season.

Now, comparing COVID-19 to a hurricane isn’t a perfect analogy. A hurricane has a limited duration, a mostly predictable path, and — unfortunately — happens often enough that those of us who live below sea level get a lot of practice dealing with these storms. But when it comes to managing a crisis, our hurricane preparation gave us a roadmap. We didn’t have to imagine what could happen if disaster struck our campus; we already knew. And we knew we had a plan to mitigate risk and accelerate recovery that we had been using for quite some time.

More importantly, we knew the importance of bringing together a team, one that considers every corner of our Tulane community. We had representatives from the facilities team, who were tirelessly measuring out socially distanced classroom spaces, increasing cleaning schedules and installing more robust air filtration systems. There were representatives from the student health team who were working on the testing regime, establishing contract tracing protocols, and measuring wastewater to detect the COVID load in our buildings. Members of the housing office were present to develop plans for the Welcome Center when students arrived back on campus in person, and to oversee isolation and quarantining spaces. There were members of the academic offices working on how we could teach in a hybrid manner, and standing up a childcare center for faculty, so they could teach while the K-12 schools were closed. We heard from budget officers on how we would pay for all the necessary COVID protocols. At the same time, members of our faculty who specialize in the study of infectious diseases were guiding our protocols as more information became available. Every member of our team had valuable insight to share, and every member was encouraged to do so. This dialectic decision-making allowed Tulane to return to in-person learning for the 2020-2021 school year, while keeping the campus and greater New Orleans community as safe as possible.

Early in the 2021-2022 school year, just weeks into the fall semester, we had to resurrect the 7:30 a.m. calls again. This time, it was for a hurricane during a pandemic — a one-two punch of complex decisions that needed to be made. As Hurricane Ida spun towards New Orleans, we once again had to reach across disciplines to keep our students safe. There were questions of testing, housing, and transportation. There were questions of how best to communicate with students and parents, who had only weeks before left their children in our care. We were faced with tough choices: Would we have to evacuate campus? Where would our students go? If they left, when could they safely return? How could we successfully complete the semester?

Through the pandemic, we learned how quickly we could pivot to teaching and learning online. We considered the environmental conditions in our city and estimated how quickly power could be restored. We made a plan to transport students to Houston for flights home, resume the semester online, and set a date for the students’ return to campus. We needed to move quickly, and we could only move quickly if we worked together.

We multiplied lessons we learned from previous storms with the connections we strengthened during COVID-19. When you’re working in a crisis, there is no time for egos or silos; you’re unified by a common experience in an uncommon situation. This is not the time for hierarchical decision-making, because there is no single expert — everyone is facing unfamiliar territory. But this gives each member of the team a sense of ownership and unmatched opportunities for creativity. That’s where the best solutions are born.

Our success in managing emergencies, whether it’s another hurricane season or a once-in-a-century global pandemic, is based on the strength and diversity of our team, of bringing broad expertise and wide-ranging perspectives to matters of life and death. Balancing the practical and the academic, the big picture and the small details, the immediate needs and the long-term strategy all are critical in a crisis—and those different skills and points of view don’t exist in a single person. It is only possible with people — plural.

Our experience at Tulane has taught us that, when it comes to emergencies, it’s not a matter of “only the strong survive” — it’s the strongest teams that come together that ensure our shared success.

Signature of Mike Fitts