COVID Coping Strategies: Triaging Spring Term

As our members adjust to working remotely, we’ll be featuring strategies that departments and faculty members are using to manage the transition. If you have something to share or want to suggest a person or department to feature, send a brief pitch to laura.mcdonald@uwaterloo.ca.

This is a guest post from Johanna Wandel, FAUW Board member and Associate Professor in Geography and Environmental Management.


The past couple of weeks have challenged us in ways most of us never anticipated. We’re dealing with moving teaching online, fielding questions from students when we don’t have the answers yet, or both—on top of the other stressors and disruptions brought about by the pandemic. Academic units are making tough decisions on very short timelines, with limited information. I’m an associate chair (undergraduate) in a medium-sized unit, and want to share how we’re making some of our decisions.

Course scheduling as of two weeks ago

Undergraduate course offerings are firmed up almost six months before the start of a given term. Once students pre-enroll, the registrar’s office projects demand for courses based on previous years’ data and units decide if they need to add or remove lab sections, increase or decrease course caps, and so on. Once scheduling runs (around the middle of the previous term) rooms and times are added, at which point it becomes much more difficult to change class sizes or eliminate/add a lab section. So that’s where we all were for Spring 2020 as of early March.

Enter COVID-19

In a very short time, we’ve all been asked not only for a plan for finishing our current courses remotely, but to move the entire Spring term online. This week, all the admin teams are asked to indicate, for every course on the Spring schedule: Will it go ahead? If yes, synchronously or asynchronously? Is there a change to the cap? It was clear to my unit that we’d have to triage: Which courses can effectively meet their learning outcomes in an alternate delivery format, and which can’t? The decisions we all have to make must balance the need for a meaningful learning experience for our students with what we can realistically do. Those of us in admin roles also need to consider students who need specific courses to graduate, prerequisite sequencing, and course caps—some courses can handle larger class sizes if we go online, but others cannot.

For my department, crucial decisions were around courses with labs or significant field components, and courses scheduled to be taught by sessionals who do not necessarily have a lot of experience with the course content. We eliminated all but one of our field offerings—for the one we retained, the instructor has some fantastic ideas as to how to move it online. We also cut a research methods course that needed access to specialized equipment, instead planning a second section that works with all of our co-op and regular streams at a later date. Great computing support means that technical software-heavy courses can actually move online. In my discipline, we’ve been experimenting with block courses, where all the contact hours are concentrated in one or two weeks to allow for focused interaction particularly in field settings. As we move these courses online, we’ve adjusted the offer date ranges for other courses, moving away from block courses toward full term delivery for the most part.

Still more questions than answers

There are a lot of things we still don’t know, and it’s especially hard to predict how students will respond. Will there be more demand for courses as students scheduled to be out on co-op choose to switch to an academic term? Will students take advantage of the “one less co-op” change and just take the summer off and wait for in-person classes? I will be watching the add/drop period like a hawk so we can adjust accordingly.

That’s my perspective from my current role. Thank you to all of you who have stepped up—you’re likely working long hours trying to make this work. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re trying, and who knows—the skills we develop over the coming months might just change our teaching for the better!

2 thoughts on “COVID Coping Strategies: Triaging Spring Term

  1. Nice post, Johanna. We are often hearing about “students who need specific courses to graduate”. Given that the rule forbidding changes in syllabus evaluation schemes has already gone out the window, is there scope for programs to be flexible on course requirements students “need” to graduate? Considerations for spring offerings should factor in not only hands-on course components that cannot be captured online, but also the stress levels of instructors who are already max’ed out trying to survive the current term.

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    1. Hi Heidi – I think, ultimately, it needs to come down to learning outcomes. In some cases, students can petition to substitute courses with similar learning outcomes. For example, one of the courses we had to cut was an international field course I was set to co-teach. One of two field courses is required for graduation, but what if we have a student who is completing their last requirements and set to graduate? In a case like that, I would look at the student’s whole program, and figure out a way to still get the key learning outcomes from a field work – have they done field courses in another discipline? is there something we offer now that hits the gaps they may have? I work with the student to build a case, but they do have to go through the petitions process. So, short answer – individual instructors can’t, and associate chairs are not the ultimate deciders either, but there are options. Re: stress levels, not being able to transition stuff online – that is a conversation with specific chairs.

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