March 17, 2020 3:45 PM
Carmen Twillie Ambar, President

Dear Oberlin College Community,

As I was leaving the office last night, my thoughts turned to how dramatically our lives are changing and how quickly the delicate balance we strive for is being disrupted. All of us have responsibilities, people we need to care for during the pandemic: children, parents, neighbors, as well as our own health and the wellbeing of the institution we work so hard to support. 

The real challenge in the coming days will be to protect ourselves and maintain this balance. That is why it is so important for Oberlin to establish telecommuting and work rotation practices as quickly as possible. Urgency is driving our senior staff to develop these strategies, which we will deploy in stages, beginning today. By the end of the week, we will have arranged for as many people as possible to work remotely and rotate on and off campus as necessary.

We are attempting in a matter of days to move 500 classes to a remote framework, to provide an academic and student engagement experience for 2,500 students remotely, and to support the 350 students who will remain on campus. All of these students will still need to access us. And let’s remember we will begin our newly created academic and student life experience on March 30. It is also true that when we come through this -- and we will come through this -- we will need to have enrolled a strong entering first-year class. 

Creating our telecommuting plan involves taking an inventory of staff responsibilities required to operate the campus, as well as evaluating the number of computers and software necessary to field a staff working remotely.

Our CIT staff deserves our deep gratitude. Their exemplary work has allowed us to move quickly. Please know that questions will continue to arise that we never thought of, and our situation is changing daily, so this plan will also need to change. We will be providing formal policies that support telecommuting shortly, but we did not want the finalization of policies to delay our start. 

Here are the highlights of our plan to telecommute:

  • Starting tonight, supervisors from across campus will designate and notify a significant number of people that they will be able to begin telecommuting. These people will help us discover any issues that need to be addressed, as many of our staff prepare for extended periods away from campus.

  • On Thursday, another portion of our staff will join the growing number of people telecommuting. The final group will begin working in this format on Friday. 

  • Ultimately most of the staff will be telecommuting, with somewhat regular rotations on and off campus. Because we cannot close the campus (in part because we will still have 350 students who will remain on campus) there will be some staff who must remain on campus because their roles cannot be performed remotely.

  • Over the course of the next few days, staff will begin working with their direct manager to think strategically about remote work. Agreements about work plans, schedules, regular check-ins, clear expectations, and channels for communication about collaborative work will be important.

  • All staff will be asked to complete forms that identify the computers they will be working on from home. Some of these will be newly issued; some will be the same computers they have been using on campus. Our goal is to have a complete inventory of technology being used off campus to facilitate the type of remote technology support that will be required from a distance.

  • Managers also will establish a rotation for staff who will need to come periodically to maintain the College. This will reduce the number of people on campus at any one time and ensure that we are practicing social distancing. 

  • Staff in the bargaining units will need to work with their managers to determine if their work can be done remotely and, if so, the details associated with telecommuting.

  • We still have a number of things to work out. We need to make sure as many phones as possible are appropriately forwarded to cell phones, ensure faxes are received via email, develop a system for dealing with snail mail, and this list goes on. 

Staffing

I have received a number of questions regarding staffing levels. As we all know, the pandemic is placing a strain on organizations across the country. It is our goal to maintain pay and benefits for all regular employees for as long as possible. This will mean that a number of employees will need to be reassigned different work and roles that directly meet the demands COVID-19 has placed upon us. Managers will be providing more information about these reassignments in the coming days.

Conclusion

The collaborative spirit that has taken place across campus is inspiring. I deeply appreciate all that you do for Oberlin. One of my colleagues in the Conservatory sent me this poem that I believe places these extraordinary times into perspective. Be well as we continue our work together.

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.
 
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
 
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20

Carmen Twillie Ambar
President