Andreas Boecker, Interviewed by Olivia Horlick
How did the initial shutdown affect you?
I was teaching one course at the time. The main concern was about helping the students pivot to complete online delivery of the course. That worked rather well Because the course itself was not that large. There was a relatively minor challenge for me. As the department chair, there were a lot of decisions that needed to be made in a very short time. One of the biggest challenges was to assist the faculty who teach large classes and manage this. One faculty in particular who taught a class with more than 500 students needed additional support. He needed mental support because he was pretty much overwhelmed by the amount of emails and additional requests he got from students in this class. Overall my department headed relatively easy pivoting in March 2020. This is because we do not have any wet Labs or any requirements for our research to be on campus. The main challenge was moving everybody to their home offices. This was basically done by the admin officer who helped the staff move computer equipment and everything to home offices. That didn't affect me that much when having to pivot. It went relatively smoothly. Some of the staff actually turned out very quickly that they preferred working from home.
What issues needed to be sorted out at the very beginning of the pandemic?
The beginning of the shutdown was one faculty who had to Pivot their data collection to online from in person activities. Another thing that made it easy for my department is that most faculty used statistical or data sets from stats Canada. Meaning that they don't have to interact with humans in order for example for in depth interviews or for surveys to get the data. It is sectoral and Company data. Ao none of the faculties would have to engage except one would have to engage with humans personally in order to collect data. That made it really easy for my department because moving myself to home office required a few steps at home but even that was relatively easy because we happened to have a spare room to set up my office. For the department the main impact was on the faculty to pivot classes to online delivery. That was depending on the class size so we had three classes that were really big with 150 students or larger. The faculty actually managed this really well. They also had TA support for that as well. Although with the exception of the one faculty that I mentioned who had a very large class their transitionals also went very smooth. I do tend to suffer with my facility when they say there is a very difficult citation and it affects me personally.
How did your job change?
I still work about half of the year from home. I have noticed that they’re a lot less interruptions.This is because if you're in the department as a department chair people tend to pop in when they have questions. I think my productivity has gone up. Although I think the most difficult times were in summer 2020 and summer 2021 when there was a lot of uncertainty and an unaddict response from the university to the Pandemic. When it came for example for planning for 2020 I was very dissatisfied with the university leadership because they were making naive planning assumptions. They were not doing their homework. They made suggestions for example that courses could be in person and that if we ran out of space here at the University they can rent out space in the cinemas. However they did not even look at as well as the social distancing would diminish the room capacity. So basically if the requirements were followed by six feet distance rules the maximum room capacity left would be 16%. That would mean that no large class could be held and so fourth. It took some of the chairs and unit heads who did the homework which the University leadership and their committee should have done releasing very naive planning. These assumptions were extremely frustrating. This was by far the most negative impact that did not come with the initial shutdown and the pivoting to online delivery. It came a few months afterwards when it became very clear that the University leadership was too optimistic. The consequences from these poor planning assumptions continued into 2021. That was the worst time and there was alot negativity in the summer of 2020 and the summer of 2021. That affected me probably the most throughout the pandemic. Another consequence now that we are coming out of the pandemic is that some of the facilities split how they want to organize the work. Some say we have to get back to being present all the time on campus because that develops its own Dynamic and it's good for the Department that we can interact with students. Others say they don't need to come in because they live farther away from the University. If somebody needs to reach them they can give them a call on teams. Overall there's some conflict that also includes the availability of staff administration.
What was your experience of the Omicron outbreak in December/January 21/22?
I Actually don't recall that as an outstanding separate event. It was probably around the time when the University leadership team was making very optimistic assumptions. Although in our department we had a very reasonable approach. We said that all the large classes would be delivered in remote format and that primarily graduate classes which tend to be fairly small 10 to 15 people would hopefully be able to be in person. There weren't any conflicts within the department regarding the delivery of a large class in person . If I remember correctly there was conflict and/or arguments between once again the department chairs which is called the council of academic chairs and the University leadership regarding the planning for winter 2022. It was far less of an issue or of a burden for myself especially compared to the summer of 2020 and then 2021.
When people started returning to campus, how did that change your work?
I have switched from working fully from home to working partly from home. I am also quite flexible because I live close to the University within a 20 minute walking distance. There were very little additional sort of working tasks or work tasks that resulted from this transitional period. More students would be on campus. A very typical situation especially in the larger classes were students who requested remote access. This is because they were working. Quite a few students also could not afford coming or living in Guelph so they would either would commute or would try to come complete the course remotly. We have also had extreme cases of international students who had gone back during the summer and after they were allowed to travel again. They had Visa issues and could not come back on time for the fall term. There was quite an additional effort to find accommodations for those students. That was either to discuss with the faculty whether they would want to offer an additional remote section or whether they wanted to take another course that was only online. I always told the faculty that as long as they're within policy I support their decision. The policy was that no faculty could be forced to deliver on campus in hybrid or remote. The additional effort was reasonable.
What new measures were put in place to keep people safe?
We said please follow the mask for recommendations. We also asked people to consider continuing to receive booster shots and then convenient vaccination as they became available. During Fall I remember that many students were wearing masks. For example one staff member who was close to retiring because her age category felt vulnerable. I did not require her to come back to campus. She agreed with me and was much more productive working from home because there's a lot less interruptions. She will be retiring by the end of June or July. We had other staff work most of the time at home because of medical reasons.This was another situation where we agreed it was best for them to stay home especially during this transition in fall 2022 when there were more cases. With this individual we will review this in the spring. I think what we have now is that the vast majority of our courses are offered in person only as it was before covid hit.
What was the process of making these decisions at your workplace?
We have a formal work safety and health committee that was in charge of installing the safety measures at the beginning of covid. Once again we didn't have traffic at all during that time simply because none of our research or teaching required physical presence on campus. That was fairly straightforward. I met with the staff and discussed the situation and what we could do to keep people safe from that conversation. We basically followed the University of recommendations and policies. We reminded people to wear masks, to be mindful of others, keep their distance, and not to expose and finally to do the reasonable thing if one were to have symptoms like staying home. We now have the video conferencing and video call technology directly available on teams especially during winter if the roads are not safe to drive. That's an additional down benefit during the winter months they're doing in the winter.
How did you personally feel about returning to work? Did that change once you were actually back at work?
It is a mixed feelings situation. On the one hand I was looking forward to the interaction with students, faculty and staff. One thing that we would do as a faculty is we basically randomly would meet for coffee and then discuss things. This was Difficult to do even if you have permanent access to video calling so I was looking forward to this event. The other side was that I knew that I would be less productive going back to work because in my office I can work uninterrupted. I can really manage and plan all the meetings with staff and faculty at home. I also feel that the downside of this is that I lacked talking to them. For example our staff and faculty have feelings towards current issues in the department where there are new developments in other units that are important to us. Meaning it is important to us to have this informal information exchange but it is still limited. In addition, another complication is that we have Renovations going on in our department which reduces the space where people can meet. There is less space available because it is the lunge that is being renovated and turned into a teaching and lab facility. In addition to that the noise also interferes with interactions. This will be over in a couple months but thankfully in the summer there is less traffic in the department anyways. A personal factor that working from home in my particular situation also means that I am close to my partner who also works from home. So we can have lunch together and we can actually take breaks together and walk. This is very important for me just to keep my sanity in the first one and a half years of covid and dealing with a lot of frustrating situations. There was one thing that I actually forgot to mention regarding the impact of covid that all of a sudden because of the financial implications we had to engage in a much more comprehensive budget planning exercise. We were also faced with a lot of uncertainties and lack of information about the actual budgeting process. This always happened in the summer term in summer 2020 and summer 2021. This was probably also adding to the frustration that I mentioned before.
What were the most challenging aspects of the pandemic for you?
A challenging aspect of being a part of the department chair is the mental health situation of the Faculty. They say they simply sucked it up. They worked very long hours and had to deal with situations with students which would range from a large number of requests to be accommodated. For economic consideration there were concerns about the use of monitoring tools for online exams where students were cheating. Plus also having to deal with students who were very nasty in their responses when faculty didn't accommodate them. Even if they accommodated them and the students didn't do well then they took it out on the faculty. However Because there were no regular informal meetings, they often didn't inform me about it. Then suddenly they were on the verge of cracking. Some faculty even said I'm considering retiring early because of the situation. It was a challenge to even find out we needed support. When seeing facility members its easier to see they are under stress but on a video call its much easier to hide that. This all revealed many flaws that we have in the university in terms of how Financial incentives are misaligned. It doesn't really have to do with covid but it just coincides with covid that we fill out this pressure that faculty or the Departments have to generate Revenue. That was so called course Space masters Program that is very specific and it is something that is maybe a weird covid trigger in crisis. In the wake of this crisis a lot of other things are being revealed. Where we have inconsistencies with the budgeting process we don't have transparency on budget decisions and this causes pressure experiences. A lot of work has been downloaded on the Departments and it doesn't seem to stop. For example this is also a reason why our main officer decided to retire because it is just getting more and more with less and less support from Central. It's not necessarily directly related to covid but they somewhat relate to it or at least coincide with it.
Were there any aspects of pandemic life that were good for you?
Working from home has been actually beneficial for my relationship with my partner. That's a part of my personal life. I think there was a lot of learning concering complaints about the use of video conferencing. As a department we can consider things that we couldn't have even thought about 3 years earlier. When it comes to organizing events and having a broader reach there's a lot of opportunity although there's also a lot of stress associated with that. The department says how do we take advantage of these opportunities. Other positive things for the Department is now we have a fully equipped seminar room for video conferencing. This is because funds were made available so that we do stay at the amount we were given. Meaning the department had to chip in. I think generally because covid triggered itself in a crisis very directly for course delivery and research. Although it was somewhat correlated with other crisis that are now popping out. In that sense I always see a crisis on the flip side as it opens up opportunities. For example and once again it's not directly related to covid but it all culminates back to it that in my department there is a lot of pressure for this and we have to have open discussions. Sometimes they can be painful at times but it is how we want to move forward as it is necessary. I think without the pressure from this crisis this may have gone on for a very long time without getting any results. However, we are now in a situation where we are more or less forced to make decisions that we might not have made in another five years, which I think is good for the Department.
How did COVID-19 impact your friends and family?
Fortunately, in my direct family nobody was severely harmed or even killed by covid. Within my partner's family there have been at least a couple of deaths related to covid but she has very little relationship with them.it is still close enough for her mother would be affected by it. In terms of physical health there were no real bad consequences. All my daughters have had covid but because they were vaccinated they were not affected very badly and at the moment there aren't any long term consequences. My youngest daughter was a part of the High School cohort that graduated when covid broke out. Meaning she didn't have a proper ending of her high school year and she was struggling a great deal with the online environment. In her first year of university at Rhyerson she dropped out due to online learning. Then proceeded to go to Charaton College a year later but dropped out after the first term. These years were entirely online and there was no face to face interaction with any of the students or the faculty so that was a really big challenge. She is now getting ready again for an application. She could have started in fall 2020 but now she will now start for real in fall 2023. My two other daughters didn't like the online environment but they were able to cope with it because they were already further on in their studies. one of them actually switched to another program. All were affected by the isolation but other than that they were not Affected as badly as the youngest.
Looking back, how did the pandemic change your life?
I think that it is difficult to answer. The pandemic allowed me in my personal life to get closer with my partner because we spent so much more time together. This had worked out really well in comparison to other couples who basically broke up during the pandemic. Sharing a lot of time together changed my life and I could also say during that time we got to know each other during covid. We had actually gotten together during covid. I would say it's because of covid because she lived in Vancouver and moved to my home and still does her work from home. I have certainly become more conscious of my own vulnerability physically but also mentally. Being able to talk about this more openly is definitely an outcome of the crisis. It was impossible to hide if I had not talked about it. I think it also makes it easier for me to talk to my faculty about what stresses them out and to get honest answers as well as requests for help.
Could you make a comparison of work and life before, during and after the pandemic?
During covid the stress level was significantly higher. For the factors that I mentioned and all the factors I did not mention. I have to say that during covid I had a lot of days in which I primarily answered emails and at the end of the day I didn't even know what I had accomplished. This was because there were so many additional details I had to deal with. After covid things are a lot calmer now. Even during covid there were many things that were going on that had nothing to do with the pandemic. Even though I do find things calmer at the moment. The financial pressure on individual units is a lot bigger because we have budget cuts and hiring freezes. Although that's something that one can deal with. The biggest changes were the massiveness of the uncertainty. It seems to be gone, let's put it that way, who knows what's around the corner but I think that's the biggest change in perspective.