Pat Kelly Interviewed by Zoe Scheepstra
We have Pat Kelly here to talk about his experience with COVID-19 at the University of Guelph.
What was your job when the pandemic started?
When the pandemic started, I was the Associate Director for Residence Life, and that position entails the student experience living in residence as well as our family experience living in our family housing and grad student housing. The day-to-day stuff deals with mental health, behavior management, programing, and education outside the classroom. I am also a part of the Senior management team for student housing services which means I am on committees that discuss the strategic direction of our department.
Back in March 2020, were you involved with the decision for all student to move out of residents when the pandemic first started?
Absolutely, I was.
How was making that decision, was it a hard decision to make, were a lot of people involved in that decision?
Well, it absolutely was a hard decision. It was not just me making it. Our director at the time was out of the country, so they weren’t too accessible. I had to move into an acting position while she was away. We were able to consult with her at different times throughout the day. I ended up being on the University's emergency planning committee when that was going on. There's a lot of representation from across campus on that committee and any kind of decision goes to the committee first, for some discussion and for sign off. Within my own senior management team here, we discussed some of the options, the possibilities and the logistics associated with having students move off. We were getting lots of information from external sources in terms of what the pandemic was starting to look like at other places. All kinds of things definitely weighed into the decision-making process. We ultimately did make the final decision to say, yes, we needed to send everybody home unless they had some pretty strict external circumstances but that was very far and few between. It was mostly our international students to make sure they still had housing.
When you did make that decision and you knew that was going to happen, did you prepare for any backlash? Was there any like mental preparing for how the students were going to deal with that decision?
It's interesting to look back when you're reflecting on it. Everything was happening super-fast and there was so much unknown about it. I think that at that point in time, we didn’t receive much backlash because a lot of the decisions that we were making were consistent with what was going on provincially, in the country or across the world. What we needed to look at was how much time we could give students to move out, what were some of the circumstances to have individuals stay, what were the other sources and supports on campus that were going to be available for hospitality, so students living in residence could have food services available. Also, mental health supports and services, because everything was kind of shutting down. Cleaning and custodial staff and our own department helped facilitate a mass move out. Those are all things that we needed to kind of take into consideration. It was a lot of pieces to think through. Our students are fantastic and parents, they knew that it was coming, it was just a matter of time. So actually, a lot of students had vacated already. Then we had to navigate that people got home really quick, but maybe left belongings, coming back for those belongings and those kinds of things and what that would look like. Also we had to think about getting the building cleaned afterwards because it was left in a state where everyone just left.
Yeah, a lot of moving parts for sure. I was in first year in March 2020, so I was one of those students that had to move out. I remember having to come back and take all my stuff, but not wanting to see anyone and wanting to come at a time where it's not busy. So yeah, that was definitely an interesting time, being a student.
How did the initial shutdown affect you in terms of work, did you think you were going to work when everyone did move out?
Looking back, I didn't stop working and I haven't all the way through. But at that point in time, when I say I didn't stop working, there were some long, long days and nights spent making sure all this stuff was in place. The team put in immense amounts of effort in terms of putting extra time and trying to make sure that the pieces were put together. The university had a lot of people working, lots of hours to try to make it happen. It’s interesting you referenced coming back for your belongings.
So, we extended our days to make sure we had staff on site. Looking back at your other question, the mental health stuff and the pushback. Because so much was unknown we had to think about: how do we protect the staff that we are also asking to be here on site to support a move out when there was a lot of fear from it. We had some staff that were termed essential, so that was the stuff that kept us up at night and kept us working through to try to support where we could. It was very hands on, coming in and making sure that we could fill the gaps where we could.
To have a better idea of the timeline, was residence open the year that in person classes were starting up again?
So initially, everybody had to leave pretty quickly. The next year after in the summer, we had a small residence group. We had our East Village open, as well as our Lennox Addington residence. And then we expanded it at winter break and had students in our East residence towers as well. Going into that year, it was really tricky because that's where maybe more of this backlash and mental health stuff came out. We went in thinking, okay, we're going to be able to have students in residence, the university was going to offer courses and then that changed a few times. It was a bit of a yo-yo. It was a lot of preparing then changing plans, preparing, and changing plans. We also have a lot of ownership over the first year student experience. So, we did create some online support communities. We had hired all of our student staff for the following year and some professional staff. We wanted to still be supportive of the staff we've hired and keep our staff employed.
How did you prepare staff for when students started to return to campus?
Our student staff who were here wanted to be here, they knew coming in that they applied to be Res life staff on campus. But some of the others, like our desk staff, custodial staff and our office staff, there was this tricky kind of navigating. They didn’t feel completely safe with the environment because we didn't know how COVID would travel and those kinds of things. So just navigating those kinds of concerns and that sense of fear. We put a lot of it in place like we put up the plexiglass and the signs on the floor and capacity limits and those kinds of things.
You mentioned some programs surrounding mental health that were online. Are any of those online sources still around now?
Yeah, that first year we ran a pretty robust tool, we called it Gryphon's Nest. Where we put communities of first year students together based off academics. The RAs that we had hired became Gryphon's Nest leader for those communities and ran online programming, support, community meetings, and connected the students with counseling if they needed to. We also did a lot on how to navigate being a student online and those kinds of conversations. Then towards the end of the year, they also started to discuss coming to campus next year for the first time and how do you find resources on campus, how to find a house off campus, those kinds of things. It was very successful. Then the next year we had a reduced capacity in residence. I think we had about 4,000 students where we have about 5,000 this year. So, we still had a Gryphon's nest going then, but it was much less. It was students who decided not to come to residence. And then this last year, it's now transitioned over out of our student housing department over to student life and student experience who run a version of it for students who are living off campus to build connections.
That’s awesome because living in residence allowed me to know so much about Guelph and coming without that experience would definitely be scary. Would you say the virtual programs are still popular?
We still see a lot of students now choosing to meet virtually and meetings can be easier. So, we've kept a lot online using Microsoft teams. We had run programs in the past like doing a virtual tour of the museum or the pyramids and those kinds of things. So those came out a lot more during COVID. They stopped having any student wanting to do it because everything was online but we're keeping those now and we're seeing a lot of upticks. Now students are saying it is actually cool and interesting. It's really neat to tune in virtually and do a tour of the Ripley Aquarium in Toronto for example.
You mentioned, how students prefer like online meetings now. How do you, someone who is so connected with student life feel about that? Did you think that it takes a toll on actually connecting with students?
I think it goes okay. I do prefer in person. I think there are some components that definitely get missed. However, I'd also say that the virtual has increased access for a lot for meetings and for connecting with students. It's a lot easier to find time to meet and it makes it possible to bring outside resources or supports that might be from other parts of Canada or not present here. I think that it absolutely increases that opportunity. I know for the managers who do meet with students a little bit more regularly, they'll provide the option of what students would like, unless they feel there is a need for an in-person, and then they’ll ask for that. A lot of students prefer the online because it's more convenient. They don't have to walk to an office or other places.
In regard to the mental health and counseling services, have you noticed an increase in that need over COVID?
I've done some of my own research on this and found that it was increasing before COVID, so it's hard to know if it is because of COVID or was it always on an increasing trajectory. I think the types of conversations have shifted, and why individuals are seeking support is maybe a little bit different. There is a lot more of students feeling isolated, struggling with transitions, living on their own and having roommates. There is an increasing issue of navigating the stress of academics at the university. Now there's even more first for these students coming in having their first in person class. This last semester was the first time lots of students actually wrote an exam. So, for sure different types of stresses really.
Yeah, I couldn't honestly imagine. In my first year I had in-person exams and this semester in my fourth year is the first time since that I have in-person exams.
Yeah, did you feel anxiety when you had to transition back to in person?
Yes, I think I was so used to like lockdown respondus and being in my own room while I was taking exams. So then transitioning to being in a room full of people in ROZ lecture hall and there's 500 people behind you. I couldn't imagine being an on-line student for this long and then switching over. Must have been really challenging.
I think you already touched on this, but I wanted to ask you about the measures that were put in place to keep people safe.
We went on a lot off of what the Ontario guidelines were or our regional ones because sometimes they differed a little bit. I think we were a little bit more conservative. We aired on the side of caution with what we put in place. We did adjust our policies in residence in terms of, no guests, social gathering limits. We had to shut down lounges or keep lounges to a really minimal number. We opened them up a little at winter break once we learn more about COVID and how it spreads. Some of the other aspects that would typically be running on campus weren't, for example, intramurals and those kinds of things that we build a lot of kind of connections around. Hospitality had reduced spaces and seating capacity. We structured our move-in times and move-out times so that there was a lot less people coming in and it wasn't the mass when everyone arrives at once. We increased our cleaning in our areas quite a bit especially with touchpoints. At that point in time, the university didn't have the vaccine mandate in place, that came the second year of it. But before we did have on campus testing and those kinds of things available for students that we would encourage students to attend. Then we worked quite a bit with our campus safety to help enforce some of the policies that needed that additional level of support. We would take an educational approach and restorative approach. We had to shift a little bit more over the last couple years to be a little bit more punitive in that it's pretty clear that you can't have this many people in a space.
In dealing with this age group and having a guest limit, it must have been difficult to enforce. Was it up to the RA to decide if there were guests over? How did control over this measure work?
Yeah, the Res life staff had a big role with it, and they struggled. They're social as they are in that job position. Those jobs are not meant to just be a full rule enforcer, they want to build a community and make those connections. They were absolutely put in more of a tough spot with trying to be a peer but also ensure safety measures. We did have some external security services come in especially during the height of it, because it always kind of went with waves. Things are opening up and then shut down and opening up and shut down. So, when we had the shut down across the province, we would have some external security come in to support as well. The students who were on campus that first semester had to demonstrate that they didn't have internet connection at home, they were international students, or their living environment was not conducive to academic success. That first semester that’s why a lot of students were here. During the second semester, we increased our capacity and some more students came, that was when it was a little bit trickier with some of the social aspects, but we navigated it. We had our big outbreak after the winter break, which was a reality check that came into play. That feeling of nothing's happening and we're invincible, and then all of a sudden, an outbreak.
How did you personally feel about returning back to work?
So, I haven’t stopped, because a lot of my team was essential and had to stay on campus. I didn't want to not come and support and be present. I was fine, I was getting rapid testing about two or three times a week and those kinds of things. I've always felt safe, it was pretty much a ghost town. For me, being here on campus and bringing the students back was exciting. Sometimes, a little frustrating because we didn't know when we were changing things. I'm sure for students, it was also pretty unknown. I think where there is more concern or frustration with moving into less of a hybrid option and more fully back in person. Just trying to navigate that was a bit trickier because hybrid can be pretty ideal for lots of people. So, we were kind of forcing people in and out of that.
I actually talked to some students that are younger and they got used to campus life when it was hybrid. When they came back to campus this year, they were surprised at how busy campus can get and they didn't realize how many students actually go here. In terms of the hybrid option, was there any students that would come to you and want professors to offer hybrid? Like was it a popular request?
So, with the students on campus and in residence, no. We got more wanting more in person. That was kind of what seemed to come through the most. Students did appreciate some hybrid options but there were lots of students who were a little more frustrated when all of their courses were online. They wished to be in person a little bit more. When we started running in-person programming again, even though we had pretty strict guidelines in terms of wearing masks, sanitizing, and signing up in advance, there was huge uptake in people looking to do them and connect face to face. So we had more of that and less of the asking for online.
Now that we are back in person and residences can be at full capacity, how did the university deal with the increase in number of students wanting to live in residence?
Yes, the university itself had a lot of students accept Guelph; more so than anticipated and of that number, we had more students wanting to be in residence. It's hard to know why. There's a lot of external circumstances such as the need for housing, what's available in the community and returning to some sense of normalcy. There was a high percent of students wanting to be in residence that exceeded our normal capacity that we would typically have. So, we needed to then look at how we could expand and try to get as many students who wanted to live in residence, as possible. As we expanded, we did work with our health services, public health and fire safety to make sure we weren't going to be circumventing any kind of safety measures. We did expand and have some students in a hotel nearby and have created a community with Res staff there. We still didn't get everybody, but we did what we could.
How did that process work with saying no to the students that couldn’t get residence? Was it just lottery?
Last year, because we saw the numbers increase, we had a senior administration discussion and looked at a lot of the circumstances associated with it. What was decided was the students who were proximity closest to campus were the first ones that we've put on the wait list. Reason being, looking at one of the driving factors was the housing crisis. Looking at the limited options and just saying, okay, housing is a need and the majority of students in that area would have housing and still be able to get their academics hypothetically. We know it's not a perfect system and there are definitely students within that catchment area that residence made sense for them. However, that was how they had made those decisions this year. Moving forward, if we're in the same situation, it will be done by a full lottery.
What were the most challenging aspects of the pandemic for you?
I would say personally, it is the balancing of my responsibilities that I felt here to make sure that the staff and the students were safe and supported especially during the time when there was so much unknown. Balancing that along with my own family. I've got three young kids that were online for school. My partner's a teacher, so she was also having to teach. It was balancing that and being very concerned about my people here and then also being very concerned about my people back home. Also looking for those avenues and outlets for getting outside, playing, trying to build social connections, and staying connected to the family who were not close by. I think that that was probably the most challenging through all of this.
How did COVID impact your friends and family? How did your kids adapt to online school?
Kids are awesome. They're really resilient. Obviously, they wanted to do as much in person and stuff like that. But there was a lot of quality family time, for sure. I think the biggest challenge was the extended family and not seeing grandparents or cousins. Since the grandparents are in a different age demographic and more vulnerable, we were being extra careful. In terms of friends, it is very interesting to see everybody's different approach to COVID and what people were comfortable with. I think a lot of our friend groups have stayed the same and made it through because we stayed connected. But yeah, I think it impacted everybody a little bit. It still comes out in different ways. My youngest is now in grade one, and last year was the first time she sat at a desk with friends. Like remembering that's because you went through kindergarten online at home and now you are in person sitting at a desk. We forget that kids now, some of them are playing hockey and it's the first year that they're back into having playoffs. So, it's like, wow, what is playoffs? It's those kinds of things that are really cool that you forget was missed. But now they get to have that experience, which is awesome. What would've happened normally, but it was delayed a bit.
Looking back, how did the pandemic change your life and student interaction within this department?
We had some immense challenges as a department. We were one of the only units that did stay on campus and were working throughout. We had to adjust our practices quite a bit. In a sense and I don't want to use the word lightly, we went through some trauma as a team together. I think that that brings the team generally closer because we made it through. There's still some residual impact and frustrations because of decisions that had to get made. But overall, I think we recognize how successful we were and how important.
Do you think this pandemic drew light to how important this department actually is for students?
Yes, I think absolutely. There is research, a lot of it more based out of the states that does show the importance of living on campus and that residence experience. For things like retention, feeling connected to the campus community, graduation rates and time to graduation. There's a lot of academic connections to it as well. So even with our online Gryphon’s nest, building those connections and keeping students here where other institutions did see a lot more fall off. I think it definitely has highlighted why living on campus in residence is important.
Because people saw how important it is to live in residence, many students took a year off so they could experience residence. Have you seen a large difference in age groups within residence because of that?
Surprisingly, no. We do track ages coming in and we still had I think 80 percent of our students were 18 coming onto campus this last year. There were some that taken a gap year or year off for sure. But I think it didn't make too much of a difference in age.
Did the pandemic change your relationship with your job?
Absolutely! It may sound bad for an interview but if anything, it's less of a commitment, commitment maybe isn't the right word. But just recognizing how important family is and how I don't want to miss the family gatherings because we went many years without them. It helped me make sure that is really where the priority stays and to not get that lost as we go through and work. I think that I learned more about my job and learned more about the people I'm working with as well.
Looking back, is there one thing that stands out to you as your biggest success and something that you wish you could go back and change?
It's hard to pinpoint one win aside from saying we made it. The biggest win is we got through it all. You sit back and you do reflect on everything that you've gone through. You're like, wow we went through a stage where we were bringing home groceries and leaving them down in our basement for two days and then wiping them down with a Clorox. I think given the information we had at the time, the decisions that had to be made and got made were the right ones. We did have a major outbreak on campus, and it was probably one of the most stressful periods of time. That involved a lot of staff support, lots of hours and lots of campus partners had to come in and support. Looking back on that, hugely successful that we made it through. But was there anything that we would do differently? That outbreak was a very big learning moment in terms of communication and how to touch base with different areas of our support. We had made sure everybody's doing okay because there's a lot of just asking and getting through it without the personal check-ins that could take place. We learned a lot through that. We did a debrief and figured out our communication where there were some issues on-line and things like that. But at the end of the day, it was still a success because we made it through it. But would I want, do it again? Absolutely not.
Is there any closing remarks that you want to say or anything you would want future people to know about during this time?
Looking back, everybody had a role. We as a department, had to make some tough decisions. When we do look back though, so did all of our students. There was a lot of concern and fear. Which really made the full community come together in a way, even though we couldn't be together physically. There was a lot of personal connections that were built despite the challenges.
That's all for my questions. I want to thank you so much for your time!