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Preparing Your Program for a Flexible Fall

Nic Lyons

June 5, 2020

“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” – Yogi Berra

The first half of 2020 has presented new challenges for educators across the country. Halfway in and we’re still affected by the uncertainties brought about by COVID-19. It feels like everything is staying the same and yet is changing by the minute.

However, some things haven’t changed — learners still need education, workers still need training, and people always need (perhaps more than ever) opportunities for personal enrichment. While official recommendations are responding to the needs of the moment, organizations still need to plan for the fall. Instructors must be hired, classes posted and promoted, class spaces reserved and all other the usual things, but in unusual times. 

No matter what your fall format looks like, or where you are, or what the situation may be, here are some ways your program can prepare for the rest of 2020.

Prepare for smaller class sizes

Small classes may enable students to safely gather according to your area’s guidelines (most places allow gatherings of 10 or fewer.) This way, in the event of an outbreak or other disruption, changes to a specific class will affect fewer learners. Additionally, if a smaller class is postponed or canceled, it will have less of an impact on your overall program.

If a class is popular, break it into two or more classes —your learners may also appreciate being able to choose from multiple dates and times. And, as with any “regular” year of education, if a class continues to max out, it’s an indication to look into adding even more sessions or different classes on a similar topic.

Expect a need for hybrid classes (and for changes)

Hybrid classes are held partially online and partially in person and are more flexible than classes without an online component. Some students may prefer to attend online for a variety of reasons, while others may wish to learn in person. By providing students with both options, you can meet the needs of both types of learners, while having the flexibility to pivot to fully online instruction if needed. 

“At least 50% of our classes are going to be online, in Zoom,” states Lisa Robinson, Director of York Adult Education, about their fall programming. “Our [classes are] going to have people in the classroom and a Zoom option so that if people are not comfortable coming together because they’re still worried about COVID, they’ll be able to stay home and still participate.” 

This approach is adaptable in case the situation changes. “Also, if we end up having another shutdown in the fall —because nobody knows if we’re going to open and close or if we’re going to stay closed— we want to be able to offer programming even if we can’t get together,” she says. 

Arrange for shorter session terms

Many educational programs serving adults follow the seasonal calendar. Now is a perfect time to establish a new, more agile schedule. The goal is to increase flexibility, break sessions into more bite-sized offerings, provide students more choice, and give your program more options for postponing and rescheduling classes when needed.

For instance, the same class hours can be provided over a shorter time period: class would meet twice a week for four weeks rather than once a week for eight. Or consider breaking an eight-week class into two separate classes (like Basic Genealogy I and Basic Genealogy II), each of which are four weeks long. This way, someone can complete Basic Genealogy I in four weeks, and if there’s a disruption, Basic Genealogy II can be held later. (This approach can also be helpful in reducing cancellations and the need to issue partial refunds for classes.)

Spread out hands-on training sessions

If you’re using a hybrid model, offer hands-on sessions for individuals or small groups for work that can’t be accomplished with digital tools. This may require flexibility from the instructor, but it’s the safest option for classes that need to be taught person-to-person. 

For example, the American Red Cross is using a hybrid method in which the majority of the learning is done online combined with an in-person skills check. The skills portion is scheduled after the online learning portion has been successfully completed. This model offers a mix of practical online education and allows for help, correction, and testing in-person, which is key not only for first aid classes but for anything with a physical learning component. 

Rethink the classroom

Many educational programs use traditional classrooms and workspaces for other kinds of classes too. If the space you’ve typically used for class makes it challenging to meet and follow health recommendations, consider alternative spaces. Think about all the places where your class might be held —and think way, way outside the classroom box! 

Is there an event space that’s not currently being used for events now that gatherings are limited? Are there other larger, community spaces looking for a new use? From school gymnasiums, stately ballrooms, lofty office atriums, and even unused municipal garages or airplane hangars, you may have more options where your class could meet distancing guidelines than you may think. Be open to brainstorming. Even Stanford University has considered using tents for some fall classes!

Create a supply management plan for hands-on class materials

Classes often share materials, especially for arts and trades classes, which are popular with many programs. This usually means that people must get close to each other to use and share materials. If you’re offering in-person sessions, a clear procedure for sharing materials will be an important part of a successful fall. For example, if art supplies must be shared, have a consistent sanitization plan

Some programs have chosen to have students bring their own tools to and from classes, limiting the instructor’s need to clean for everyone. For such classes, provide students with a complete list of required materials they need to bring and be clear about what you will supply. 

For remote classes or one-off workshops, you can put together materials kits that are mailed to or picked up by students. The practicality of this method depends greatly on the kind of class offered, but it’s certainly an option for some.

Increase your communication with students and stakeholders

Returning to education will be a personal decision for many. Ensuring your students’ and instructors’ comfort is important. Clearly communicate how you are planning to manage their health and safety while providing education and share your contingency plans. Be as transparent as possible with your students about how your program is working within your region’s safety guidelines.

Using these strategies and communicating your plans clearly to students and instructors will help everyone feel more comfortable, confident, and ready to access educational opportunities.

Take stock of what you’ve learned —and your accomplishments

It’s hard (though satisfying!) work on a good day to run an educational program. It’s incredible work when you’re running a program on the fly, or, as some say, “building the plane while it’s airborne.” 

Give yourself a moment to take stock in your accomplishments and how you, your instructors, and your students have adapted and worked to keep education happening and carry that with you as you approach the fall.


Want to hear more about what your peers are doing? Register for our next Experience CourseStorm Peer-to-Peer Panel

Are there other things your program is doing to prepare for the fall? We’re always interested in knowing what you’ve discovered works best for your program. You can email us at outreach@coursestorm.com.


Nic Lyons

Nic is skilled in scaling start-up edtech and education organizations to growth-stage success through innovative marketing. A former journalist and copywriter, Nic holds a postgraduate certificate in digital and print publishing from Columbia University School of Journalism's publishing course.

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