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May 11, 2020 2:50 PM

Impact of the global pandemic: Charting the course for Conestoga's future

The following commentary from President John Tibbits was distributed to all Conestoga employees and Board of Governors members as well as the broader college community.


The social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be profound and far-reaching. To date, more than 4 million cases have been diagnosed worldwide; almost 300,000 lives have been lost. Efforts to arrest the spread of the virus have literally shut down world economies and we are all at risk of infection. According to epidemiologists, the virus may be with us for the next 1-3 years, and we may see multiple waves of outbreaks before an effective vaccine becomes widely available. 

Conestoga -- like most other post-secondary institutions -- is now facing the biggest challenge in its history. The health and safety of our employees, students, families and community continue to be our top priorities as we re-align academic and business plans for the next year in light of the new realities we all face.

Continued requirements for social distancing and related measures to prevent the spread of the virus (such as wearing masks in the workplace) will result in a long-term transformation of the ways we engage students in learning and prepare them for successful futures.

This transformation began in mid-March as Conestoga moved to the remote delivery of programming and services to complete the Winter 2020 semester. Spring semester -- which begins May 19 -- will be conducted primarily in remote delivery format as well. On-campus activity will remain limited. By August, we hope to bring back those students who were unable to complete lab, studio and shop requirements in Winter 2020 so that they can finish their course work. These hands-on learning facilities will be operated differently than in the past, with fewer students at any given time, reconfigured spaces, enhanced sanitation protocols and whatever else may be required to support physical distancing and user safety.

We expect that the Fall 2020 semester will continue to be delivered primarily in remote format. Our local universities, as well as other colleges across Ontario, are making similar plans. It is simply not possible for any of us to bring thousands of students onto our campuses and maintain the social and physical distancing required to keep everyone safe. In-person delivery will be provided for essential hands-on activities, which will continue to be conducted in strict accordance with public health guidelines. We anticipate that this approach may continue for an extended period, perhaps for the next 2-3 semesters, or until an effective vaccine against COVID-19 becomes widely available. 

The transition and extension of primarily remote delivery will require significant ongoing investment as Conestoga continues to focus on quality teaching and learning experiences. We must ensure that all students and faculty have access to the hardware and software they need for success, and continue to provide training to support further advances in remote delivery. The development of new multimedia assets and augmented and virtual reality initiatives will provide students with a richer, more interactive learning experience as we apply new technologies to support learning. 

Investing in new technologies will play an increasingly important role in all Conestoga’s programming. We expect, for example, that Ontario’s current apprenticeship model will face additional challenges as the result of the economic downturn, and that many employers will not be positioned to take on apprentices. (Already, only 1 in 6 companies that hire tradespeople play a role in training apprentices: we expect that ratio to decline even further now.) To address this challenge, Conestoga is exploring the potential for training apprentices through high-end simulation tools that can provide them with higher competencies before they enter the workplace. This approach is now being used with our Heavy Equipment Operator program and needs to be extended to all trades training areas. 

We are working towards a similar approach in health care, particularly in fields such as Personal Support Worker, where we can help address workforce shortages by using technologies such as augmented and virtual reality as well as simulation to expand and enhance training options. 

These changes require substantial investment, but will yield significant returns in terms of the quality of our education and the career readiness of our graduates. While the pace of change has been accelerated by the pandemic, the transformation of programming through the further adoption of new technologies is closely aligned with Conestoga’s vision and strategic priorities.

As we make these essential investments, we will also need to address the financial implications resulting from reduced student enrolment. The pandemic -- and the resulting border and travel restrictions -- will have a major impact on international student recruitment not just at Conestoga, but at post-secondary institutions across Canada. Many communities will feel the loss: prior to the pandemic, international students contributed more than $21B each year to Canada’s GDP.

International students have played an important role in Canada’s immigration strategy for the last several years, with the federal government creating programs and opportunities designed to attract more international students and address the growing need for skilled workers to support economic growth and stability. Conestoga has significantly benefited from this strategy over the last 5 years, building a strong and diverse student body to support a broader range of programming and acquiring the resources required for the development of significant assets: the Waterloo campus expansion, the Library and the Blue Room at Doon, facilities in Brantford and Reuter Drive in Cambridge as well as numerous classroom and campus upgrades across all of our campuses.

International enrolment growth has supported major college investments in technology, research, new academic programming and student services. The international students have benefited as well, both from the quality education they receive as well as the opportunities Conestoga provides for them to transition to Canadian life and culture in preparation for successful futures. 

The surge of the global pandemic has brought an abrupt halt to Conestoga’s international enrolment growth. Spring semester enrolments for Level 1 students will be lower than projected: we anticipate this trend will continue through Fall 2020 and perhaps longer as international travel remains restricted and the world economy remains depressed. We appreciate the support provided by the federal government in allowing international students to start their programs from their home countries this spring, but do not expect to recover to past enrolment levels in the near term.

Similarly, domestic student enrolment -- already soft as a result of demographic realities -- is expected to decrease in Fall 2020 for many of Ontario’s post-secondary institutions, including Conestoga, as some prospective students choose to take a gap year rather than engage in remote education, and others defer entrance to post-secondary to remain in secondary school and address the learning gaps they experienced as a result of pandemic-driven closures in Spring 2020.

The pandemic has created significant challenges across Ontario’s college sector. Our federal and provincial governments are working to address these issues, providing direct financial aid, loan relief and job programs for students as well as supporting colleges in efforts to enhance remote learning capabilities. There may be stimulus packages for post-secondary institutions to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship as well as meet new workforce and retraining needs as part of rebuilding the economy.

But for now, it’s important to recognize that both levels of government are facing unprecedented levels of demand to meet the immediate needs of individuals and shore up the private sector businesses that fuel our economy. That’s likely to be needed for an extended period, resulting in large deficits that may need to be addressed through future austerity measures.

Conestoga has served Waterloo Wellington and surrounding communities for more than 50 years. We have a responsibility to transform and adapt in order that we may continue to support the community to its full potential in the future. We must invest in technologies and continue to deliver an outstanding learning experience -- whether remote or in-person -- as we prepare students for successful futures in an uncertain world. But we must also mitigate current and anticipated revenue losses by controlling and cutting costs to keep our institution functioning and fiscally sustainable.

The requirement for many employees to work from home will continue for some time, perhaps as long as the next 2-3 semesters. As a result, the college must ensure that all employees who are working from home can fulfill their assigned roles and responsibilities. 

Conestoga has a passionate and committed employee team: their contributions are recognized and highly valued. During this period of extraordinary challenges, we will continue to make decisions with empathy, respect and concern for our employees. It is clear, however, that we will be unable to retain the college’s existing workforce indefinitely as we continue to focus on remote delivery and address serious financial shortfalls.

This is not a decision made easily or lightly. We recognize it is a difficult time for everyone. Since campuses closed in mid-March, all full-time employees have been provided with full salary and benefits, even if they were unable to complete full-time work from home. We’ve exercised other cost-cutting options, including retirement incentive packages to reduce staffing levels, a hiring freeze as well as an administrative salary freeze. We’ve deferred or delayed capital projects, renovation expenditures and equipment purchases for 2020-21, and closed buildings across our network of campuses in order to reduce expenses. We’ve reduced our administrative staff complement and laid off part-time workers.

At this time, however, it is clear that Conestoga will need to make further reductions in our full-time workforce to align with revised expectations in the post-pandemic culture. We expect these unfortunate but necessary cuts will result in layoffs of both support staff and administrative employees. Discussions will continue with the support staff union in adherence with the Collective Agreement; senior managers will also be engaged in discussions regarding potential administrative staff reductions. We do not anticipate that downsizing of faculty positions will extend beyond part-time employees at this time.

I understand that this is difficult news and comes at a time when all employees -- indeed all Canadians -- are struggling. And while these changes are essential to securing Conestoga’s future, we sincerely regret the impact that layoffs will have on our employees and their families.

This period of uncertainty will pass, and the world is likely to look very different than it did pre-pandemic: beset by high unemployment, economic uncertainty and near-crippling government deficits. By making the changes we must now, Conestoga will remain viable and be well-positioned to serve our citizens, our employers and our region in the effort to rebuild both our college and the community when the pandemic is over. 

Sincerely,
John Tibbits

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