The following commentary from President John Tibbits was distributed to all Conestoga employees and members of Board of Governors on June 3.
As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues, Conestoga is faced with the dual challenge of fundamentally transforming our operations to deliver the best possible education and services under very challenging conditions, while making the difficult decisions that are required to position the college for success in a future that is highly uncertain as the result of factors outside of our control. Perhaps the greatest uncertainty is when a vaccine may be available that would allow the college to return to normal operations.
Today, approximately 60 full-time support staff from across Conestoga’s network of campuses received layoff notices. Layoffs will take effect as of June 15. The individuals affected are valued members of our community, and we appreciate the many contributions you have made, largely in positions that support on-campus operations. We recognize and regret the impact this decision will have on you and your families, and look forward to your return as circumstances allow. You will be missed.
I’d like to express my appreciation to the executive of Local 238 as well as the administrative employees who serve on the college’s Support Staff Employee Stability Committee for your efforts over the last several weeks to mitigate the impact of this difficult but necessary decision. Through your collaboration and hard work, the number of layoffs initially projected has been reduced by more than 50 per cent. Where possible, employees have been offered alternate positions and re-assignment to existing job vacancies, including those created as a result of the retirement incentive program offered this spring.
We’re now seeing indications that the initial wave of the pandemic has peaked, but the future remains unclear. Most experts predict further waves and resurgences of the virus ahead, and we may be required to maintain physical distancing, enhanced sanitation protocols, PPE use and other public health requirements until such time as an effective vaccine becomes widely available.
The eventual re-opening of campuses will be a gradual and deliberate process as we work to deliver essential services while protecting the safety and well-being of our community. Initially, we will re-open a limited number of classrooms, labs, shops and studios later this summer to allow students to complete hands-on components of their Winter and Spring 2020 courses to meet learning outcomes and achieve course completion. That may start as early as mid-July. All activities will be conducted under strict guidelines regarding physical distancing, hand hygiene and infection control measures as well as staggered scheduling to limit the number of people in both learning spaces and common areas. More information will be provided soon.
Courses will continue to be delivered remotely for the Fall 2020 semester. Labs, shops and studios will be open for students in courses where on-campus, face-to-face learning is essential. The objective is to achieve a gradual, safe return to our campuses, with as much on-campus activity as is practical and sensible within public health guidelines.
I have every confidence that Conestoga will continue to meet the very serious commitment we have made to support learners and our community along the path to a bright and prosperous future. But COVID-19 ranks among the most difficult challenges this college - and our society - has faced in the last 50 years.
Decreased revenue expectations combined with increased costs and an uncertain future create an ongoing sustainability challenge that must be carefully and proactively managed. This is not a short-term issue: the current situation could persist for as long as 18-24 months. The college has a responsibility to take decisive action and adapt in order to remain viable and help rebuild Canada’s economy once the pandemic is over.
Until that time, lower than projected enrolment of international students resulting from travel restrictions and global economic collapse will have a substantial impact on college revenues. Domestic enrolment is expected to decline as well, as will the ancillary fee returns the college collects through operations such as facility rentals, residence, parking, bookstore and cafeteria sales.
Costs will continue to increase as we resume limited campus operations in the wake of the pandemic. To maintain the safety and well-being of our community, we will need to restrict in-person activities to small groups, requiring additional staffing over longer hours of operation. Additional costs will be incurred as a result of enhanced cleaning and sanitation protocols, reconfiguration of learning spaces, and the provision of essential PPE for students and employees.
These costs are in addition to the investments in technology, course enhancements and student support we have made in the last few months. Given the uncertainty of how long the pandemic crisis will continue, we must continue to build our capacity to deliver courses remotely to provide students with the best possible learning experience.
For this budget year alone, Conestoga estimates that revenue losses and additional costs stemming from COVID-19 will result in a budget shortfall of at least $65M compared to previous projections.
At some future point, this pandemic will be over, but the challenge will continue. Through this devastating first wave, government has focused on providing the emergency support needed to keep individuals and businesses afloat through a period of tremendous crisis. That’s provided an important lifeline to literally millions of Canadians over the last few months.
But when this is finally over, Canada will be faced with a massive deficit challenge that will need to be addressed. All public sector organizations - including colleges - will need to be prepared to face severe cost containment measures in future as governments shoulder the heavy burden of bringing public debt to a more manageable level.
It’s with these realities in mind that Conestoga has taken a very proactive approach to ensuring the college’s future sustainability despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. Today, many businesses are struggling as a result of the pandemic. Some will fail. Many employees have been displaced. They will all need help to get back on track and rebuild our economy. And Conestoga will be there - for them and for our community.
I know this is difficult. We’ve had to make some tough decisions, and there may be more ahead. Our goal is to maintain the strength and sustainability of the college so that it can continue to fulfill its mission in a post-pandemic world.
Thank you for your continued support through these difficult times.