A photo of Interim Provost Robert White – COVID-19 test over the summer
By Dr. Slaveyko Djambazov, PhD, Yoanna Vutova
HTA Ltd. (www.hta.b)
BLAGOEVGRAD, Bulgaria, June 09, 2021 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — While Bulgaria has been severely affected by COVID-19, AUBG, a small liberal arts university in the South-west part of the country has only had 15 cases on campus, no community transmission, and an uninterrupted school year, despite the pandemic. This may sound like an isolated success, but the small university has in fact taught us important lessons on how to respond to this pandemic – and possible future health threats.
Lesson #1 Put the safety of the community first
A school with about 1000 students coming from 40 countries, professors from five continents, and a vibrant campus life, AUBG had to make some tough decisions in March 2020. When Bulgaria’s government first announced the lockdown on March 13, limiting travel and social activities, nobody knew what other restrictions would follow and how long they would last.
It was bad news for the university. The lively atmosphere in the residential campus abounding with student activities and events is the very essence of AUBG. The end of the spring semester is the culmination of that spirit, with many huge student events and lots of competitions, guest lectures and academic conferences. What would AUBG be without its trademark activities and dynamic student life?
UV Air Purifier
Meanwhile, another, even scarier question was arising in people’s minds: What will happen to travel and what should we do about all the international students? The university leadership chose to switch to entirely online education, despite the riskiness of the decision and the possible financial losses. AUBG did that before any other university in the country for two main reasons: protect the health of the community and give students and especially international students, the option to return to their homes without disrupting their studies.
“Our first priority was protecting the health of faculty, staff, and students,” said Professor Robert White, Dean of Faculty and Interim Provost. “Our second priority was keeping the business of the university going.”
AUBG President Evans getting vaccinated
AUBG President David Evans even worked with the Albanian ambassador to help 13 Albanian students and one Montenegrin return home safely with a chartered bus. The students who could not fly back to their countries were allowed to stay on campus.
“In spring 2020, our biggest challenge was deciding whether to move classes online,” White said. “In retrospect, we made the right decision. However, the right decision was not obvious to us at this time. We took a major risk. When we made this decision, there were no reported cases of COVID-19 in Bulgaria and most universities around the world had yet to make the decision to shift online. Most of our faculty had never taught an online class before. We could have moved classes online and then found a few weeks later that we had overreacted.”
Lesson #2: Adapt Fast
The university quickly organized the new process of online and hybrid education by purchasing equipment, and training staff, students and faculty.
“In preparing for fall 2020 over the summer, we faced three major challenges,” White said. “The first challenge was deciding whether to stay online or bring students back to campus. By this time, we had a good idea of how the virus is transmitted. So, we decided early in the summer that we could develop policies that would minimize the risk of the virus spreading on campus. The bigger challenge was the logistics of implementing the hybrid semester. We had to upgrade all of our classrooms with cameras and microphones. There was a shortage of conference equipment at this time because businesses and universities all over the world were also purchasing this equipment. Initially, we were told that the equipment would not arrive until six weeks into the semester. I contacted Logitech’s head office, and they generously agreed to use their logistics team to source the equipment from different parts of Europe. In the end, the equipment was installed one week before our first hybrid class. The third challenge was training faculty for the hybrid semester. I arranged for guest speakers to give seminars to faculty on teaching hybrid courses.”
Lesson #3 Social Solidarity is Key
AUBG’s success in overcoming the challenges of the pandemic would not have been possible had it not been for the united efforts of the entire community – administration and staff, faculty, students, alumni and board members.
The university staff and faculty members worked around the clock to prepare for the new mode of teaching and put all the health and safety measures in place; The students strictly complied with the requirements as they understood their responsibility towards the more vulnerable members of the community; The cleaning, canteen and security personnel continued their work with bravery and dedication despite the fact that many of them were part of the high risk groups. The university leadership did not lay off any staff members despite the dramatically decreased workload in student services and the financial losses. The AUBG Alumni Association together with the university administration quickly organized a Student Support Fund and an Emergency Fund to support the students whose plans to earn their tuition over the summer in the U.S. have now been canceled.
The AUBG Health Center played an instrumental role in keeping the community safe, with the Health Center’s Director Dr. Ventsislav Daskalov organizing a smooth testing process. When a limited number of vaccines was available in the health center, the administration chose to prioritize the risk groups.
Lesson #4: Communication, communication, communication
Perhaps the biggest business lesson we took from the pandemic is that the importance of communication is not to be underestimated. The university leadership understood the importance of sending out regular, transparent and prompt updates about the situation with COVID-19 on campus and in the country. AUBG’s marketing team created articles and videos that would inform students of the threats of the virus and urge them to comply with the safety measures.
And as it became clear that a live Commencement in spring 2020 was out of the question, the university streamed a video where alumni, professors, board members and the U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria wished good luck to the graduating class.
Lesson #5: Trust Science
Trusting science was instrumental in making the right decisions. “We took a science-based approach,” White said. “We recognised that the COVID-19 virus has a specific nature. So, scientists have been able to identify how the virus is transmitted. Once we understand this, it is easy to identify the actions that people need to take to protect themselves from the virus. Among other things, this led us to installing air purifiers in all of the classrooms” when it became clear that aerosol transmission is a primary risk factor for COVID. Every week, the university’s leadership team was getting together online to discuss the most appropriate actions. “We made decision by consensus,” the Interim Provost said. “We thoroughly debated our plans before reaching a final decision.”
With anti-vaccination campaigns arising in the world and Bulgaria, the university took actions to help the community make an informed choice. Dr. Daskalov gave an interview where he spoke about the vaccines in length and the university’s President and Provost were the first to get vaccinated as an example for the community.
Robert White’s message for students returning on campus next semester is simple: “Get vaccinated. We can only have a normal semester in the fall if the majority of students are vaccinated.”
And as the bigger part of the university community is willing to get the vaccine, it looks like AUBG will be returning to a somewhat normal life on campus in fall 2021. But what’s more important is that the university proved that its spirit is not limited to a physical place. As student speaker Oraz Kereibayev said during the heart-warming hybrid Commencement Ceremony in May 2021, “we now realized what really makes AUBG a place to be, even if we can’t really be here.”
*About the author:
Dr. Slaveyko Djambazov has international expertise as a consultant on health policies, health technology assessment (HTA), pharmacoeconomics, real-world data (RWD), outcomes measurement. He holds a PhD in HTA, an EMBA from the American University in Bulgaria, a master degree in medicine and public health. Dr. Djambazov also completed a course at Harvard Business School about value measurement for healthcare. He is teaching HTA and healthcare management and is a co-author of books on HTA, health economics, clinical trials, epidemiology, innovative therapies. Dr. Djambazov is the founder and managing director of HTA Ltd. For the past 6 years, HTA Ltd. has prepared over 600 analyses for over 70 multinational companies. Since 2017, Dr Djambazov has been actively working on investment projects in Africa, Central and Southeast Asia.
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