NACA BLOG - Preparing, Not Planning - 6/12/2020

June 12, 2020
Katie Cannella
Tulane University (LA)

​As the uncertainty of the pandemic's trajectory continues into planning for the 20-21 academic year, university administrators are recommending that staff begin "preparing, not planning." The sentiment is completely understandable in some regards – as we have been learning more each day, our scope of understanding of the COVID-19 state of the world is shifting, and university leadership is struggling to know what is "right" for how we will operate.  At the same time, however, this directive requires that staff assess multiple scenarios and construct a variety of contingency plans for how the semester could be structured.

Amid such understandable uncertainty, I have asked myself: What can be made now and how can I be prepared to execute multiple potential scenarios in this shifting landscape? How can I assess which programs can be shifted to a virtual environment or with limited capacity – and at what cost? Using my time now to systematically think through such options will inevitably help with making choices later, when time would be better spent implementing.  When the university leadership makes their announcements about how we will be conducting the semester (including any staffing or budgeting adjustments that may come as a result), I want to be prepared to make intentional and thoughtful decisions quickly. The process below is specific to my current institution; however, it is flexible enough to adapt for a variety of institutions.

First, our team can assess the information and skills available. Those include:

  • Student Feedback.  Feedback from participants and student leaders indicates the specific events or types of events the students want to see happen in Fall 2020.
  • Experience with Virtual Platforms. Through the challenges of going remote at the end of Spring 2020, staff now have experience planning and facilitating virtual events using certain platforms.
  • Professional Organizations and Colleagues. There is a wealth of knowledge now available in an online resource bank through various professional organizations and staff have connections with other professionals who are doing this work.
  • Institutional Knowledge.  Staff have knowledge of facilities and reservation processes on my campus, which can help potentially modify programs in unique and creative ways to fit a small group or social distant structure.
  • Listening to National Conversations. University leaders across the country are sharing plans for Fall 2020, which offers insight into possible trajectories for my university setting.

Second, with this information our team can generate an Event Conversion Chart to systematically assess specific programs given content of the above information streams.

The Event Conversion Chart (1) gives space to list out the events and program series that we would like to see implemented, then (2) asks whether or not it could be adjusted to work in one of five scenarios, and (3) provides space to outline how an event would fit some of those scenarios.

Below are some samples of how this came together for our programming team…




-- Cost of program is not justified in person if capacity is limited to less than 50; virtual program should be offered in the event that we are limited and can be delivered by vendor for $160 per event on Zoom.
Cooking Class - -Ideal cooking class is less than 50 participants, so transitioning to smaller groups would be feasible. Distant option would involve students picking up ingredients and paper instructions, then participating in a Zoom cooking class from home using the provided materials.
50 (2x25)$$30 (3x10)$$$50$
Student Org Expo --- Event is not adjustable to smaller group formats (usual capacity is 2000+), so virtual via Zoom rooms is the only viable adjustment. Event could be broken down by council at different times and a "Virtual Involvement Center" page can be built to hold the information about which organizations are participating with their contact information and social media pages, links to videos, and access to the Zoom meeting.

* "Distant" on the chart above means that students are permitted back on campus for course work and essential resources such as health and wellness, but non-essential events such as social programming are not permitted to reduce the amount of time students are spending in groups.


Decision Making Example 1 | Overarching Action Plan… If the university leadership announces that students are going to be in person for classes with the restriction that you may not gather in groups larger than 14, you can first prioritize events that you have already identified as being effectively delivered in either the small group, distant, or virtual platform in the earliest part of the semester. Should the restrictions ease up after some time of students being back, then you can begin implementing other types of programs that are delivered in medium to large group formatting. If the restrictions do not ease up, then you have given yourself more time to identify how to fill the remainder of the semester.

Decision Making Example 2 |Student Organization Expo… Using this chart (along with by our Decision Making Aide to help us asses impact on cost, schedule, and staffing that we built for more complex events), we determined that the only two options for running the Student Organization Expo are to run it as it is OR coordinate a virtual experience.  While meeting as a programming team, we were able to determine that regardless of whether the university resumes in person operations we will be moving the event – which occurs in the first two weeks of the semester – to a virtual platform for the safety of students and staff.  As a result of this decision, we have since begun building out a Virtual Involvement Center where we will house contact information and access to Zoom rooms for each organization choosing to participate. Additionally, we have been able to use our time now to begin drafting messaging that new and returning students will receive to assist them in preparing.

Completing this type of brainstorming now should allow us to be more flexible later when the university has announced how it will proceed and once information from our survey (see below to view our survey draft) on what students actually want to have made available to them in different formats has been gathered. Then, the real planning can begin!

If you have any questions on this form, how it was built or how it could be adapted on your campus, please reach out.

To view the Event Conversion Chart, visit

To view the Decision Making Aide, visit

To view the draft of our Engagement Survey, visit

Katie Cannella is the Assistant Director for Student Development, specifically overseeing late night and affinity building programming at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. You can reach her at with any questions you may have.

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