From one day to the next, the classrooms of schools and universities throughout the country were empty. The outbreak of the new coronavirus and the adoption of exceptional measures resulting from the declaration of the State of Emergency, led to the suspension of face-to-face classes and distance learning became a reality.
In Barcarena, at Atlântica University, the scenario was no different. With about 1,200 students attending seven bachelor’s degrees, four master’s degrees and 18 postgraduate degrees, Atlântica was forced, like universities throughout the country, to quickly adapt its structure and teaching model to the new reality imposed by COVID-19.
In this regard, on 13 March, the Atlântica administration decided to move all classes to an online regime. As of 14 March there were no more face-to-face classes – they would only be gradually resumed after 4 May, with the first phase of the deconfinement plan.
But the fact that there are no traditional face-to-face classes does not mean that the university has stopped. On the contrary. “No course has been cancelled”, ensures Natália Espírito Santo, Director General of Atlântica. “All classes are now given via Teams, mainly, but also in one case or another, via Zoom or Skype, with support from Moodle”. And, curiously, the students’ attendance has even improved: “Atlântica has many hard-working students who couldn’t always make it to class or arrive on time. They had to create their own study space at home and manage the classes – time and space – with their families. “The way the students adapted was incredible”, explained the Director General of Atlântica.
In fact, and analysing the whole process of adaptation to the new reality, the balance (although it was not an easy process) has been positive: “The impact, at this point, is actually quite positive given the fast and efficient adaptation it has forced in terms of distance learning. So much has been said on this subject in academic circles for years without any progress. The legislation was not helpful and we hope it will be reviewed. It took the pandemic to take this huge leap”, Natália do Espírito Santo points out.
The adaptation process
During the confinement period it was not only the students and teachers of Atlântica who started working from home. The shift towards teleworking covered about 90% of the employees at the university, with all services being provided online, by email, chat or telephone. The only employees laid-off were those who could not perform their duties via teleworking. Only cleaning and maintenance services continued to be carried out in person, with the minimum number of employees possible: “Our concern was the well-being and safety of our workers, always guaranteeing the normal (but different) functioning of Atlântica University, having the quality of the service provided to our students as our priority. The whole academic community “wore the Atlântica badge”, ensures Natália do Espírito Santo.
The design of the return to progressive normality for Atlântica University was defined on 30 April. The Director General of Atlântica explains the current situation: “The students are taking all the classes planned online, the practical classes are being resumed in person with all the effort to contain the virus and take the recommended public health and safety measures. Internships in hospitals have been postponed and rescheduled. The exams will be face-to-face in June and the continuous assessments will continue online whenever possible”.
Crisis: From challenges to reinvention
Teleworking and its reconciliation with family management have been the greatest challenges in the current pandemic context. “As far as teleworking is concerned, this experience has been a very interesting challenge for everyone, both in terms of internal communication and in terms of leadership and people management. We managed in record time to find flexible technologies, remote collaboration tools that allowed us to create new working methods, as Microsoft Teams has shown, which we started using more regularly and which has helped workers and the educational community to remain productive and connected”, assures Natália do Espírito Santo. She adds: “The most challenging thing for everyone, however, has been adapting to this new reality and balancing it with family life. Emotional management has also come to carry particular importance. For crisis management to be successful, everyone’s mental health has become a concern too”.
In this respect and to support everyone’s well-being, Atlântica started to arrange more meetings between services. The university organised postural education sessions with the support of physiotherapy teachers, it held nutrition sessions with the Nutrition Sciences teachers and encouraged online training, among other initiatives.
Despite the constraints and difficulties arising from the current context, Natália do Espírito Santo believes that this time can be an opportunity for educational institutions to reinvent themselves: “We hope it will be a time of change in education in Portugal. The leap has already been taken. Now, we need the appropriate legislation,” says the Director General of Atlântica.
In Barcarena, the changes in training have already made themselves felt: “As far as training is concerned, we felt that this was the time to reinvent ourselves in a certain way. We have created new short online courses in interesting subject areas for this time of crisis, such as Organisational Happiness, Happiness applied to the Person, Social Marketing – SROI and Strategies for fundraising, etc. We have also developed our postgraduate e-learning course in Composite Materials Engineering, with approval by the Portuguese Engineers Association, concludes the Director General of Atlântica.