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By Beacon Staff

Jeff Baird Jeff Baird, director of safety at Beacon College, knows a thing or two about disaster preparedness. Before arriving at the college in 2020, a decision brought about by a desire to be closer to family — and the sun — Baird spent nearly 30 years of his career overseeing emergency management and safety operations at various colleges in the Northeast.

At Beacon, which he joined while COVID response protocols were in full effect, Baird has observed that ongoing response, as well as making sure the college is in compliance with federal standards such as the Clery Act, supervising and training security staff, developing and updating emergency response and evacuation plans, and reporting and investigating incidents on campus, among many other duties.

We recently met with him via Zoom to discuss how his education and background prepared him for his current role. Baird also shared key aspects of “disaster medicine” and discussed the lessons educational institutions — and Beacon College in particular — learned from COVID, as well as the practices and trends that are likely to remain in higher education moving forward.

Q: You hold an MS from Philadelphia University in Disaster Medicine and Management. And then comes COVID. Though Beacon’s COVID plan was in place by the time you arrived, how would you rate the college’s approach to the pandemic early on and the evolving approach as the pandemic has settled in?

Disaster Medicine and Management is essentially disaster management in the medical arena.  It’s the training that started early on to deal with disasters in a hospital setting and it has spread out to all different types of settings and that’s why it’s really looked at as a program to not only educate medical or hospital professionals but public safety, defense professionals and people working in all kinds of private and public sectors. It really is an all-hazard approach to disaster management education.

I was really impressed with the way Beacon was handling COVID. They were much farther ahead of institutions in Philadelphia — they were physically closed operating remotely unsure of when they may open. At Beacon, we had students on campus when I got here in September 2020. The Responsible Community Initiative (RCI) had started and was in full operation. I think it was great that the college’s whole response had a name associated with it. Another great step was the “Beacon bubble.” The idea of keeping people close to campus, the pod or family unit concept is a positive piece in the response plan.

An important aspect of disaster management is doing a good job with the communication and clearly articulating the information going out to the community. Public health and disaster management without a good communications program can actually lead to more problems. I think some states struggled with that more than others throughout the crisis. Beacon did a great job with how it communicated with our students as well as to faculty, staff, and parents; everyone was well aware of the steps that we were taking and it was all spelled out in the RCI. … That’s a really important part of disaster management.

Q: What are some of the key dimensions of “disaster medicine”?

I think one of the most important ones is all-hazard management. I hope that is a real lesson that is going to come out of the COVID crisis. As I mentioned, disaster medicine training filled the need to train medical professionals in all types of disasters, whether it’s national disasters that begin to overwhelm emergency departments … or whether it’s terrorism or a pandemic requiring isolation units and decontamination, it is important to be prepared for all scenarios.

In my program, I was involved with it as it began to evolve a bit more, they saw the importance of saying ‘We can’t just train people in the hospitals in disaster medicine.’ You have to be willing to train other public safety professionals who are all reacting to the same conditions. Disaster medicine and similar programs are truly a discipline open to all and not just the medical community. I am proof of that. I have a career in public safety in higher education and I put the principles of disaster management and the experience of the medical professionals involved to work for higher education. Most of the projects that I did throughout my education were all centered around improving disaster management in the institutions I worked at.

Q: How has the pandemic affected higher education broadly and Beacon, specifically?

I think for Beacon specifically, it really has shown us the need for brick-and-mortar; the need for in-person education and a lot of the additional services that we provide on campus. I think some people may perceive the pandemic as showing that remote learning and being home, and possibly saving money on the residential college experience is the future and I think that the pandemic has shown the opposite. … We really showed the importance of people getting together with a similar age group experiencing the types of bonds and social support that come with an on-campus residential experience in higher education.

Q: How are colleges and universities adapting?

I think colleges, in general, and Beacon have adapted very well. …  I think they’ve provided flexibility from a comfort standpoint. In the early stages, [it was] adapting to being able to provide a remote learning experience. It was about ‘how do you get back into business?’ It was, ‘how do you continue business or sustain your business?’… these are important aspects of disaster management.

We were able to provide remote education and remote participation for our students. I think how quickly that came together, especially in the state of Florida and at Beacon, as we reopened is really a testament to how much has been done in the technology world leading up to the pandemic.

I also feel like from a residential standpoint, we’ve really done a nice job at Beacon. I know we struggled with that at other institutions, the whole idea of quarantine and isolation for a return to campus were a big hurdle for institutions with traditional residence halls and community bathrooms. We were in a very good position here at Beacon based on our style of housing. We were often able to keep students in their assigned space and still maintain isolation and quarantine principles. It is much easier to re-enter campus participation without the stigma of having had or recovered from COVID that may come from removal from the community.

Q: What does COVID’s legacy (understanding COVID is still with us) mean for the future of higher education?

I think it’s made higher education stronger, more flexible and resilient. And again, I think that for anybody who thought that the future of higher education was going to be online, I think it proved the value of being on campus and the value of a residential education. I really think colleges are much stronger for it. I think some previous assumptions will no longer be the assumptions we make today. One of my favorite assumptions that came up in almost every disaster exercise I ever did was “we will never close.” If it was ever mentioned, people would correct us and say that they could never envision an incident that would cause the institution to fully close. I think we’ve proven that wrong. We can close, operate remotely, have a hybrid system of remote and in-person all while planning and responding to conditions leading to full recovery and restoring normal operations.

Q: The COVID pandemic has brought into focus many of the existential risks for higher education. Does it make sense to incorporate many of the steps schools employed for academic continuity during the pandemic going forward?

Absolutely I think that’s true. … For example, 10 or 15 years ago, if there was ever a weather concern — and that was snow in Pennsylvania — closing was the rule of the day for a weather emergency. In 2015-2016, the institution [I worked for] transitioned to closing for remote learning. I think things like that are going to be here, and more people are prepared for it. We had a number of faculty who did not know how to deliver their program remotely in 2015 or felt that the type of program they taught couldn’t be done remotely. I think there’s a very different way of thinking of that now. I think there are going to be changes for the future, but I think they’re going to be positive changes. I think we’re going to live with less permanent disruption and live with that ability to move to remote or hybrid delivery methods. We could use these tactics to address other issues such as cold and flu.

I think that there are plenty of examples of practices that were started with COVID that could continue in the future for a healthier campus all around. Stepped-up cleaning efforts, handwashing, the availability of disinfectants, hand sanitizers, wipes. I’d love to see that continue. I think different versions of isolation and quarantine and applying some of those principles to cold and flu would be great. Another great practice we have seen is if you are sick, stay home and take advantage of remote options.

I began my career during a time period when it was considered beneficial for you to come to work sick; you were considered a dedicated employee. Now, you’re considered to be an employee who’s risking the health of other people. Hopefully, that’s another great example of a principle that I’d really like to see stick around in the future.

Q: COVID-19 has revealed many things about the higher education landscape. What are some of the primary lessons?

One of the primary lessons we learned is that we could do a lot more than we thought we could do. Technology is a big driver in that. It’s important to have good technology and to address the digital divide with our students. I can’t speak for Beacon, but at a previous institution, we were challenged to come up with enough computers [and Wi-Fi] for our students. I think that’s going to be a challenge not only for higher education, but for secondary education as well. I think that’s something that, from an infrastructure standpoint, will be addressed across the country. It’s really become a lesson of how important technology is in getting and maintaining our education model during all types of emergencies.

I think a great lesson that COVID has revealed about higher education is that our residential communities aren’t a negative; they can be a positive. When you look at the whole concept of a pod or small group of people … I think our residence halls being suite-style, apartment-style, divided by floors and wings; it provides those pods or family type units that can be isolated from each other to stop the spread of a pandemic and even the common cold and flu. Many perceived the college or university environment as a place with the common dining hall, living and bathroom spaces where germs could proliferate. I think what we’ve shown is that they are places that can provide the necessary social, emotional and educational support to be beneficial for students.

We had the Beacon bubble, which was a contained area around campus to limit student interaction with the general public. We suspended visitation in the residence halls, no overnight guests, masks on for interacting outside their “family” or community group or “pod”, observed social distancing and conducted regular surveillance of the campus community. I really think these are all tactics we have learned and can be implemented quickly if needed as we move forward.

Q: What has COVID taught us about being ready (as much as we can) for the next super-bug?

I think if we’re ready for the next emergency and concentrate on all-hazard planning, we’ll be ready for the next superbug.