Coronavirus first came on to my radar at the end of January. At Chichester College Group (@Chi_College) – the largest provider of further education in Sussex spanning four colleges – we have large numbers of international students, and as the outbreak in China worsened we flagged it on our risk register and kept a close eye on the situation.
As things unfolded through February and March, we began to develop plans including supporting students to return home early, establishing a quarantine block in our Halls of Residence and beginning to track the travel plans of all of our staff and students – especially post half-term and with the growing cases in Europe.
This work helped prepare us as we had to turn our plans from our international markets to the domestic situation. With over 20,000 students across four campuses and a number of commercial businesses, we had to mobilise and plan for potential physical closures quickly.
A month later and we are all adapting to a new way of working. We managed to get all of our international students’ home through some heroic efforts and support from airlines, embassies and my team. One of the last groups to leave were our students from the Falkland Islands. We are now continuing to teach them online and provide support to enable them to complete their courses and studies.
In other areas of our business, our childcare nurseries continue to provide care for children of keyworkers and our colleges remain open where we have vulnerable learners but we have, like so many others, now fully transitioned to online teaching and learning. It has had its challenges but I have been blown away by the innovation of our tutors and the engagement of our students. Along with core learning, pastoral support and care is critical and it is heart-warming to have people ask ‘how are you?’ and really mean it. I have also had to adapt my style of management and communications to support my team but it has made us stronger and even more supportive of each other.
As we look ahead to recovery, skills will play a vital role in supporting the economy. This includes looking at more short courses which can enable re-training and upskilling; this will also support the diversification of so many businesses that we continue to see and which may need to be in place for some time given the likely continuation of self-distancing measures. As part of this, there is an ongoing need to enhance digital skills and address skills shortages in sectors including engineering and healthcare.
I am also Vice-Chair of Coast to Capital Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and we are working hard to support businesses in our region. The impact in and around Gatwick is significant along with our coastal communities and the challenges facing many of our growers in caring for and harvesting their crops. I was proud that the LEP launched a grant fund, ‘Backing Businesses’, to provide funding to help firms adapt, innovate and evolve to survive the current situation. We have supported a wide range of businesses from breweries, gin distillers and travel, hospitality and retail companies.
As we look ahead to the easing of lockdown, as a LEP, we are now looking at how our Local Industrial Strategy evolves to be a ‘Recovery Strategy’. In considering this, we are looking as much at the social impacts as the economic ones.
Lastly, and on a personal level, I admit that I found last week hard. My two children (aged seven and nine) started back at virtual school and whilst there were challenges around uses of technology, finding space for them to have ‘desks’ (computers etc), I had underestimated the emotional support they needed. I have now adapted my work diary to have a family break at lunchtime where we can discuss any issues or concerns and we all agree that we log off by 6.00pm to play football in the garden.
Through all the challenges of the past few weeks, and 40 days into lockdown, it has been the support of my family and colleagues that has been vital to enable me to remain focused and make difficult decisions to adapt our ways of working and operating as a business.
Julie Kapsalis is Managing Director of Chichester College Group, Vice-Chair of Coast to Capital Local Enterprise Partnership and a Director of the Institute of Economic Development