Your class can be disrupted by personal emergencies (for both instructional staff and students), as well as emergencies external to the classroom such as inclement weather. We suggest planning ahead for such disruptions and, in this guide, provide tips to navigate different emergency situations that may occur during teaching. 

Navigating Class Cancellations

Last-minute class cancellations can be due to unexpected obligations of instructors, such as childcare or fixing a flat tire, or emergencies that impact the larger community, such as snow or an issue with public transportation. Duke provides guidelines that members of the community should follow during weather, fire and other emergencies. Duke will post status updates, including class cancellations, during emergencies related to its operations and services through the DukeAlert system

In the event that classes are cancelled, make and share your backup plan before any emergencies occur to reduce stress for you and your students. For instance, tell students that if a synchronous discussion is cancelled, they should anticipate an email from you or a discussion forum activity posted at a later time. If you have co-instructors or teaching assistants, you might be able to coordinate your schedules to lessen disruptions for your students by creating an internal instructional contingency plan.

You can follow these recommendations to communicate changes to your students:

  • Send an email or post a Sakai announcement letting your students know that the planned activity (class, office hours, etc.) will not be happening as scheduled.
  • Explain how the missed content will be made up. Some options include: record a lecture video and post it online, create an activity students can do on their own or in groups, distribute a PowerPoint and provide prompts for students to answer in a discussion forum, or move the content to another scheduled class session.
  • Adjust deadlines and due dates. If a technology failure impacts a due date or exam, for example, share the new date. Give students flexibility to make up missed work if the new due date or exam date conflicts with their schedule.

Switching to Emergency Remote Teaching

Many face-to-face teaching and learning practices have reasonable online alternatives. As you make plans for remote teaching during an emergency, focus on what tasks you are trying to accomplish before choosing which technologies to adopt. With limited time to plan, the simpler solution that minimizes cognitive load and complexity is often the best. There are often low tech approaches using everyday tools like email that are reliable and sufficient to accomplish the educational goal. Remember, more important than any technology is your presence and care for your students and the continuity of our learning community.

We recommend the following strategies to keep a class going during sustained emergencies that require transitioning face-to-face courses to emergency remote teaching, but any of these strategies can also be used to accommodate short-term changes to individual classes or create accommodations for individual students:

  • Increase your communications to students to keep them aware of what’s happening: make sure your course website is updated frequently and contains consistent and accurate information; use the Sakai Announcements function to send out frequent (at least weekly) updates on what is happening that week in class and what’s due, have an FAQ section of the website or use a Q&A tool to post answers to common questions.
  • If you can, increase the number of office hours and hold them online at varying times of day to accommodate students.
  • Move in-person class sessions to Zoom and, when possible, use the time for discussion, Q&A, small group problem solving and other types of interaction, rather than solely lecturing. Use Zoom’s breakout rooms, chat, polling, reactions, and other interactive tools. Turn on captioning and (if feasible) record the class for later viewing.
  • Record short videos (5-7 min) explaining more difficult content, if possible, instead of giving entire lectures. Posting slides can sometimes be enough. Ask students to review the materials before the next class sessions.
  • Adjust existing assignments so they can be completed online, or replace with alternative assignments.
  • Assign supplemental writing prompts, problem sets, or case studies to be completed by students either individually or in groups.
  • Have students listen to podcasts that apply course content to novel or contemporary applications. Have students create podcasts explaining course content to lay audiences or to members of their academic community.
  • Send out your slide deck to the class and ask them to annotate the slides to show their understanding of the content. This can be done individually or in groups.
  • Have students create TED talks applying course content to a new scenario. If the primary objective is to practice presenting to peers, students can film themselves speaking. If the primary objective is working with the content, students can write the script for the TED talk but not actually perform it.
  • Send out discussion prompts and teams or pairs of students can have discussions in online chat spaces. They can submit the transcript of the discussion as evidence of the conversation. Discussions can also be asynchronous assignments.
  • Ask students to work collaboratively to generate review guides for final exams/projects.
  • Assign students to take exams at home in open-note/open-book formats to mitigate potential academic misconduct. If possible, switch to more frequent, smaller-stakes tests and quizzes rather than few, high-stakes exams. Consider extended or flexible due dates for assignments to accommodate student learning situations

Supporting Student Well-Being

Emergencies may also occur while you’re teaching that produce personal (such as the death of a loved one) or collective trauma, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.  Students may or may not disclose when they are struggling, so it’s best to assume their well-being should be taken into account when they miss class. When working with students, be sure to treat them with kindness and respect. You can also point them toward student resources:

Students may be impacted long after the initial event. If so, how might you work with these students to find alternative ways to engage them into the course? Your overall course design can also take past traumas into account to protect students’ well-being. Should you warn students of content or assignments that could cause students to revisit upsetting personal experiences? Trauma-informed pedagogy principles can guide you as you think carefully about these questions. Understanding trauma and its impact in the classroom can help you design better, more student-centered courses.

Contact Us

Have a question this page didn’t answer or need more support? Learning Innovation staff are available to guide you through how to adjust your course to address student absences, class cancellations, and long term changes to your teaching.