Keeping Up Appearances

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Multiple College Bowl Games Cancelled, Others Impacted as COVID-19 Cases Rise (People via yahoo.com)
List of colleges going virtual to start spring semester due to COVID spike (The Bergen Record via yahoo.com)

I know that my bosses are currently monitoring the state of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wisconsin, and it bears repeating that you couldn’t pay me enough money to make the decisions they’re having to make right now about what next semester will look like. If the past couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that no matter how much effort and expertise is put into teaching university classes online, most students will always prefer to take their classes in-person. Four months ago, as fall semesters started across the country, a cautious move back to in-person learning felt like the wisest course of action for most campuses, but as the weeks went by, and new variants of COVID-19 caused case and hospitalization rates to climb back up, it’s been harder to avoid wondering if we’ve all been doing the right thing by emphasizing in-person learning here. As someone who vastly prefers teaching in-person to online, that’s not easy for me to say, but my commitment to my students is as human beings first, and learners second, and nothing I could possibly teach them in my classes is worth risking death over.

At its root, the question of how the pandemic should affect our day-to-day lives in about science, and I am not a scientist. I’ve been keeping close tabs on news stories about COVID-19, and it’s clear that there’s still a lot for even the top scientists in the world to uncover about the virus, especially the newly-discovered omicron variant. Maybe I can do a better job than most people can of separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to analyzing sources of news, but I’m sure that the people making decisions about campus closures and the like are, at the very least, just as well-qualified to do that as I am. Especially since our spring semester doesn’t start until the 24th, decisions about how classes will be taught that term can be put off for now; if nothing else, emphasis should be on protecting the employees who continue to come to campus right now, even when students aren’t there for classes.

The problem, of course, is that the people making the decisions about campus closures have to take into consideration other things besides the science. In a perfect world, we might not have to worry at all about the problems of perceptions and public relations when it comes to these issues, but we don’t live in a world like that. If a significant percentage of the population is being influenced by certain news stories — even if those stories contain demonstrably false information — then decisions have to take that influence into account, at the very least to pass along more accurate information to the people being served (in our case, our students).

In the weeks leading up to our campus closing early for spring break in 2020, right as it felt like the whole world was starting to shut down, I talked with my students about the pandemic a little. This was obviously something that none of us had ever had to deal with before, and even if my grandparents had been alive, none of them would have been able to speak (at least from firsthand experience) about how the Spanish Flu changed day-to-day life for Americans at the end of the 1910’s. We kept hearing stories about how difficult things were in Wuhan, and other warnings of how dire things could get if this new coronavirus were left to spread, but it all felt so distant that we couldn’t wrap our heads around it.

What changed things for all of us — probably for my students more than for me — was when the NCAA cancelled its basketball championships that spring. I do a unit in most of my College Writing I classes that references the NCAA and all the money it makes, so for them to forgo all the revenues that March Madness always brings in was a huge wake-up call to all of us that things were already far more serious than we’d been led to believe. A hundred top-notch scientists giving a hundred speeches about the dangers of COVID-19 wouldn’t have had the same impact on many people as the NCAA making that decision did. Other sports putting their activities on hold at that point was pretty much a given, and while it still took a couple of days for many universities to announce their shutdowns, we all knew they were coming by that point.

These past few weeks of stories about the omicron variant have become more and more unnerving. Particularly given the fact that our fall semester runs so late (the last day of finals week was last Tuesday), and that Wisconsin was one of the first states where the omicron variant was detected in America, I kept wondering if we’d all be told to move our finals online. Now that so many COVID-19 metrics are hitting highs for 2021 despite all the vaccinations that have happened, there’s already a deep concern blanketing the country. With so many sports games now being postponed or outright cancelled, it’s starting to feel like the start of the pandemic all over again, and even if we know a lot more about dealing with this pandemic now than we did back in March of 2020, that knowledge has yet to translate into a reversal of infection rates and the like.

The uncertainty I face right now about just how this coming semester will go is more than a little stressful, but given that I have still yet to contract COVID-19 (and I’ll finally be able to go get my booster shot now that I’ve got some time off from teaching next month), it almost doesn’t feel right to complain about the problems I’m facing. Still, I know that I’m far from alone when it comes to those of us at universities — students, instructors, administrators, and everyone else — who are looking ahead to the next semester with deep concern over how everything will go. Winter break always passes much more quickly than many of us would like, and all we can do right now is hope that the people responsible for making these decisions pick the wisest course of action there is under these difficult circumstances so that we can all do the right thing at the start of next semester.

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