Friday, August 13, 2021

It's been quite a week

On August 6th, Tom Mars' temporary injunction against State Act 1002 of 2021 was a tentative success. The parents who sued the state with his representation were able to convince a judge to order a temporary injunction against the law, thus preventing its enactment for the time being. The law would have prevented local and state run agencies and governments from enforcing mask mandates. The law was signed by our Governor, Asa Hutchinson, last May. It seemed like the legislature and the Governor spiked the proverbial football at the time. Cases of COVID-19 had gone down and would continue to go down for a few more weeks. I thought the law was stupid at the time. It coincided with other laws which restricted any of my state's Governors from enacting common-sense state of emergency mandates. The optics of the Governor actually signing State Act 1002 of 2021 would look bad no matter what. Given the spike in cases that has led to a record number of children in ICUs and ventilators during yet another wave of COVID-19 cases, the whole thing smells of hubris. 

There was no good news or relief for those few school districts that had started school right around the end of July or the start of August. But once the temporary injunction was filed, the dominoes started to fall. A number of school districts across the state, including some that are considered to be "conservative" (whatever that might mean anymore) enacted mask mandates. My city's school district was one of those. University systems across the state enacted mask mandates over the course of this week. I think the city of Little Rock mandated masks on public indoor property. Private corporations with footprints in my state have not only enacted mask mandates of their own, but required their employees to show evidence of vaccination as a condition of employment. A standard of conservative governance in the past had been that policy decisions that had been mandated by Federal or state officials should be handed off to localities and private enterprise. Something has changed in the last few years. The conservative orthodoxy that I understood and even respected, albeit grudgingly, has been supplanted with something different. When it comes to public health and safety, apparently now the new orthodoxy is that the state can actively prevent local governments and state agencies, as well as private sector businesses from doing what is necessary to protect their employees, customers, etc. 

I have no doubt that our current state's Attorney General (Leslie Rutledge) will appeal the injunction against Act 1002. After all, she does have some political aspirations, including a run for the office of Governor. I am actually surprised she has waited as long as she has. I am no legal eagle, but based on how I understood the temporary injunction ruling, assuming the state's Supreme Court is even remotely functional, the law is dead in the water. We'll wait and see. Localities not wanting blood on their hands are not waiting. Nor are those in the private sector, even as our legislature plots to treat the corporations that employ the vast majority of our residents as ones that are only able to act under the whims of a command economy. We're not late-period USSR, or at least we should not be.

From what I've seen with parents on FB groups is that they're voting with their feet if they have the luxury of doing so (usually those with some financial means, which results in those who are relatively upper middle class). School districts that seem to be promoting health and safety my see an increase in students, and an increase to their funding. Colleges and universities that demonstrate a willingness to act in the interest of the health and well-being of their students will hopefully be rewarded for their efforts, regardless of how this current legal battle plays out. At least students and where relevant their parents will recall the systems who were willing to stand and be counted. 

In the meantime, we're recording consistently around 3k COVID-19 cases per day in my state, and the hospitalization rate and ventilator rate are both off the charts. Our vaccination rates have started to bump up a bit. I honestly don't know how much of that is due to the proverbial "fear of God" being put into some very reluctant folks given our current dire situation, and how much of that is due to private corporations and business just outright mandating vaccinations. 

Regardless, I am hoping that one of the lessons we learn from this debacle is that politicizing any efforts to mitigate a pandemic is simply an awful idea and should be avoided at all costs.

We got lucky, for now

Early last week, a lawyer, Tom Mars, filed a lawsuit in a state court to seek at least a temporary injunction against the Arkansas state legislature's efforts to forbid local state agencies (such as school boards) from independently mandating masks or facial coverings as a means of mitigating the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19. The temporary injunction succeeded. I had expected our state's Attorney General to mount an immediate appeal to the state's Supreme Court. So far, that has not been forthcoming. I am under the impression that the Governor has sought outside legal counsel in order to make the next move. If the external counsel is smart, the state-level leaders (if we can call them that) have been informed that the nature of the temporary injunction is one that suggests that the Tom Mars suit will succeed on its merits. We'll have to wait and see.There is reason for optimism.

Not every state agency will issue a mask mandate, even as this latest wave of the pandemic ravages our state. But many will. My city's school district acted quickly and on Monday mandated masks for all who are faculty, staff or students in situations in which there are two or more people inside a building. This is pretty consistent with what was policy last academic year. That's as good as we could have expected. That mandate will be reviewed in late September. Depending on how things look, the mandate may be extended or it may be allowed to expire. My best guess, based upon projections by our own state health experts, is that we'll still want a mask mandate for yet another 60 days. I was glad to see that most of the state's university systems chose to put mask mandates in place. That was wise, given that I suspect that if the decision was placed in the hands of individual faculty senate bodies, there would have been gridlock, given that faculty themselves are polarized (which I realize is counter-intuitive to the usual narratives concerning faculty ideology).

The bottom line is that the vast majority of us are getting what we want and need. There are very understandably skittish students and parents (I and my youngest daughter among them) who needed assurances that students once more could have in-person events in as safe an environment as possible. We're probably a silent majority in our state and locality. Faculty and staff get assurances that they and their families will be kept as safe as is possible at the K-12, college, and university levels. For that, I am grateful. Ideally, we'd have some mandate on our university and college campuses regarding COVID-19 vaccination. Suggesting such an action is politically incorrect in this environment. I was never good at following party lines, and that is especially true with our current ruling party in my state. As it stands, our state legislators (at least those from the GOP, which is the majority party), are even trying to interfere in the decisions private businesses can make regarding vaccination mandates for employees, which seems maddening, given how much the GOP once fetishized all things private sector. 

This is just my opinion, and one should take it for what it is. I am convinced that an uncontrolled pandemic is bad for private businesses, for public universities and colleges, and for public schools.  Refusing to do even the minimum needed to keep students safe? Parents will look for, and pay for, other options. As someone who relies on private businesses for survival? I will patronize those businesses that do what is necessary to mitigate spread. A restaurant that offers an indoor dining experience in which there is physical distancing and a mask requirement for customers, and where employees are required to be vaccinated? They have my business, regardless the cost. That's a promise. I am sticking with our current medical practitioners largely because the larger system took this pandemic so seriously that all employees from doctors to CNAs have to be vaccinated. Our other system in my area seems to be fairly non-seriousness of the current threat. They've seen the last of us for a while. Part of living in a capitalist society is that we do get some choices, and those businesses and agencies that do due diligence to keep us safe will earn future business. Those who refuse will eventually lose out. States and regions refusing to protect their residents in the name of public safety will lose out. I wish corporations with some footprint in these states would do a better job of educating state legislators (including reminding them that their donations have been based on doing the bidding of these corporations), and that various levels of chambers of commerce would reach out and educate local political officials. I also wish that those same chambers of commerce would make it very clear that those unwilling to protect public heath, and hence protect the interests of the private sector, would be out of a political career as of November 2022. That's quite an ask. I can hope.

In the meantime, I have some tools now to keep my students and my family safe that I was not expecting even when I last posted. There is reason to hope. We got lucky, or so it appears. An angry group of parents of kids who have as of yet no access to a COVID-19 vaccine, who have immuno-compromized family, etc., we've had some tentative victories. Let's not get complacent. We've learned that our legislature is only willing to follow our system of economics and governance when it is convenient to our state legislature's party line (this should seem very similar to what those operating under the USSR during its period of collapse experienced). "Good" party members benefited for a while as those who were not suffered. Once we devolve to that point, it's no longer clear if there is even a social order. I don't follow party lines of any sort. So here we are. Benefit students. Accept that businesses who rely on public trust (all businesses, as it turns out) have what they need to build trust during what we hope is a once in a century pandemic.This is not rocket science, by any stretch.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

A bit of a postscript to the preceding

Some other observations:

There are times when I wish I had more legal expertise. The reason I say that is because I suspect we're not that many student (or faculty and staff) hospitalizations and deaths at institutions that either willingly refuse to mandate vaccines or masks during this particularly virulent phase of the pandemic (with an R0 of about 8 or 9, the Delta variant is already one of the most infectious viruses known to humanity), or whose hands were tied by state legislators and/or governors from someone attempting to file a lawsuit. Whether or not something like that can succeed is another matter, but I would not be surprised if some angry family members seek a legal remedy, under those tragic circumstances. Early on in the pandemic, we were essentially flying blind. At this juncture, we can see very clearly what is coming our way. Someone will be held accountable eventually for preventable risk.

 On the topic of risk, I would expect insurance premiums to go up. Insurers are going to price in risk as long as this pandemic continues, and try to recoup some of their lost profit margins from paying considerable portions of the bills of those who ended up hospitalized with COVID-19. I'm sure colleges and universities have some sort of insurance that they pay to shield them, and those premiums will go up. Smart insurers are going to jack up their rates in areas where vaccination rates are low and infections rates continue to remain high. 

There is stereotype about faculty being practically a hive mind. Those believing that have never been to a faculty committee meeting. I suspect that the divisions regarding how to deal with the pandemic (or simply to refuse to deal with the pandemic) are now very noticeable on college and university campuses. I will only provide an anecdote, but I think it will illustrate what I have in mind. I just rolled off a committee that among other things was tasked with providing some faculty-led guidance on how to find solutions to ease some of the suffering of our students. Although in ordinary years, I would cringe at solutions such as retroactive withdrawals or Pass/Fail options for students to select once they see their grade reports, These last three semesters have been very far from ordinary. Our campus offered those options for students for Spring and Summer 2020. Once the Fall semester was well underway, and it became obvious that a new wave of cases was building up, students approached us to offer these solutions once more. There was a lot of pushback from that committee, and in the end, we'd come up a couple votes shy of what the student leadership was telling us the students needed. Some of that pushback was expected - it amounted to "I walked uphill in the snow in 100 degree heat each way and I did just fine. These students can too." But some that pushback was really ideological and seemed to parrot talking points I've seen on Facebook groups aligned with Trump. I noticed that ideological pattern of pushback emerge on all matters concerning this pandemic as time went on. I'd already decided to roll off that particular committee simply because it was a significant time commitment, and I'd devoted about half of my career at my current university to serving on that committee. The toxicity that has emerged sealed it for me. When it comes to solutions that are pandemic related, this is a committee that might be able to produce half-measures or fail to act at all.* The ideologues are a minority but very vocal, and smart enough to sort out how to use parliamentary procedure to their advantage. All of that is to say that when it comes to things like revisiting mask mandates, if a lawsuit succeeds in my state to strike down a law that prevents our university from doing so, that decision about whether or not to mandate masks indoors will need to be made by senior administration. There is too much division among faculty. It's probably a safe assumption that the same applies among students as well. And it's probably not just my own campus. 

Once basic public health and safety measures got politicized early on during the pandemic, any hope for the public to more or less band together (the usual small groups of outliers notwithstanding) and use some good horse sense went away. Of course that politicization would spill over onto college and university campuses. After all, our campuses are merely microcosms of our own aching society. Regrettably, I can envision an era in which there are going to be sets of faculty on any given campus who simply cannot and will not work together. Whatever goodwill that once existed has vanished. That may be gone for a generation or two.

My professional opinion as an educator is that many in-person activities from instruction to recreation are potentially safe enough if those who make up the campus community are required to be vaccinated (medical and religious exceptions a given) and wear masks for now, at least indoors and in crowded outdoor environments. That may not quite be the normal we wanted, but it is what we could potentially achieve for the next couple semesters (for those of us on the semester system - folks on the quarter system can sort out their own math). I'd also recommend college and university systems offering generous leave for faculty and staff who either acquire COVID-19 (probably breakthrough cases if fully vaccinated) or must care for family who are infected, and generous absentee policies for students who test positive for COVID-19. We probably need at least retroactive W or Passing grade policies in place for a bit longer, with the understanding that once we are actually post-pandemic, those options are no longer available. Let's just say that one individual decision I've made is that if students feel sick, I want them to just stay home. I can get them back up to speed later. My stats assignments can be turned in using either SPSS (which my institution insists on using, much to my disappointment) or Jamovi. The latter can be used off campus with no problems. Any other workshop type activities I offer in my hybrid classes can be easily made up. Most, if not all, are already online. I could handle instructions for most basic assignments in an email in most cases. I could handle something in a Zoom office hour or appointment just as easily. Part of this social contract is that if I am feeling sick, I will also stay home. I have technology available that will allow me to do my job remotely, and will take advantage of that if needed. It's not exactly rocket science. COVID-19 is not through with us yet. We have to do what we can to keep each other safe and healthy, using good judgment and the guidance of the scientists who've done the lion's share of the work to figure out what is safe and what is not. Should be simple, right?

*Note - on nearly other matter within the scope of this committee, a lot of very good work got done this past academic year. Its leadership team were great at herding cats, and I can only imagine the migraines the rest of us caused them.

The plan is no plan

In fairness, my specific campus leadership are doing better within the constraints our legislators have imposed upon us as far as mask mandates, at least in terms of transparency, flexibility in how we manage our office hours and meetings, etc. Not so sure that's happening in the rest of the UA System, especially the flagship campus in Fayetteville, if this has any truth to it:

Also: A letter from a University of Arkansas staff member about preparations on campus for fall, with preventive hands tied by the legislature. An excerpt referring to a campus meeting:

I can sum it up in 6 letters. 1) NO PLAN and 2) for faculty members : WING IT. They don’t even have a plan for when they might pivot. Maybe they are waiting for the state or region to move to Allocation of Care (aka, incorrectly called Death Panels in the past) situations at the local hospitals.

It was absurd to watch all the participants (administrators) talk to each other face to face before it began online without masks. Then they virtue signaled, put on their masks, and sat six feet apart.

There have been numerous faculty who have sent emails up the food chain asking specific questions about our reopening that are getting ignored completely. It is not clear why we must be 100% open if that is a fear from the legislature or the U of A Board. Yes, all of us would love to be back to normal, but that is not the current state of the covid situation now. And yes, I wish everyone would get the vaccine. It is almost like we are playing the Hunger Games at the U of A by saying that you should just get vaccinated if you don’t like what is happening.

Many instructors are concerned as they have members of family under the age of 12. They don’t want to infect their children.

While I continue to pray that our students are more vaccinated than the state average and that nearly all of them will follow CDC guidance, I have to say that I bet we have at least 10 to 15+ classrooms around campus with more than 50 students absolutely jammed in shoulder to shoulder. There are two such classrooms in Hillside Auditorium (the largest), two in Chemistry, one in Gearhart (formerly Ozark), several in Science and Engineering, and probably several in Bell Engineering as well although I don’t think those rooms are as tight. There are also some in JB Hunt, perhaps Kimpel as well.

At some point, the question becomes, when will BOBBITT act? Are his hands tied for making safety decisions? These kids are going to spread Covid among themselves in this huge classes and then take it back to their families. Surely people are going to die from this decision to act like it is 2019 at the U of A.

So many faculty are perplexed. The instructors feel like they cannot ask questions or even comment as they fear for their jobs. It is a weird thing to ask about getting faculty N95 masks and have those emails outright ignored.

Then again, my experience with my state's legislators is that we faculty are the enemy. Not sure they're too thrilled with university students, either. Basically, my situation is that questions asked up the food chain do get answered, and I am grateful to have relatively good administrators here. They'll keep supplying PPE as needed, etc. We can't require masks or vaccines, but we are still allowed to make note that they are a good idea. I'd really say that, given the age of some of our buildings, trusting the ventilation systems is probably a really bad idea. But what do I know. 

Then again, there is a lawsuit being filed against the law preventing state agencies and school districts from mandating masks, and if that succeeds, then my system's board of directors will have to make some hard decisions. I'd say the rise in COVID-19 cases should make that decision easier. Better to have a plan very late in the game than continue to have no plan at all. Just good horse sense.

Monday, August 2, 2021

As we head into the next semester, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic:

I think this is a good time to reflect on some evidence. Although this all comes from a post from the Arkansas Times' Arkansas Blog, a reliable independent paper that's been around a good long while, the evidence is sound.

So far, the evidence about vaccines looks sound. Even with the Delta variant surging through the US currently, there is still little need to worry about breakthrough infections (although some will happen), and even less need to panic about getting severely ill or hospitalized. That is good news. Obviously, the more people who get vaccinated, the better off all of us will be, especially any children 12 and under who are not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination. 

Masks also work. There is a reason we're seeing a return to mask mandates. They mitigate the spread of this novel coronavirus. To the extent that even asymptomatic carriers who were fully vaccinated may be capable of spreading this virus, it seems imperative wear masks indoors or in crowded outdoor areas. This is especially necessary in places where there the vaccine rate has been low.

Some of us will come back to work at colleges and universities required to wear masks for a bit longer. Some of our institutions may even require vaccinations for faculty, staff, and students. I live in a state that is taking the opposite approach. No public school or state agency can mandate masks (thanks to Act 1002 of 2021), and of course our state lagged behind much of the rest of the nation in terms of vaccination. This is far from an ideal environment in which to return to our classes and offices. Yet that is what we are going to be doing. Short of litigation that may or may not be pending to make the legislation null and void, all we can do is our best to survive. If our institutions will still allow for virtual meetings, or at least include a virtual option, then we should probably continue with that. We can advocate for mask usage, but that will probably have minimal effect. We can make sure we're using masks indoors for the time being, even if fully vaccinated. 

Really, we have the tools at our disposal in order to return to some sort of post-pandemic normal. Let's use them.