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.

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