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Waiting for COVID-19’s third 12 months: what it might imply for larger schooling


As I was finishing this post two pandemic stories unrelated to higher education hit my various feeds about the same time.  One was from a finance reporter, who proclaimed his delight in going to many social gatherings, from indoor restaurants to sports events, and determined that Americans were “over COVID.” “[P]eople are weighing the risks, but seem to be erring on the side of enjoying life’s creature comforts.”  Another was a CNN report on how three states (New York, Maine, New Hampshire) are calling out the national guard to keep COVID-overwhelmed hospitals and clinics from breaking down.  Taken together the two articles offered a little snapshot of how divided are American responses to the pandemic.

Today’s post is about how that pandemic’s third year may play out in the world of higher education.  It builds on a previous post about trying to imagine that year three in general. It also relies on when I first wrote about how higher education might exist in the pandemic’s third year, way back in September 2020.

coronavirus in the world JHU dashboard, 2021 December 11

Today’s pandemic data from Johns Hopkins.

Several problems occur when building such a future vision. As I said in that previous post, it’s hard to forecast when the viral situation is so fluid.  Omicron could outcompete Delta, or fail to do so.  Omicron could be more transmissible than its predecessors, spreading rapidly around the world, infecting the non- and undervaccinated… or its R-value might be lower.  It might be more or less dangerous than previous strains in terms of immediate symptoms and/or death rates and/or Long COVID.  That’s at the macro level. At the meso and micro levels, national and local waves and troughs are even more difficult to forecast.

We could close 2022 with the pandemic’s end, tiredly celebrating COVID’s demotion to merely endemic status, and growing accustomed to getting regular boosters, much like we are supposed to get flu shots now. Or it could be raging even higher, or something in between.

A second problem is that we just don’t have good data about how the pandemic intersects with higher education.  Pick the United States. This is a disaggregated, semi-disorganized sweep of circa 4,000 institutions who tend to really hate collaborating with each other.  Getting uniform data isn’t easy in general, and we saw this over the past two years. I had to jury-rig a way of tracking spring 2020’s campus closures, crowdsourcing it because nobody else was doing it. We still don’t know many many academics were infected, injured, and killed by COVID because nobody has aggregated this data. On top of this, each academic institution can to some degree craft its own approach to the pandemic, meaning it’s difficult to categorize proliferating responses.  And this is just one nation, rather than the whole world of academia!

We have to work with what we have now, revising and honing our forecasts as data and analysis come in.  Given that large caveat, what are the ways higher education can respond to the pandemic in its third year?

From the past two years we have a body of evidence to draw upon and extend. This runs the risks all extrapolations do, namely that trends don’t always advance in straight lines. But this will give us a first sketch we can develop further.

Zoom I Paid Too Much for this education

In person or online? To begin with, two opposed responses stand out based on the problems of interpersonal contact. On the one hand is the major shift to digital teaching, which was inaugurated by the spectacular (if flawed) migration online in spring 2020. We’ve seen this many times since, as online classes grew in various forms, from emergency remote instruction to carefully designed digital experiences and everything in between.  On the other hand is a determined, even fierce drive to hold classes in person. This is based on a mix of risk assessment, some kind of public health strategy (testing, masking, PPE, vaccines encouraged or mandated), a perhaps nostalgic love of face-to-face education, and the financial problem of losing residential student fees.

Both of these responses have faced strong criticism from within and beyond the academy. Each can be, in a way, a rebuke of the other. Both are costly in terms of institutional resources: money, staff, time, material, etc.

Between the two is a complex middle ground of mixed modes and hybridity. This is where HyFlex classes are, speaking of strong criticism, blending in-person and virtual experience across individual class sessions. At a bigger level, some institutions divide individual programs across the two approaches, some online and others in person.  Others have swapped modes over time, moving classes online for a certain period, then back to in-person for another.  There are many ways to make the combination work.  That cluster of mixed modes may become the median for colleges and universities in 2022, depending on how the virus’ third year takes shape and what campus leadership decides to do in response – which isn’t always predicated solely on what’s best for public health.

This brings us to the question of institutional supports for vaccines, masking, and boosters. How will campuses address booster shots?  It’s still early days, yet first research suggests blocking Omicron best with boosters in addition to the main vaccine doses.  American president Biden urges everyone to add boosters to their vaccinations (as do I).   Historically campus leaders do not usually follow suit.  Only 1141 colleges and universities have some form of vaccine mandate, or about 1/4th of the total, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education:

coronavirus_campuses requiring some vaxes_Chronicle_2021 Dec 11

And note that each dot doesn’t mean requiring vaccines from everyone on campus, from students and staff to faculty and senior administrators. Instead, those nodes indicate “colleges that are requiring vaccines of at least some students or employees.” (emphasis added) So a school mandating faculty – but not staff or students – get shots would appear.  (Full disclosure: I teach some seminars at Georgetown University, which requires both. I’m very thankful.)

Just a handful or colleges and universities are now requiring boosters, according to Inside Higher Ed.  The historical evidence suggests adopting such beneficial policies will be at best uneven in 2022.  If we are lucky our failure to uniformly vaccinate and boost will not spread the virus.  If we’re lucky.  If not, some of American higher education will play a role in worsening the pandemic.

For the unknown number of academics who’ve been infected, some number will experience chronic tissue damage and suffering: i.e., long COVID. How will campuses handle students, staff, and faculty with what the CDC calls post-COVID conditions?  What measure of support – medical, mental, professional – is best suited to an institution’s values and abilities?  How does an academic department, for example, support a faculty member afflicted with brainfog and persistent memory issues? What accommodations should a school provide a student suffering nerve pain, both when they attend the physical campus and take classes online?  What happens when members of a campus community deny a colleague’s assertion that they are legitimately suffering from long COVID? The American federal government seems to be arguing for chronic COVID issues to be considered as disabilities under the law; perhaps 2022 will see academia’s disability coverage expand significantly.

Beyond long COVID and injections, how might the student experience change in a pandemic’s third year?  Reader Glen McGee has pointed out the problems with some students learning less than they otherwise would have. As we’ve seen in primary and secondary schools, some number of students lost educational benefits to various degrees, including a falling off of learning how to interact in person with other humans.  Some number will disengage with higher education, either not returning to classes or deciding not to apply to a college.  For residential campuses students may feel less attached to the institution if they take classes entirely online or experience the physical setting through masks, social distancing, and a de-densified social milieu.

An OECD report refers to this trend as education hysteresis, and urges educators in general to take serious measures, starting with data collection:

there is an urgency to collect comprehensive data to gain an accurate picture of dropouts or disengaged students during school closures, develop specific support to bring those students back to school, and engage in diagnostic assessment to identify their learning needs…

What campus departments are doing this now?  Furthermore,

governments can establish different forms of targeted communication to reinitiate contact with disengaged students, and adopt a flexible curriculum centred on key competences to restore students’ confidence. Second, countries need to prepare strategies to mitigate effectively this risk in case of future lockdowns. This can include among others:

  • To monitor closely student engagement by following up on their attendance, behaviour, and learning progress.
  • To address the potential barriers to student engagement by offering adequate resources (such as laptops or tablets, and safe places to learn).
  • To provide individualised support to students so they can get the best out of the new modes of education delivery 

Again, how many colleges and universities are taking these steps?  And how are they resourcing them?

I keep mentioning resources, which is a way of building up to higher education’s financial picture. As I’ve noted for years, the economics of American colleges and universities are not doing well, on average.  Elite institutions continue to grow wealth, and to attract outsized attention, but large swathes of the sector are struggling.  Public universities suffer from the decline in student funding over the past generation. Student loans continue to swell into a horrific monstrosity, and so on.  My readers know this well.  The pandemic worsened things for some, due to a bad mix of pressures: decreased enrollment; decreased in-person fees (room and board); increased expenses.  Higher ed shed 650,000 jobs in 2020, and would have bled far more were in not for the CARES Act. Some recovery has occurred over the past year, but not nearly enough.

If enrollment declines continue in spring and fall 2022, a lot of schools will face another ratchet of financial pressure.  Again, much depends on the virus. If COVID drops down to endemic status, we may see an enrollment uptick. Yet very low unemployment means many folks are still seeking their fortunes on the job market, rather than reschooling themselves.  Additional forces may keep depressing the number of students, beyond the pandemic: demographics; international students (see below); reputational issues.

Speaking of reputation, higher ed’s status has declined in recent memory.  A big chunk of this is due to Republican politics, as that party increasingly attracts Americans without college experience.  GOP hostility to academia is longstanding, especially in a culture wars sense, but it has picked up recently (as noted here way back in 2019). Collegiate responses to the pandemic don’t seem to have additionally injured our status; that grace might persist through 2022.   Yet Congressional, state, and local elections this November will surely enflame the culture wars, which certainly involve education.  The partisan divide should continue to play across our campuses and how the broader society views them.

Those trends arose during the full pandemic experience. Now let’s check in with that older forecast and see how it fares in today’s reality.  Once more, this is good futurist practice, reviewing previous work to improve current practice.

  1. I imagined physical campuses changed: pandemic architecture (bigger and more doors and windows) appearing, fewer people on the grounds, except for Greek houses.  This seems overstated to a degree, especially as so many campuses welcomed students back in fall 2021. I haven’t found good evidence for or against the architectural change.
  2. Teaching and learning: students, faculty, and support staff are more accustomed to partly or entirely online classes. This seems to have been borne out, not without resistance and criticism.
  3. Some faculty, staff, and students do not acclimate to a more digital environment and leave the academy. The enrollment drops agree with the student aspect. It’s harder to assess how many professionals exited campuses for this reason.
  4. I thought academic research would tilt towards the pandemic and related fields, then support would drain away from the rest.  The explosion of COVID-related preprints and open scholarship supports this. I don’t have data otherwise.
  5. I suspected enrollment would decline; it did.
  6. Higher ed finances would get stiffer, with tuition and debt rising.  This is often true, depending on institutional conditions.
  7. I suggested that undergrads would lose social connections and (for traditional-aged ones) skills.  Plenty of reports confirm this.
  8. I expected some illnesses and deaths plus more mental health issues.  Confirmed.
  9. For college sports I saw two opposed paths. On the one hand, fewer games and teams as institutions found it difficult to field or pay for teams in dangerous situations. On the other hand, we could have seen schools doing anything to keep athletics going.  The latter was definitely borne out by history.
  10. For international study, I expected student numbers to decline.  They have done so.
  11. I expected US-China relations to worsen, too.  That has certainly occurred, and in a bipartisan way.
  12. For campus tech, I projected increased service demand, not necessarily with additional funding. Both of these seem to be true.
  13. I expected more automation.  Beyond individual cases of chatbots and more powerful software, I’m not aware of evidence for this.
  14. I thought the demand for libraries’ digital content and services would rise, while their budgets would plateau or fall.  That seems to be correct.
  15. And I forecast that higher ed’s reputation would take a hit, based on how it handled the pandemic. (The former turned out to be true, but not really because of the latter)

Taken together, these forecasts, modified by a year+ of experience, suggest an academy a year from now that probably teaches fewer students. Its buildings may start to show signs of COVID style. Sports will keep on. Library and IT services will keep rising, albeit without additional financial support.  Student learning will continue, but hampered.  More people within the academic community will suffer from illness, long COVID, or death.

Once again, this is a sketch. Various trends and factors can adjust it.  What do you think?  What do you foresee for higher education in 2022, if the pandemic continues for a third year?

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