How will higher education react to an expanded pandemic this semester?

How will higher education react if the COVID pandemic gets worse this semester?

On the one hand this seems like a surprising question, given the current standing of infections, at least in the US. Those numbers have been trending downwards, thankfully. Here’s the latest graph from 91-DIVOC:

We can infer some solid reasons for that plummet. Stupid behavior over December holidays drove infections up, as people traveled to families and spread infections. Those infections worked through populations for the two weeks it takes the virus to either kill its host or cease functioning. Meanwhile, people returned to pre-Christmas behaviors with the new year. Plus it’s possible that the horrible December-January spike scared some folks into actually following public health guidelines. So: good news, and may the plummet keep plummeting.

On the other hand… a series of COVID-19 mutations have proved both viable and more infectious than their predecessors. Variants B.1.1.7 (which was first detected in Britain), B.1.351 (South Africa), and P.1 (Brazil) seem not to be more lethal, but spread more rapidly. It is possible that they could constitute a new, global wave of COVID infections.

Among other people, the University of Minnesota’s Michael T. Osterholm is frightened of this. In an NBC interview he looked ahead to March and April:

the surge that is likely to occur with this new variant from England is gonna happen in the next six to fourteen weeks. And if we see that happen… we are going to see something like we have not seen yet in this country…

Osterholm compares the surge he foresees to a hurricane.

Could such a storm strike the United States? It seems plausible, given the virulence of the variants and the slowness of vaccine uptake so far. It’s a race between two Vs, vaccines versus variants. The variants might win, at least in the short term.

I confess that it’s difficult to project here because the data is so soft. We know that CDC case data is low, when compared with annual deaths. We know the US has been slow (to put it charitably) to test its population for infections. And we know that most of the US is doing an awful job of genetic testing, so it’s nearly impossible to get a bead on just how far B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and P.1 are going. So for now I’d like to put Osterholm’s projection out there as a possible future.

If this future comes to pass, if COVID infections surge horribly in March and April, how will it impact higher education? How might colleges and universities respond?

I’d like to hear your thoughts, and will encourage them with some possibilities. Let’s assume that February looks like fall 2020, with a diverse mix of institutional operations. Some are wholly online, or nearly so. Some are entirely (or nearly so) in person. Various campuses offer different blends of populations and instruction. No one strategy predominates. If February’s case rate keeps declining and vaccinations increase, there will be growing pressure for more in-person education.

Then it’s the first week of March and Osterholm’s hurricane hits the shoreline. We could see:

  1. Campuses ramping up public health measures (testing, speed of testing results, stronger social distancing enforcement, more stay at home measures), either on their own or under public compulsion. If successful, we might see something closer to Robert Kelchen’s “combination of a monastery and a minimum-security prison.”
  2. Depending on the spatial distribution of the variants’ spread, some colleges and universities will have an easier time making the case for in-person operations.
  3. Some will flip online for a short while, watching conditions for a flip back. In other words, a Toggle Term.
  4. Others may switch online for the rest of the academic term. In other worse, a repeat of spring 2020 almost to the day.
  5. Those that are all or mostly online will continue to do so.

Again, this is a possible future, not a certain one. Today’s antivaxxers might well fold up. Indeed, a new CDC report shows that 2/3rds of vaccinated people are women. Recall that in recent polls women were less likely to get jabbed than men. So perhaps there is hope.

What do you think of this possibility?

PS: if you can get a shot, please do, especially if you’re more vulnerable to the virus!

PPS: my readers who are sports fans possibly appreciated the mention of “calling an audible” in the Osterholm interview. You will be unsurprised to learn that I had to research what that term means.

(cross-posted to my blog)