Hope, Uncertainty

Vaccinations or Interventions?

Today students at WCSU are moving into our residence halls. Like everyone else, we’ve worked hard to create a re-entry plan that offers as much protection from Covid-19 as we can manage. We are testing our mostly vaccinated students as they enter, trying to stop an outbreak before it happens. We are stressing the importance of masks whenever indoors on campus and we’ve made the N95 versions available. We have isolation plans for what we imagine is the inevitable arrival of Omicron, and we have made getting tested as easy as possible so that folks can be proactive. That’s really all there is to do. This is as safe as we can be, and we are ready to go.

The last two years have taught us that these measures are relatively effective, despite the moving targets surrounding this Covid-19. We have had low campus-level infection rates, with only one brief school-level shutdown (not university-wide), and the protections in the classrooms in particular seem to be doing what they need to do. Outside of class people may be willing to take more risks, but in the classroom we seem to be pulling together to protect each other. That has been a bright spot in this whole thing – that impulse to protect each other, at least in the classroom.

But off campus is a different story. We have definitely not been pulling together to protect each other. Instead some of us are focused on individual rights, some of us are lost in a lot of misinformation about the vaccinations, others are swearing by the science and claiming ignorance or malicious intent in those who have questions. And all of these positions are accompanied by scorn for those with whom we disagree. These attitudes have been exacerbated (created?) by politics, to be sure, but there is more to it than that, and with the emergence of Omicron, it is time to evaluate some of what that “more to it” might be. I think one of the biggest culprits in this mess of disagreement is the word “vaccine.”

Throughout my life the word vaccine has meant full protection from a disease. I am vaccinated against polio and the measles and tetanus. As a child I had the mumps and the chickenpox, so I’m safe from those as well. I have had no occurrences or recurrences of these diseases. I appear to be fully immune; my faith in this science is strong. Given this understanding of vaccinations and immunity, it is no wonder I was eager to get my vaccination for Covid-19. Honestly, the emergence of one so quickly appeared to be a miracle to me. I signed up for my first dose as soon as I was eligible. When summer came, I happily returned to restaurants and playing music with my friends. Then Delta hit and boosters were recommended. I got one. Now it’s Omicron and, well I’m seeing a pattern here. The vaccinations that I’m signing up for are not quite what I mean by vaccine.

It seems like the shots we are getting are more like our annual flu vaccines, which offer some measure of protection but not complete immunity. Flu vaccines definitely reduce the number of people who get sick each year, but some number always get sick anyway. These vaccines are always being reformulated as new variants emerge, and that reformulation might miss a variation. I have always known that these shots were helpful but not perfect. This was ok with me, as I lined up for a flu shot each year, but I’m guessing this is because I was young enough and healthy enough not to see any real threat from the flu. Covid-19 has been something different.

Obviously, I’m not discussing the science. I am sure that the doses I am getting for Covid-19 work sufficiently like vaccinations to warrant the same name, but the breakthroughs and the quick mutations are really not helping us all come together to protect each other. The state of affairs with Omicron appears to bolster the arguments of those who didn’t believe in these vaccinations in the first place. The changing understanding of how masks should work are adding fuel to that fire. I get it. I don’t get the politics at all, but I do understand why some people are not confident in these measures because the story appears to keep changing.

I think it is time to re-think that word vaccine. Given the lack of permanence in the protection, and the moving target of the mutations, perhaps we need a new word for these shots that conveys the difference between them and my polio vaccine. I like to think of mine as an intervention. It is clear that the multiple doses provide some protection from Covid-19 overall and severe illness in particular. This protection doesn’t make me fully immune, but it is very likely to keep me out of the hospital. I feel relatively safe because of it, so I’ve done my best to take care of me.

My decision to engage in this intervention, along with my decision to wear a mask, also reduces the likelihood that I will accidently get others sick. We shouldn’t lose sight of this part of the intervention; it is about others. I really don’t want to get others sick. I do not want to be responsible for someone else’s trip to the hospital. I do not want to put all of those folks working in restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals and, yes, classrooms, at a higher risk of infection because of my behaviors. I also want to keep going out to play music with my friends. I want classes to be in person and to see my colleagues at work. I want a relatively normal world.

So, I am reimagining the steps we are taking on campus as interventions that make us safer, not as paths to immunity. I am taking part in these interventions on and off campus, even if the morning news continues to shake us all, because I am doing my very best to contribute to a relatively safe environment for all of us. I am trying to get my mind around the word endemic and the conditions that will signal that we are in that phase of this virus. I’m hoping the decisions we are making are getting us there. Most of all, I am hoping we can leave the scorn for each other aside and pull together to protect each other.

Higher Education, Thinking

Focusing on the Mission

It is nearly mid-January and we are preparing to launch the spring semester. Still juggling the ever-changing environment of the pandemic, we start with uncertainty — as we have for the last two years. The Omicron variant is an unwelcome wrinkle to say the least, but the protections we have used to maintain a reasonable level of safety on our campus remain the same: strongly encourage vaccinations, require masks, provide access to testing, and encourage everyone to stay home if they feel sick. Indeed, the only real change in CDC guidelines of late has been around the length of quarantine. We’re sorting that out, for the residential students in particular, and emphasizing the need to wear well-fitting masks. In three semesters of working in a COVID-19 environment, masks and monitoring infection rates have proved effective, with limited spread in the residence halls and none in the classroom. So, we face uncertainty to be sure, but a stable uncertainty at this point.

It would be easy for this new variant to steal our focus this semester. We’ve grown accustomed to emergency meetings and conversations about what to do next. But I think it is important to acknowledge that without a change in the guidelines, based on solid scientific evidence, there really is nothing left to discuss. So, while we wait for new information from credible scientists, I’m more interested in focusing on what we hope to accomplish with our students this semester. I’m starting with a look at our mission.

Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals, and leaders in a global society.

I love this simple yet profound statement. Changing lives is an exhilarating goal. It speaks to our commitment to the power of learning, recognizing that higher education creates paths to new professional opportunities, supports the development of new understandings of how the world is organized, challenges ideas about what constitutes evidence, and even fosters the growth of new friendships. For our first-generation students, education may provide a step toward a new socio-economic status and all that entails. For our students whose parents and grandparents attended college, their attendance expresses a continued commitment to the importance of education in shaping worldviews and futures. What a privilege to be part of this journey, as we simultaneously open our students’ eyes to new ideas and have them open ours to their experiences and perspectives.

Then there is our commitment to access as we strive to provide “all students with a high quality education.” This is a tremendous responsibility. It requires focused attention on the varied needs of the students we admit to our university. To truly serve all of them, we need to keep a keen eye on our data, in the aggregate and in the details. For our undergraduates, this has meant attention to the details of our retention and graduation rates. Over the last several years, we have worked hard to differentiate what I call the on-ramps for our students. This is the result of unflinching analysis of who we lose. In response to our data, and looking at strategies that have worked elsewhere, we have transformed our education access program, added a peer mentor program, included FY in the general education curriculum, and grown our honors program. Analysis of these efforts is positive (some better retention and graduation rates), but it is not good enough yet. We will continue to evaluate the results, looking for the next clue to student success and modify these efforts accordingly. The clues are readily available, but we must act on them.

At the graduate level, we have responded to student interest in programs that advance their careers. From transforming existing degrees to better align with career prospects, to developing new degrees that meet emerging needs and opportunities in the region, our portfolio of graduate degrees has evolved to appeal to the students we hope to serve. Most recently, much of graduate education has moved online, first due to the pandemic and then in response to the needs of working adults. We need to offer them more flexible opportunities as they juggle jobs and families. We want to meet them where they are. We want to serve all students. This, too, arose from detailed looks at data, including enrollment patterns, student feedback to our programs, and analysis of regional workforce needs. While this approach to curriculum may feel a bit more career focused and less idea focused than we like to imagine, I remind myself that graduate education has nearly always been about careers (advanced credentials or the path to a doctorate) and it has never been devoid of ideas. We are serving our students well in this regard.

What next? Well, on the path to any of our degrees, I am confident that all students will grow as individuals and scholars. It is less clear if we’ve created enough opportunities for professional growth at the undergraduate level and I’m not sure we’ve truly focused on cultivating leaders. Mind you, I think there are pieces of both woven throughout our majors and our co-curricular experiences, but I’m not sure our students can see it. I’m also not sure we’re specific enough. Since we’ve taken the time to identify all of these areas for growth in our mission, it is probably a good time to make sure that we are truly working toward them in a clear and coherent way. I’ll be taking a closer look at this aspect of our mission in the months to come.

Yes, the mission is where I will turn my attention this spring. It offers such clarity, reminding me of our purpose, and erasing the hundred other unproductive distractions that claim my attention daily. Our mission is necessarily broad and open to many nuanced steps (some of which are outlined in our strategic plan), but it is also really quite direct. It drives us to these simple and important questions:

  • Are we providing all students access to that high quality education?
  • Does that high-quality education create opportunities for growth as individual, scholars, professionals, and leaders?
  • As a result, are lives changed? And of course, that most vexing of questions of all:
  • How do we know?

I look forward to exploring these questions this spring. I am certain my colleagues will have plenty of answers to them.

Welcome back, everyone.