Eduvation Blog

Our Abrupt Transition to Fall, and 7 Hard Truths

Good morning, and welcome back to a new academic year! 

Environment Canada warned that much of the country would experience an “abrupt transition to fall” this weekend, but personally I have always loved autumn weather, so I really don’t mind that.

Of course, the much more “abrupt transition” is about to occur, as the best-laid plans of higher ed institutions hit the brick-wall reality of moving millions of students and reopening primary, secondary and tertiary schools over the next few weeks.

Today, I summarize “7 Hard Truths” about the coming academic year, supported by recent developments in the US and a compelling report released by Royal Roads U. (I would encourage all institutional leaders to review Part I on the impact of the virus and what is currently known.)

Today I also start looking at the bigger picture, of post-secondary post-COVID. Bear with me as I work towards long-term scenario planning and more optimism later in the week…

Breaking News

Astonishingly large COVID19 outbreaks continue on US college campuses, and they exhibit some of the patterns I mentioned last week. Although many students are asymptomatic, the cardiac consequences are a major concern. And for the northern hemisphere, winter will bring more bad news…  

More Major Campus Outbreaks

Ohio State has now reported 882 confirmed cases of COVID19 among students, and 20 among staff, after just 9 days of classes. Students living off-campus report almost twice the positivity rate, 9.66%. uDayton has exceeded 1,042 student cases on campus, about 10% of the population. It has pivoted to remote learning. At Indiana U, 30 Greek houses are under quarantine, and students living in frats and sororities have 4x the positivity rate of those living in campus residence.  Inside Higher Ed

Analyzing Campus Patterns

Looking at the 20 US colleges with the largest COVID19 outbreaks on campus (currently ranging from 600 to 1,400 cases): most are in the south, 14 are in states with Republican governors, many did not require student testing, and 7 are still determined to play football this fall. The cases are almost certainly being undercounted.  Forbes

Myocarditis among Athletes

Last Monday, Penn State’s director of athletic medicine made international headlines when he disclosed that 30-35% of Big Ten college athletes who tested positive for COVID19, symptomatic or not, also exhibited myocarditis, a potentially life-threatening inflammation of the heart. In early August, ESPN reported that college presidents had been discussing the risks myocarditis posed to student athletes’ lives and sports careers, and voted 11-3 to suspend competition. Penn State later clarified that in fact the more accurate rate was 15%. (Still seems serious enough!)  Washington Post

COVID Winter is Coming

By the time 2020 ends, new forecasts from uWashington researchers say COVID19 fatalities will likely have exceeded 2.8 million people, driven largely by colder weather in the northern hemisphere and declining public vigilance about precautions like masking. The “best” case scenario is 2M dead, and in the worst case 4M will have died by Jan 1. The US will account for more than 410,000 of those deaths, second only to India. “By December we can get up to 30,000 deaths a day at the global level. So it’s so important for governments to be anticipating this.” Some public health experts criticize the projections for assuming no improvement in the case fatality rate, while others point out that COVID19 deaths are in fact wildly under-reported around the world.  NPR

“Students are happy to be back, with the usual level of anticipation and uncertainty for what the year will hold… There is general confidence that we can do this, and that the right measures are in place to keep us safe.” – Brendan MacNeil, Student Union president, Acadia U


“[Bringing 1,500 students to Antigonish] is akin to dropping a cruise ship into the middle of the town.” – Ashleigh Tuite, Epidemiologist, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, uToronto


7 Hard Truths

For 6 months now I’ve been tracking epidemiological, political, economic and higher ed trends driven by the pandemic. Invariably, things become crystal clear long before the PHO, politicians, or campus leaders adapt their official positions, protocols or projections. If you’re still in denial yourself (or working for someone who is), here are some utter certainties that will make the coming academic year challenging:

1) COVID19 cases are still circulating, in community transmission, in most countries. Canada’s pandemic curve is no longer flat. If not strictly quarantined, even a single case can spark new outbreaks. And viruses ignore national borders.

2) While vaccine researchers are encouraged by early results, even the most optimistic forecast is that doses of a proven COVID19 vaccine cannot possibly arrive before early 2021. Those first doses will likely go to front-line workers and at-risk populations; traditional-age PSE students won’t get vaccinated until fall 2021 at the earliest. And surveys suggest about 40% of Canadians won’t rush to get the vaccine.

3) Late summer weddings and Labour Day weekend parties will spark an increase in COVID19 cases reported 2 weeks later, by mid-September.

4) Reopening public schools will inevitably increase cases by mid-September. (It’s already happening in Quebec and Calgary.)

5) Reopening college and university campuses will increase cases by late September.

6) Even if your local community has no cases now, bringing hundreds or thousands of students back to campus from other regions will inevitably introduce COVID19 cases again.

7) The return of colder fall and winter weather will drive us Canadians back indoors to bars and restaurants, accelerating virus transmission and making hospitality businesses untenable.

It seems to me that so long as 1) and 2) hold true, 3) through 7) virtually guarantee that, before Christmas, campuses will be forced to retreat from optimistic plans to reopen campus residences or hold F2F classes. The health consequences for even the mildest cases among young people (ranging from cognitive impairment to permanent cardiac and pulmonary damage) are steadily becoming better understood, so any other course of action will be unconscionable.

Time will tell if I’m being an extreme pessimist – but for the past 6 months my pessimistic forecasts have been repeatedly validated. And certainly I am not alone…

Summing Up the Situation

Royal Roads U has released a useful 28-page report, Surviving, Thriving or Radical Revisioning: Scenarios and Considerations for Pandemic Recovery and Response Planning, authored by the institution’s response advisors, Robin Cox, Jean Slick, and Thomas Homer-Dixon. It does a great job summarizing the current state of knowledge about COVID19, its severity, aerosol transmission, systemic inflammation and immune response. It also poses some key questions for PSE leaders to address about the next 24 months, and beyond.  RRU

“It is going to end. Soon(ish). And we’re going to get back to a pre-COVID normal relatively quickly. People telling you this is the new normal are trying to sell you something.” – Alex Usher, Higher Ed Strategy Associates


A Pivotal Moment

After 6 months of focused study, I’m convinced the COVID19 pandemic will have lasting impacts on higher education as we know it, but I know others disagree with me (including Alex Usher). Allow me to make my case over the coming days, starting with a fresh look at the scale of this event…

A “Generational Catastrophe”

The COVID19 pandemic impacted 94% of the world’s students, nearly 1.6 billion learners in 190+ countries, and disproportionately those in poor or rural areas, girls, refugees, and persons with disabilities. Learning losses may erase decades of progress in education for young women. “Preventing a learning crisis from becoming a generational catastrophe requires urgent action from all.” Governments first need to suppress transmission of the virus, then protect education financing, and build resilient education systems prepared for future crises. This is an opportunity to reimagine education, particularly to address learning losses by marginalized groups, offer skills for employability, provide PD for teachers in pedagogy and assessment, remove barriers to connectivity, and strengthen articulation and flexibility across all levels and types of education. United Nations

Forget the “Status Quo Ante”

The COVID19 pandemic is a global “tipping event,” observe 3 advisors to Royal Roads U, causing “a fundamental and irreversible system shift in Canadian society and human civilization.” Institutions need to go beyond recovery planning, to planning for “sustained response” through multiple waves of the pandemic and other near-future tipping events driven by zoonotic viruses, climate change and global warming. Too many PSE institutions are debating when and how to reopen. Planning for a return to status quo ante is misguided: life as we have known it will not resume for at least 18-24 months, and there will be lasting effects on social, behavioural, economic and political systems. “Chronic fear… will significantly lower demand for goods or services that require… social proximity, interaction, or congregation.”  RRU

Times of Unrest are also Opportunities

When a Yale historian turns her attention to the present “transparently historic” moment, she is “alternately depressed, anxious, angry and distracted.” (I empathize when she compares herself to Cassandra: “I sense the outlines of disaster… but my words of warning often fall flat.”) History teaches us that after crisis, things don’t always return to normal, good doesn’t always prevail, and recovery can be painfully slow. “We can’t assume that all will be fine in the end… but failure isn’t a given either. The future is always in flux… There’s no escape from the urgency of now.”  The Atlantic

“The United States is having a full-fledged identity crisis, and given the high stakes, the ownership of national history has become urgent and immediate. Culture war doesn’t begin to do this struggle justice. It is a battle for the soul of America and the survival of democracy, as many Americans know all too well.” – Joanne Freeman, Historian, Yale University


Confronting an Existential Threat

The pandemic is accelerating a transformation in PSE business models, forcing institutions to expand their online capacity and offer more short-cycle credentials like non-degree and certificate programs. Moody’s predicts that some universities will emerge stronger post-COVID, with growing enrolment and revenue, “even as others struggle and possibly fail.” Once the health threat has passed, they anticipate that on-campus programs will continue to attract many traditional-age and hands-on students. Online, institutions may experience greater enrolment volatility, as they compete globally on price, service, and user experience. And, of course, they need to manage carefully: Purdue Global had $400M revenue in 2019, but at a 10% loss.  Inside Higher Ed

Universities will Never be the Same

“The coronavirus crisis is forcing universities to confront long-standing challenges in higher education, such as skyrocketing tuition costs and perceptions of elitism — and some of the resulting changes could be permanent.” Many classes will stay online, institutions will have fewer international students, and will be more focused on local and national relevance. In the short term, the abrupt loss of billions of dollars in international tuition revenue will likely bankrupt smaller colleges, and cut research subsidies at major universities. The economic outlook may remain bleak for some time, focusing research efforts and infrastructure on the most pressing national concerns, and potentially concentrating government funding at top institutions.  Nature 

“The coronavirus crisis is forcing universities to confront long-standing challenges in higher education, such as skyrocketing tuition costs and perceptions of elitism — and some of the resulting changes could be permanent.” – Alexandra Witze, writing in Nature


We have Entered the Pandemic Era

In the journal Cell, Anthony Fauci warns that humanity is now living in a “pandemic era,” where our species’ inability to live in harmony with nature will keep causing deadly new diseases to emerge. Novel zoonotic diseases are resulting from downstream effects of industrialization, deforestation, urbanization and unsanitary animal farming. Reversing this trend will require long-term changes in human behaviour, infrastructure and social spaces.  Futurism

On the Upside

A Rehearsal for First Contact?

In many ways, the COVID19 pandemic has been a dry run for humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, observe 2 Oxford researchers. “Both situations are fundamentally scientific in nature, both have significant social, economic and political impact, both affect every human on Earth and both are ‘external’ threats that put humans on the same side.” Although a recent UK survey suggests the general public would vastly prefer that a team of scientists manage first contact, rather than elected politicians, this year experts have “generally played second fiddle to politicians.” Even in their advisory role, scientists have been subject to unprecedented scrutiny and even personal abuse. With emergent research findings, scientists have offered conflicting advice and science has become “dangerously politicized.” Whoever manages a global pandemic response – or a first contact situation – needs to have public legitimacy and scientific expertise.  Discover

I hope your (short) week gets off to a great start!  Please join me tomorrow for a closer look at some of the changes we can expect in post-secondary post-COVID.

Stay safe and be well!



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