Coronavirus, the world, and academia: 2020 March 6 update

In this post I’ll update you on what I’ve found about higher education’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, with an eye towards the future.  It’s a continuation of the coronavirus blogging I’ve been doing since early February.

(Meta question: is this something you’d like me to keep doing?  Should I add or shift to other media: video, videoconference, podcast?  This poll is still open.)

I’ll start off with some notes about the outbreak in general, followed by a longer examination of academia’s responses to it.

This is a long post, since so much is happening.  I hereby promise that there is some comedy at the very end.  So grab a cup of coffee or tea and buckle in.

I: Developments in the outbreak

COVID-19 continues to spread.  Confirmed infection cases broke into six digits.  According to the Johns Hopkins dashboard:

Globally, many nations now host infected people.  Here’s the latest WHO map:

“4 new countries/territories/areas (Bhutan, Cameroon, Serbia, and South Africa) have reported cases of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours.”

In the United States, the coronavirus is spreading across states, with clusters on the west coast, according to the CDC:

Three of those states have declared states of emergency as of this writing.

Politics In addition to the human suffering and death, other problems are growing or appearing.  I’ve seen many stories and complaints about equipment shortages worldwide.  In the US criticism of the CDC is rising about how it handled testing: fumbling the first test kits and doing too little, too late to test the population.  Meanwhile Trump keeps saying things that contradict WHO and general medical opinion.  At the same time he and Congress passed a bill allocating more than $8 billion towards addressing the outbreak:

The bill will provide more than $3 billion to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration for research on diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. Each US state will reportedly receive at least $4 million for state and local government response.

Global Voices has an article describing how the Chinese government quashed reporting on the virus during early 2020.  Related: Xi’s government is now branding itself as the global leader in COVIID-19 response.  The Chinese government also seems to have launched an online disinformation campaign against Taiwan.

Silver lining: in some ways the near-pandemic has been good for certain things.  China’s air pollution problem lessened, thanks to a drop in travel and economic production:

January 1-20 versus February 10-25

China’s carbon emissions have also dropped during this period.  We can see this in the decline in coal usage:

(I am still waiting for a conspiracy theory blaming climate change activists for COVID-19.)

Culture There are articles reflecting on what formerly busy major centers are likely, empty of people.  Canceling big events like Comicon and more people working from home means quieter public venues.  On a related note, finishing the US Census might be difficult.

That’s all for the general outbreak for now, because we need to spend a lot more time on…

II: Impact on and responses from higher education

In an early post I offered some categories for college and university connections to the coronavirus.  They still seem to hold, so I’ll use them to structure the rest of this post.  They are: academics as public players, changes to campus life, expanding digital academics, scholarly communication, impacts on institutional finance, political dimensions, and planning for the next disease.

Academics as public players Inside Higher Ed offers a good roundup of some university research.  Meanwhile, medical students are at risk, learning and working potentially on the viral front lines.

Changes to campus life Italy is closing all universities nationwide for the next two weeks.  Some American college basketball teams have canceled away games.

New or heightened academic travel regulations and restrictions are appearing.  For example, Case Western Reserve University asked anyone traveling anywhere – student, faculty, staff – to register ahead of time.

There are others following this Case Reserve plan:

Schools like Duke, New York University and the University of Chicago are asking students and faculty to register their travel plans, even locally, on a web-based form developed for emergencies like earthquakes and terrorist attacks.

Expanding digital academics   How will the disease drive education online? Perhaps by the creation of online classes open to the public at large, like Coursera’s COVID-19 class.  Or perhaps by popular demand.   A petition (HT Paul Fain) called for the University of Washington’s Seattle campus to close for the outbreak…

We are asking Ana Mari Cauce, the president of the University of Washington Seattle to take the initiative and close the campus in order to stop the spread of this virus. Take advantage of technology, start online classes. We all already know the risks COVID-19 poses to the public, particularly those who are immunocompromised or elderly, and we must act now to keep students, their families, and the community safe.

… which may have played some role in that institution’s decision to suspend instruction for the rest of March.

Several other colleges and universities have also closed, albeit for briefer times (so far). As Jay Sieling put it,

People are considering such steps because of the potential of infection, which bad stories like this heighten:

New Hampshire’s first coronavirus patient, a hospital employee, went to an event tied to Dartmouth business school on Friday despite being told to stay isolated, officials say, and all others who went to the event are now being told to stay isolated.

Speaking of problems, Joshua Kim and Eddie Malone argue that outsourcing digital learning to OPMs is a liability in the outbreak.

Conferences and meetings: I’m seeing more cancelations as well as events flipping online (for example) (another example).  In contrast, the ACU-GSV conference announced it would still meet in person (March 30-April 1) but with very interesting medical additions.  The hosting hotel will do more, like “increas[ing] the frequency of cleaning high touch point areas such as elevator buttons, doorknobs, public areas and implementing deep-clean guestroom procedures while also increasing the number and availability of hand sanitizer stations. ”

And notice this:

Temperature-screening will be in force. We will have various mechanisms to temperature-screen attendees, including passive scanning of all attendees prior to entry to the venue. Temperature screening may result in false-positives resulting in more secondary screening and some individuals being denied entry who register a temperature on both primary and secondary screening. We apologize for that and will have secondary screening performed by trained medical personnel on-site. If you are denied entry due to temperature, you will be provided a complimentary pass to the 2021 Summit. [boldface in original]

I can see many problems with this, including picking off people with non-COVID infections.  (Also, the language seems copied from another conference.) Where else should we expect to see thermal screening: airports, movie theaters, schools?


there will be no attendees from Mainland China, South Korea, Iran or Italy without any exceptions. We are so sorry for what our partners in these countries have gone through, but we must protect the health and safety of the overall community. We have provided refunded tickets to the handful of individuals planning to come from these Level 3 Countries.

Scholarly communication Open access content is still out there, including from publishers and aggregators (ElsevierSpringerWiley1science’s links and records archive).  Duke University Press added some by opening up relevant titles into what it dubbed a syllabus.

On a related note, the Coronavirus Tech Handbook is a great open resource.

Impacts on institutional finance Threatened by enrollment drops, institutions may turn to enrollment insurance.

Political dimensions The United States Department of Education offered recommendations for campuses struggling with enrollment, nationality, and financial aid.

Planning for the next disease There is a splendid Google Sheet listing and linking to many college and university pages on COVID-19 and their policies thereof.

For more on this, Paul Fain offers a great round-up of the week’s stories.

What next, at least in terms of academia’s response?

Since colleges and universities tend to learn from each other’s operations, we should expect to see some implement versions of the Case Western travel tracking system.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see thermal scanning pop up in sites, including cultural heritage ones.

When closures and shifts online end – whenever that might be, April, September, or 2021 – will campuses have a hard time getting some students back?  Consider: COVID-19 dread is now enormous.  What will it take to convince students (not to mention staff and faculty) that a campus is safe?  Alternatively, if the online experience is good enough, will we see a group of students permanently shunt from face-to-face to digital learning?  The opposite question is also worth asking: will bad online learning experiences drive digital learning numbers down once COVID-19 passes the crisis stage?

On a much broader, more macro level I wonder about the intersection of the coronavirus outbreak with climate change.  Can we only parse one crisis at a time?  Are there positive or negative intersections between the two threats?

That’s all for now.  What are you seeing of COVID-19 in academia?

PS: in reward for your patience at making it thus far, here are two funny takes on handwashing instructions.

Macbeth hand washing

and a science fiction joke, which is actually compelling:

coronavirus Dune washing

(thanks to my wife, Jay Sieling, Roger Schonfeld, Derek Bruff, Elena Clark, Facebook friends, my students, and friends)

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
This entry was posted in coronavirus. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Coronavirus, the world, and academia: 2020 March 6 update

  1. Ken Soto says:

    Bryan, thank you following this so closely. It remains to be seen how this plays out but I really appreciate the dispassionate way you assemble and present facts. The Bene Gesserit hand washing litany is so good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *