Pivot vertigo: on yesterday’s COVID-19 Update

Here we are again. 

Under the heading “Protect the Pack,” yesterday’s COVID update from the Usask Pandemic Response and Recovery Team (PRT) sent another contradictory “wait-and-see” message to faculty. Usask’s winter term, including face-to-face classes, is scheduled to start as planned on January 4. Shortly after this was delivered, the You|Sask Faculty & Staff Newsletter showed up in our inboxes announcing that the re-opening of ConnectionPoint will be delayed “in an effort to prioritize safety amidst the emerging threat of the Omicron variant,” and that in-person support in Arts 258 will resume in February. One might assume from this that the safety of some members of this campus community is prioritized over that of others. 
Those faculty who spent last year juggling the benignly termed “pivot” from in-person to remote teaching no doubt are reading with some skepticism that “The experience we have gained through different phases of the pandemic will allow us to make changes in class delivery where necessary, while protecting the integrity of learning outcomes and prioritizing program requirements.” 
The PRT is mostly composed of people who do not teach university classes, and have not experienced the workload associated with a “pivot” in course delivery. The COVID update states glibly that “We expect that any changes in class delivery will be temporary, and we will revert to in-person delivery as soon as deemed safe and reasonable to do so.” This suggests a very likely scenario next term of showing up for face-to-face instruction, then having to pivot to remote possibly within weeks, and then being prepared to pivot again to face-to-face. 

The expectation would seem to be, then, that faculty must prepare for both modes of delivery for every class. Faculty do not always teach the same class time and time again, and may have to develop more new materials to have at hand for another possible turnaround to remote delivery. We can do that—especially with notice, and with certainty of the mode of delivery. Some faculty have been told they cannot have the choice of remote delivery in January, and yet now it seems there is a real possibility that they will be required to switch to remote partly through the term anyway. Delaying the announcement of this decision until December 21 does not ensure an effortless and elegant execution of a series of pivots.

And just as disturbing, amid the rise of the new significantly more transmissible Omicron variant, the COVID update tells us that we will not know its decision about requiring booster vaccinations until at least mid-January. Yesterday Chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab warned that preliminary projections indicate “the extra-contagious strain will trigger a sharp rise in infections, hospitalizations and ICU admissions barring any new public health restrictions or reduction in interpersonal contacts.” Dr. Shahab also warned that “we know that over the next two to four weeks, Omicron will become the dominant strain in Saskatchewan,” and that the province “will have to pivot rapidly” when that happens [emphasis added]. 
The University of Toronto has cancelled in-person tests and exams on December 16, and is delaying in-person learning for all courses until Monday, January 31, 2022. Queen’s University is transitioning to remote delivery for January and February. The University of Waterloo has chosen that classes scheduled for in-person delivery in January will begin online and will return to in-person delivery as of January 24, 2022 or as public health conditions allow. Wilfrid Laurier University will also deliver instruction remotely at the start of the January term, and will resume in person on January 31, provided public health direction allows. Ryerson University, too, will hold classes virtually until January 30, “out of concern for health and safety.” People in Saskatoon are not affected by a different pandemic. The epidemiology is surely no different here, and even though we are a week to 10 days behind Ontario in the Omicron curve, surely senior leadership should recognize the human cost of starting the term face-to-face, and then having to pivot twice.
As frustrating as it might be to delay in-person teaching, this university needs to recognize the toll that this late announcement of a series of “pivots” takes on faculty. It is high time that senior leadership prioritizes our safety and well-being. “Protect the Pack” needs to be more than a catchy phrase.