After a year and a half of living and working in the shadow of a pandemic, one thing I’ve completely given up on is the belief that higher education institutions are places where learning occurs at a higher global level. This pandemic has taught me that we must fight to maintain the integrity of the academy and be prepared to demonstrate the value we bring to communities.
Many college health centers act as a safety net for students who do not have adequate health insurance, especially at historically black colleges and universities. The Prairie View A&M University Health Center plays that role, and leading it during the pandemic has been challenging. Although some experts originally thought the pandemic would be the major equalizer in health care delivery and outcomes, it soon became apparent that the crisis had exacerbated stark disparities. However, students from all walks of life, socioeconomic levels, and academic majors were more similar in terms of the need for face-to-face engagement and more mental health care.
It is more important than ever to stop and connect frequently with my team of healthcare professionals. I appreciate their tireless efforts. Working on campus health care in a political climate that doesn’t always embrace public health guidelines has made our jobs more difficult. Students received signals from the larger community that mitigation strategies are not necessary without taking into account the increased risks they face. While we encourage our students to be curious and analytical thinkers, we were not quite ready to address their deteriorating confidence in the guidance provided. For example, some students relied more on their own internet searches than on expert advice, leading to increased hesitation about vaccines. As healthcare practitioners, science has guided our business. However, during the pandemic, even institutions of higher education have found themselves challenged to reassert people’s faith in the data driven by research.
Now, I find myself talking about emergency preparedness differently than I did before the pandemic. Although pandemics have always been a threat to our safety, the global impact of this pandemic has changed the way we should plan, prepare, and transform. The response during this crisis has been very labor intensive and taxed our workforce. So far, anticipating the next pandemic has not been part of our strategic plan, but moving forward, it should be as much a priority as preparing for a natural disaster or other emergency. Many institutions felt that they weathered the storm well, but the true testimony of our efforts has yet to materialize. Therefore, it will be necessary to prevent the loss of institutional knowledge gained during the pandemic. The great uncertainty highlights the importance of staying smart in care delivery, and adopting an innovative and forward-thinking model as our best tool in preparing for the next health crisis. As a college health leader, this means that I may have to set up extended public health services for the long term without additional staff or financial resources.
The pandemic has demonstrated that student experiences and student services—and the people who provide them—must be fully recognized as vital components in the success of any higher education institution. While many colleges have focused on offering distance courses, students have been unable to realize almost the entire student experience. Unfortunately, the burden of providing frontline response during the pandemic has fallen disproportionately on staff, with many being asked to return to the office while faculty have been allowed to work remotely. Additionally, employees have seen their workloads increase significantly with the addition of COVID response services. This operating model is unsustainable in light of the importance now attached to mental well-being and work-life balance. Staff burnout cannot be forgotten or ignored.
Overall, the challenges for education as we navigate the new reality of an environment desperately wanting to forget COVID-19 are complex and manifold. First, students yearn to connect and interact with one another in a face-to-face environment in a similar way as it was before COVID, and many struggle to embrace a new reality. It’s complicated by the parents of those same students who expect an almost arduous concierge-level effort to mitigate COVID when students stay on campus. Second, the end of government support for COVID mitigation efforts will affect the availability of many services and strategies due to budget constraints and competing spending priorities. The current social media environment allows for the impression of diminished capabilities formulated in unrealistic expectations to become a crisis of public perception for any university campus. Third, the inability to recruit additional healthcare staff complicates our ability to provide services to underserved populations. Finally, employees should be given a period of rest commensurate with the time and effort expended during the pandemic.