After a year and a half of living and working in a pandemic, the one thing that I have totally abandoned is the belief that institutions of higher learning are places where learning at a higher level universally occurs. This pandemic has taught me that we must fight to uphold the integrity of the academy and be prepared to demonstrate the value we provide to societies.
Many college health centers serve as a safety net for students who don’t have adequate health insurance, especially at historically Black colleges and universities. The health center at Prairie View A&M University plays that role, and leading it during the pandemic has been difficult. Although some experts originally thought the pandemic would be the great equalizer in health care delivery and outcomes, it quickly became clear that the crisis exacerbated glaring disparities. Yet students from all walks of life, socio-economic levels and academic disciplines were more alike than not in terms of needing face-to-face engagement and more mental health care.
It has become more important than ever to stop and frequently communicate to my team of health care professionals my appreciation for their tireless efforts. Working in health care on a college campus in a political climate that did not always embrace public health guidance made our jobs more challenging. Students received signals from the larger community that mitigation strategies were not needed without taking into consideration the increased risks they faced. While we encourage our students to be inquisitive and analytical thinkers, we were not fully prepared to address the deterioration of their trust in the guidance given. For example, some students relied more on their own internet searching than on expert advice, which fueled vaccine hesitancy. As health care practitioners, science guided our actions. However, during the pandemic, even institutions of higher learning found themselves challenged to reaffirm people’s trust in data driven by research.
Now, I find myself talking about emergency preparedness differently than I did before the pandemic. While pandemics have always been a threat to our safety, the global impact of this pandemic has changed the way in which we must plan, prepare and pivot. Responding during this crisis has been extremely labor-intensive and taxing on our workforce. Up until now, anticipating the next pandemic was not a part of our strategic plan, but moving forward, that must be as much a priority as being prepared for a natural disaster or other emergency situation. Many institutions felt they weathered the storm well, but the true testament of our efforts have yet to be realized. Therefore, it will be vital to prevent the loss of institutional knowledge gained during the pandemic. The great uncertainty highlights the importance of remaining nimble in the delivery of care, and of adopting an innovative and forward-thinking paradigm as our best tool in being prepared for the next health crisis. As a college health leader, this means I may have to prepare expanded public health services for a long-term period without additional personnel or financial resources.
The pandemic has demonstrated that student experiences and student services—and the people who provide them—must be fully acknowledged as vital components in the success of any institution of higher learning. While many colleges pivoted to delivering coursework remotely, students could not fully realize the student experience virtually. Unfortunately, the burden of providing the front-line response during the pandemic disproportionately fell on staff, many of whom were required to return to the office while faculty were allowed to work remotely. Additionally, the staff saw their workload exponentially increase with the addition of COVID-response services. This operational model is unsustainable in light of the importance now placed upon mental well-being and work-life balance. The burnout of staff cannot be forgotten or ignored.
Overall, the challenges education faces as we navigate the new reality of an environment that desperately wants to forget COVID-19 are complex and many. First, students are yearning to connect and engage with each other in a face-to-face environment in a manner like they could pre-COVID, and many struggle with embracing a new reality. This is complicated by the parents of these very same students who expect almost herculean and concierge-level COVID-mitigation efforts when the students reside on campus. Second, the expiration of governmental support for COVID-mitigation efforts will impact the availability of many services and strategies due to budget constraints and competing spending priorities. And the current social media environment allows the impression of a diminished capacity couched in unrealistic expectations to become a public perception crisis for any campus. Third, the inability to hire additional health care staff complicates our ability to provide services to an underserved population. Last, staff must be given a respite proportional to the time and effort expended during the pandemic.