State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Carefully Reopening New York City and Columbia University

The subject on nearly everyone’s mind is how do we operate and what can be reopened in the midst of a pandemic? Today, New York City enters Phase 4 of reopening, but with modifications of the original definition of Phase 4 to prohibit a range of indoor activities. The reason this reopening phase has been redefined is that even though New York City has reached the reduced COVID case metrics required for indoor opening, Governor Andrew Cuomo fears that the surge of cases throughout the country requires that we hold off to see if any travelers from high case states come here and infect our population. The governor’s prudence is matched by continued public concern and even though people are frustrated with closures, most understand the need to be careful. While there are people who are not social distancing or wearing masks, they are outnumbered by people who are and who have changed their plans and behaviors to reduce the chance they might end up exposed to the virus.

At the university where I work, a large number of people are involved in carefully planning the return to campus. Everyone who comes to Columbia’s campus must complete a daily questionnaire that is recorded and sent by an app you can download from the Apple Application Store. Everyone must be tested for COVID-19,  a service that is provided by the university free of charge. In New York City, testing is also free and available at hundreds of sites and all New Yorkers are being encouraged to be tested. According to the New York City government website:

All New Yorkers should get tested now, whether or not you have symptoms or are at increased risk…There are hundreds of convenient testing sites across the city, as well as mobile testing units visiting different locations throughout the five boroughs.”

The idea is that before a vaccine or cure is developed, the best way to reduce the spread of the disease is to test, trace and isolate anyone who might have the disease. This is not a fool-proof response, but a method of reducing the risk of contamination and preventing a recurrence of the health care crisis that New York faced from March through May of 2020.

The state and city I live in and the university I work at are moving slowly and carefully to resume operations. One of my jobs is working in the Dean’s office of Columbia’s School of Professional Studies. Our school has over 3,700 students enrolled in 17 masters’ programs and a number of non-degree education programs. The university has established a set of rules governing our operation this fall and we have been submitting plans for their review of the methods we hope to follow in reopening. We have been adhering to several principles as we plan. The first is that we will be providing the high-quality education that is synonymous with Columbia University. The second is that no one will be required to come to campus. If you can’t come to campus, we will bring the campus to you. We have developed what we call a “high-flex model” of instruction.

If we are permitted to teach in classrooms, we will do that, with facemasks and social distancing. Columbia is outfitting more classrooms with the capacity to “broadcast” and record classes, and our school is buying 50 mobile TV camera kits and training as many as 100 student part-time video assistants to ensure that our live streaming on Zoom is of the highest quality possible. A class might have 30 students willing to come to campus and depending on the size of the classroom we will rotate those students so they can attend every other class in person. When they can’t attend face-to-face, they will attend via Zoom. Students in classrooms will be required to bring laptops and headphones to enable them to interact with those who are not in the room. Students abroad unable to attend at the start of the semester can attend via Zoom, or if time zone issues make that difficult, can participate in the course via video on the course website and discussion sections set up to accommodate their time zone. Where faculty members are unable to come to campus to teach, they will teach from home, with high-quality cameras, improved training, and enhanced technical support.

Last spring, Columbia moved its instruction online with 48 hours of notice. As we prepare for the fall semester, the School of Professional Studies has over 100 days to plan the high flex model of instruction. I am confident that our faculty will do a superb job of teaching under these challenging conditions. Similar plans for instruction are being developed elsewhere in the university and faculty and students are being surveyed to learn their preferences. No one pretends this is fun, but we are determined to ensure that teaching and learning continue next year. We’ve learned a lot since March about how to teach online, and our faculty and staff are sharing those lessons learned as we work to ensure quality instruction.

If the health situation changes during the semester, we will change how we operate. Perceptions of risk and actual risk are bound to change, as they have over the past several months. Travel restrictions may be eased up or tightened. It may be that we won’t be able to have students in the class, and we’ll turn our classrooms into TV studios. If we go back into complete lock-down and can’t come to campus at all, we will adjust to that. We will be agile, flexible, innovative and determined. We are fortunate that we have the technology to teach and learn on campus or off campus. We are also fortunate that our students and faculty have demonstrated flexibility and willingness to teach and learn in new ways.

I am grateful for the high level of skill and expertise that the leaders of Columbia University have deployed to safely reopen our campus. We are fortunate that in New York, once the true dimension of the pandemic became clear, our elected leaders resisted attempts to politicize response. Here on our campus, our President Lee Bollinger articulated our plans for the next academic year with his typical empathetic and mission-driven sense of vision, observing that:

“These have been trying times for everyone, albeit in varying degrees. For many, especially our students, lives have been on hold. Dreams have been upended and opportunities seemingly thwarted. It is and will remain our central goal to correct this. Unfortunately, no perfect path lies ahead; there are too many variables outside our control. But we will do everything we can, at every moment, to recapture the rich, intense intellectual life that constitutes our very reason for existence. The COVID-19 pandemic remains a major public health threat, and the challenges we face collectively, as well as individually, are daunting.”

This is a difficult time for strong institutions like the one I work for, for cities like the one I live in and for states that have provided many Americans with the only functioning governance now available. Our federal government has failed to provide the resources and leadership needed in this crisis, but many states, localities and organizations have stepped forward and provided creative approaches to responding to the pandemic. Still, while we make our plans, I am mindful of the pain endured by so many and the privileges that many of us enjoy. Far too many Americans are unemployed and if our dysfunctional Congress does not act soon, the safety net that has kept them fed and housed will disintegrate. Many small businesses are going under and with them the dreams and savings of a lifetime.  We need our federal government to respond to this continuing catastrophe.

While we deal with the crisis at hand, this is also a moment when we need to think past the pandemic, not by wishing it away, but by learning from it and understanding that the forces of biology, ecology and life sciences are not under our command. The human species is ingenious and powerful, but our knowledge and power have limits. Our collective community is struggling to respond to this disease, and I have confidence we will do so. But the process will be faster and more effective if we exercise the level of care and intelligence I am seeing here in New York and at Columbia University. There is no shortcut or magic formula. Slow and steady will win this race.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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