On the back end of the Corona-pocalypse, here are four stories student journalists could dig into

We’re not out of the woods yet when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, but a number of indicators have us no longer walking into the woods of this situation, but walking toward the exit. Around here, we’re looking toward system campuses getting back to whatever “normal” is, at least as far as masks are concerned:

University of Wisconsin System officials said Wednesday they plan to end their campus face mask mandates by spring break.

UW System President Tommy Thompson announced widespread COVID-19 vaccinations and waning case numbers on system campuses and across the state justify the move.

“While we will continue to take prudent prevention measures when warranted, restrictions can be lifted as case counts drop,” he said.

Thompson said vaccines and tests will still be available on campus and students and employees can still opt to wear masks if they wish.

(I’m sorry. My mind drifted off into a fantasy land of joy when I saw the words “spring break…” What else is going on?)

With the idea that we’re “getting there” (wherever “there” is), here are a few potential story ideas for college media based on these kinds of updates:

CONTINUED ACCOMMODATIONS: One of my colleagues here asked a really good question about what happens when we go back to “normal.” What will the universities do in terms of accommodations for students who have immune system issues in regard being in classrooms now and for future illnesses?

A lot of what we dealt with over the past two years was learning what an illness can do to people, how it can spread and what can be done to avoid putting students in harm’s way. As much as the coronavirus outbreak was a fearful situation for society as a whole, I’m quite certain it was even more terrifying for people who were most ill-equipped to have their immune system protect them. As universities started to understand all of this, it’s worth asking the question of, “So, when we have a flu outbreak in 2024, are we going to find ways to help these folks the way we helped everyone else, or is it ‘You’re on your own, dude’ kind of situation?”

ONLINE ACCESS: One of the greatest things of our lives as kids here in Wisconsin was waking up and seeing the cars on our street buried in snow. We would immediately tune the radio to WTMJ and pensively listen for our school to be called in the list of “snow day closings.” Once that happened, our joy erupted as our parents cursed a bit, trying to figure out what to do with us because they still had to go to work.

Today’s students don’t have that same joy in every case, thanks in large part to online access. In the pre-pandemic era, we kind of had a split between the “hip, young, tech-savvy profs” who would just send a video or a podcast for a lecture that would have otherwise been cancelled due to weather and the “old-school, screw-this, technology-peaked-with-frozen-pizza profs” who just called it a day and let the kids have the day off. Now, after two years of going online, most of the folks teaching have online versions of in-person classes. To what degree are professors making those options available to students who can’t make it to class? To what degree are students still requesting this kind of access, rather than going to campus when it’s lousy outside (or they’re reaaaalllly too hung over to walk six blocks).

Also, how many classes are likely to remain in a mixed/hybrid/online only version on your  campus going forward? Are they expected to be more or less popular than the old-school lecture approach?

THE KIDS ARE(N’T) ALL RIGHT: The incoming freshman class for the 2023 school year will have spent more than half of their high school career in some form of online schooling, doing hybrid coursework or otherwise learning in a way that we haven’t seen before. A number of schools are trying to adjust to this through all sorts of things, like making SAT and ACT scores optional for applicants. Other schools are trying to find ways to help students adjust once they get to campus.

The question that’s worth asking is what is your school doing to try to get this group of anomalies ready and capable to survive in college, given how screwed up their high school life was? This would be worth digging into.

It would also be worth digging into how the freshmen currently on campus are doing, given that they’ve had three school years of total weirdness. What are grade trends professors are noticing? What are social anxiety trends campus health services are noticing? What are academic concerns advisers are noticing? This is especially important in terms of comparisons to other years. In other words, what’s happening to these kids that seems different or potentially problematic compared to previous generations of students?

FACULTY FALLOUT: Even before the pandemic hit, a number of universities were offering older faculty members who were close to retirement a “golden handshake” deal as an incentive to move on with their lives. Whether it was extra money, better insurance or something else, the goal was to prune the branches on the faculty tree where maybe those professors weren’t needed or to eliminate the big-salary profs and replace them with younger, cheaper options.

Then, we saw the rise of COVID-19 and the faculty tree was pretty much struck by lightning. Even if we don’t entirely ascribe to the theories of “The Great Resignation,” it stands to reason that more than a few people on your campus said, “Screw this. I’m not dying here…” Over two or three years, a number of people will naturally come to the conclusion that they should retire, so those folks probably moved on. Then there are people who started coming to grips with their own mortality and decided now was as good of a time as any to be done with the rat race. There might have even been a few deaths that didn’t get the same level of notice as normal on your campus because nothing was normal on your campus.

In looking forward either at the end of this year or the beginning of next year, take a look around at the data of how many faculty and staff have decided to call it a career. See if any particular areas have been hit hard by this (food service, the chem department, whatever) and what plans are in place to replace folks. Maybe this is the time your school decides it no longer needs an underwater basket weaving department now that both faculty members have left. Maybe the once-great physics department lost a lot of folks that made it great, and now your institution is trying to figure out if the B-team has what it takes to sustain the rep.

Anything is possible when it comes to this recovery, so keep an eye out for potential stories as you start getting back to “normal” again.

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