Dean’s Blog: The Long Tail of COVID

The COVID pandemic began abruptly with lockdowns, borders closed and mask and social distancing mandates. It clearly will not end so abruptly – the so-called long tail of COVID. The disease itself will likely take years to get under control in some parts of the world and in the U.S. pockets of infections will likely continue. Similarly, social and economic changes are likely long-term. What does this mean for the School of Data Science (SDS) and how do we mitigate the consequences?

Given the mandates that all students and now all University of Virginia (UVA) employees must be vaccinated, as per the US President’s executive order for all federal contractors, the consequences will be less from the impact on health and more from the consequences on well-being, changed attitudes and economic factors. Here are some of the consequences we are already seeing or can expect and how we are or are planning to respond.

Online learning and the student experience

While residential students complained bitterly in the early days of all classes being forced online, there is a lingering sense of the value gained by the experience. The expectation of hybrid classes – classes given in person and also available online – will increasingly be the norm for residential students. Come to class – or not – and have access to the live session and any teaching materials subsequently. Or come to class with the expectation that it is specifically designed to be part online and part in person. The challenge as educators is to maintain the value of the in person experience and provide the online as well. This presents cost and logistical issues where the former cannot be passed on in the form of tuition hikes in a system where value for money for higher education is already being questioned. An across institution strategy for online learning rather than each school/department going it alone can help save money. The development of such a strategy is just beginning at UVA.

SDS is fortunate in that an online M.S. in Data Science program (MSDS) was part of our plan from the beginning, before anyone had heard the word COVID. As such, we have parallel online and residential programs with much the same content and experiential outcomes. We have yet to cross-purpose this content, but owning our content and moving more of our operations in house gives us the flexibility to begin this process. Moreover, what we have learned and continue to build upon when developing online content will enable us to shorten the time to delivery as we move or create additional programs into a hybrid format. 

As I often say, talk is cheap in this job and action is expensive. The biggest lesson we have learned so far from going online is the amount of work it takes across the board—from how you market the program to how you deal with admissions, from how you train instructors to how you deal with career services when the student demographic is different by program. None of us fully appreciated the human cost in the beginning of the pandemic. Today’s consolation is we have students graduating from our online MSDS who are getting excellent jobs and it has made us rethink which parts of our residential program to improve ona positive feedback loop that informs our program development and growth strategy.

The future of work

The great resignation is upon us and for a small school with a shallow bench, it is particularly problematic. Morale remains high in the school, as a recent all-hands retreat attests, but there is no denying that the past almost two years have put great stress on all organizations and especially a startup like ours. As I reported previously, we have grown at a rapid rate, COVID notwithstanding, but it has taken a toll. Folks feel burnt out, and we are doing what we can to repair the damage. Repair comes in the form of bonuses, more opportunities to socialize and build community, and renewed efforts to lighten the load with aggressive hiring. The great resignation comes with loss but also the opportunity to gain. It has forced us to think about how we organize ourselves with a rejuvenated faculty and staff.

For some team members, it is not that they feel dissatisfaction with their jobs post-COVID but that opportunities that can’t be ignored abound. Jobs that pay more, yet allow you to work remotely so that you can continue to live in Charlottesville which was rated number 5 in the top 100 US places to live in 2018. 

Vaccine mandates have also impacted the school. Strong feelings across the team have led to two losses, one staff and one faculty, because of vaccine mandates. The loss impacts the workload of all who remain, even as they support the mandates. Those that don’t support the mandates feel the organization has let them down and are disgruntled.

To varying degrees, we all feel the pull of working from home—even me as dean. There is something to be said for zoom calls in sweat pants and, for some, lack of painful commutes.At the same time we feel the loss of human contact, of missed opportunities to connect, and the fellowship and support of colleagues. Again, this speaks to a hybrid approach, which is something I enjoyed when heavily engaged in my own research prior to becoming dean. I worked at home in the morning and came in to teach and meet with lab members, students and colleagues in the afternoon. The question now is how to maintain the quality of what we do as a school while remaining flexible in recognition of the changing nature of work? We are waiting to see where the equilibrium takes us as the long tail of COVID progresses and intercede as needed to maintain the right balance. Equity is made tricky by job functions which require varying amounts of physical presence.

As the above would dictate, retention becomes part of the future of academic work. Retention was an issue before COVID in a field such as data science where demand for professionals outweighed supply. It is now worse. Colleagues, environment, sense of belonging, sense of a shared mission all work in our favor, but a rise in the cost of living does not. Budgets need to be adjusted to reflect a new reality of retaining the best.

Research emphasis

The school’s research agenda also shifted during COVID to support the worldwide effort to combat the disease. While it has and will continue to shift back to emphasize pre-COVID research initiatives, COVID, or at least infectious disease research, will continue to be at the fore. Driven in part by funding availability, part by altruism and part by new sources of data. This goes beyond pandemic modeling to explore the economic ramifications of the disease, health disparities, supply chain disruption, impact on democracies, and much more.

Student health and wellness

Last, but certainly not least, is the long tail impact on student health and wellness. The mental health of college students was a concern before COVID came along. COVID merely amplified the problem with colleges and universities struggling to respond to growing concern around mental well-being. As an example, the University of Virginia rolled out free, on-demand mental telehealth services for students this fall to meet the current needs of students. 

Each of us has reacted differently and to varying degrees by having our lifestyle disrupted, mourning loved ones, and having less contact with our fellow human beings than before the pandemic. It has taken a toll on me, but certainly less than many others. I was not economically impacted, nor did I lose anyone close, and I was able to live in a relatively safe bubble. Others, including a number of our students, were not so fortunate. I must amplify what I felt and the impact it must have had.As a school we must turn it into action that supports the health and wellbeing of our students. This, at a time when we are rebuilding our student services and support teams. 

Our leadership and our central student health services have done a wonderful job, but as a school, we too must step up to the plate. I am still trying to process what that means. What I can say with certainty is that it begins with greater, more transparent, dialog with our students.

Thinking about the implications of the long tail of COVID, the school will, as always, take the glass half full attitude. It is an opportunity for us to recognize what we do well and evaluate areas for improvement. I know that working as a team we will all be better for it.

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About Phil Bourne

Stephenson Founding Dean of the School of Data Science and Professor of Data Science & Biomedical Engineering, University of Virginia