Omicron’s gut punch to groups with early 2022 conferences

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Academic associations resuming in-person conferences in early 2022 scrambled over the holiday break, deciding if and how to proceed amid the explosion of COVID-19 case counts.

Both the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association still plan to meet in person starting Thursday, in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, respectively. The Association of American Colleges and Universities will meet in person starting Jan. 19 in Washington, as will the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities on Feb. 6.

In contrast, the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s executive committee voted to transition to an all-online conference in March in lieu of meeting in Chicago. The National Council of Teachers of English’s Two-Year College English Association’s meeting, held at the start of the CCCC meeting, will now be online, as well.

Like the MLA and AHA, the American Economic Association meets annually in early January. Yet the AEA decided in August to hold a virtual conference once again in 2022 due to COVID-19. Peter Rousseau, the AEA’s secretary-treasurer, said the rise of the Delta variant at the time posed a “public health threat to conference participants and created conditions materially affecting our ability to plan for and hold a safe in-person event.”

The recent arrival of the Omicron variant has only reinforced the economists’ decision. But those groups moving forward with face-to-face conferences continue to cite their members’ desire see their colleagues and friends in person once again, even if it’s masked and socially distanced: there are no hotel bars or serendipitous elevator encounters over Zoom, they say.

These groups have more tangible concerns, as well. James Grossman, executive director of the historians’ association, for instance, explained in a recent email to members, “Because of hotel contracts negotiated years in advance, the financial costs of canceling the meeting would be catastrophic for the AHA and would negatively affect every aspect of our mission.”

The AHA “will not cancel our annual meeting unless required to do so by local or state public health authorities, something we have been told is extremely unlikely,” Grossman wrote in that email. “Many members have communicated to us that they remain enthusiastic about attending. Given that context, the decision to come to the AHA annual meeting is an individual decision, not a matter of social policy. We respect, and will gladly facilitate, whatever choices our colleagues consider to be in their best interests.”

No Easy Decisions

No association’s decision about meeting in person or virtually in 2022 has been uncontroversial. Some scholars trust masks and vaccines, which will be widely required at face-to-face meetings, to protect themselves and their colleagues. Others insist that gathering during an ongoing pandemic isn’t worth the risk, especially when virtual conferences are already battle tested. Yet the AHA’s particularly candid language about the financial stakes of canceling the in-person conference concerned some historians.

Historian and K-12 educator Julia López said this on Twitter, for example: “The fact that the AHA is openly admitting to basically gambling its economic well-being on thousands of people traveling from around the world to attend a conference in the middle of a pandemic, without a contingency plan for cancellations/pivoting online is … something else.”

One professor joked that medical guidance for attending the event was “holding your breath for 48 hours.”

Karin Wulf, Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian at the John Carter Brown Library and professor of history at Brown University, had a different perspective, tweeting that she’d “been really struck by the number of people noting that they have been teaching and working in environments much less covid cautious than the conf will be, and are so eager for the collegial experience” of AHA. Wulf also said she respected Grossman’s message, as this “is so very challenging to navigate.”

Wulf is not attending the conference herself, as she recently moved and has ruled out travel as she and her family settle into their new home. “I’m honestly not sure what choice I would have made if I was scheduled to attend as I have some particular vulnerabilities in my family,” however, she said via email. “It’s really complicated and that’s what the public health experts seem to be telling us, and that’s why I appreciate the careful line the AHA is walking here, respecting that it is complicated and that a different resolution will make sense for different people.”

Regarding safety measures, the AHA says that all attendees must show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 and wear masks in meeting spaces. The group also plans on making antigen and molecular, or PCR, tests available on-site. Booster shots are recommended but not required.

CCCC conference organizers said in an announcement about moving to a virtual format, “After over a year and a half spent living and working in a global pandemic, we looked forward to being together this March in Chicago, Illinois. Unfortunately, despite our diligent efforts to plan and hold an in-person gathering, COVID-19’s continuing developments have created a situation that prevents us from having the original event as planned. This is not where we wanted to be this winter.”

In online discussions about this news, some faulted CCCC for not offering some sort of in-person option. Many other commenters expressed disappointment but said they believed CCCC had made the safest decision for all.

Beyond immediate mitigation measures, groups going in person in early 2022 despite Omicron are offering more flexibility regarding attendee participation. Holding a truly hybrid conference remains logistically out of reach for most organizations due to the cost of streaming on-site panels live, but the AHA said over the holiday that panelists who don’t want to participate in person any longer can move their sessions online. These panels will take place at the end of February.

Grossman told Inside Higher Ed that the general response to the AHA’s updates on the meeting has been “overwhelmingly positive. Our members seem to appreciate the transparency, and the fact that we respect whatever choice they make—and are doing what we can to facilitate different choices.”

The MLA always planned for something of a hybrid meeting in 2022, with about 20 percent of sessions taking place online, per panelists’ preference, and 80 percent in person. Paula Krebs, the association’s director, has said that those proportions are now flipped, with about 80 percent of panels happening online and 20 percent happening in person.

“We’re approaching it with maximum flexibility,” Krebs said late last month. “We have hundreds of sessions in person and hundreds online.” Panelists may also postpone their sessions until 2023.

Rosemary Feal, resident scholar in Afro–Latin American research at Harvard University and executive director emerita of the MLA, has publicly said that she made the “difficult decision” to cancel her in-person attendance at this year’s meeting due to Omicron. She’s also called on more securely employed scholars who have similarly decided not to attend, and who would not have been reimbursed by their institutions for attendance costs, to donate money saved to the MLA’s funds for contingent faculty members and graduate students.

Feal told Inside Higher Ed that she found the MLA’s online conference in 2021 “brilliant,” but that she would have attended in person this year, with extra safety precautions (think double masks), were she not in a high-risk group for COVID-19. Regarding her plea for donations to support less securely employed scholars, Feal said that her current university doesn’t reimburse resident scholars for professional meetings, “so I can donate cost of airfare, hotel and meals.”

David Tritelli, spokesperson for the AAC&U, said its annual meeting is a “hybrid event, meaning that people already have the option to participate online or in person. We’re requiring that all in-person participants be fully vaccinated, mask when indoors and comply with local health guidance.”

He added, “We continue to monitor developments related to Omicron, of course, and will continue to be guided by recommendations from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and local public health professionals. The health and safety of all meeting participants, AAC&U and venue staff, and our local communities remain our priorities.”

Pete Boyle, spokesperson for NAICU, said, “As of right now, we are proceeding with preparing for an in-person meeting in February.” At the same time, he said, “It’s fluid and people are anxious and have questions. We have to be flexible and prepare for multiple contingencies.”

NAICU attendees are required to show proof of vaccination to register and must abide by federal and local health and safety regulations. Washington, D.C., has reintroduced an indoor mask mandate through at least Jan. 31, Boyle said, in one example of the kinds of regulations NAICU is monitoring.

Ultimately, he said, “health and safety is key and we won’t do anything to jeopardize either.”

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