APS Member/Author: Leah H. Somerville
Academic scientists are facing an ominous start to the academic year. Some universities are welcoming students back to campus with detailed COVID-19 testing and prevention guidelines. Others have suddenly retracted in-person plans, moving to fully online courses as coronavirus cases spiked. “We all should be emotionally prepared for widespread infections — and possibly deaths — in our community,” a professor at Yale University wrote to students in a 1 July email.
The problems don’t end there. Many academics are also grappling with ongoing racial injustices and associated protests, wildfires, and hurricanes. We continue to see widespread effects on mental health, with roughly one-third of Americans reporting symptoms of clinical depression or anxiety. June and her colleague recently described the escalating mental health crisis as the next biggest coronavirus challenge.
We have struggled with our own mental and physical well-being—as well as challenges associated with canceled vacations, lack of child care, the illnesses and death of people close to us, and the mental weight of difficult conversations about racial injustices. We’ve also been worrying about our trainees and the undergraduate students in our classes. The academic and nonacademic job markets have cratered, and some of our colleagues and students have lost internships and job offers as organizations have been forced to cut expenses.
To be absolutely clear: This. Is. Not. Normal.
And now, with the start of the semester upon us, we continue to receive a massive influx of emails from colleagues detailing service expectations, urgent meetings, new teaching expectations, research disruptions, and complex new policies. We are expected to create malleable teaching plans for in-person and online instruction, oversee the safety of in-person activities, and carry forth with our normal research programs and service duties.
All of this can feel incredibly overwhelming. That’s why we feel strongly that the scientific community needs to take a step back, once again, and recalibrate our expectations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some universities may be reopening. But with all the grim statistics and uncertainty, one thing is clear: Things may not be back to normal for many months to come (if ever). As we adapt our expectations for ourselves and others, we suggest three principles for facing reality during the upcoming semester:
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