Culture and Change in COVID (21)
Orit Tamir and Jeanne Simonelli
I (Orit) am a professor at New Mexico Highlands University where the majority of students are ethnic minorities, mainly Hispanic. During the past year, along with two stem colleagues, I research the spread of COVID-19 on the Navajo reservation (https://www.appliedanthro.org/publications/news/august-2020/grant-help-navajo-nation-covid-19-data). The good news is that Navajo Nation’s tough policy measures and high vaccination rate worked, and the number of COVID-19 infections and death on the reservation plummeted. In fact, due to the hyper infectious nature of the Delta variant the Navajo reservation (like many Pueblo Indian reservations in the Southwest) is still closed to visitors (though one can drive through it), and face masks are required when entering businesses on the reservation.
For those of us in academia, the start of a new academic year is fast approaching. With COVID vaccine efficacy falling to 39%, according to a report from Israel (though vaccines still provide considerable protection from severe disease), and given the fact that less than 50% of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/covidview/index.html), it is a mistake to pursue a return to ‘normal’ college life in Fall 2021 semester. The Delta variant that is currently the dominant variant in the US is uniquely dangerous: it is more contagious than the other virus strains; vaccinated people can be infected and spread the disease, unvaccinated people are most at risk; and, it is projected to surge in the coming months. Still, many universities and colleges are forcing faculty and other employees who tele-worked successfully during the height of the pandemic to return to ‘normal’ in person instructions without proof of vaccination, face masks, social distancing, or ventilation. In fact, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education only 611 colleges and universities out of about 5000 require vaccines of students and employees (with provisions for health, religion). Why are university presidents putting the health of faculty, staff and students at risk? Why are some university presidents still planning mass in-person gatherings indoors to mark the start of the academic year? Why do so many administrators fail to listen to the concerns of faculty and staff about their work condition preferences or their COVID-related concerns? Is it due to wishful thinking, political pressures from governing boards, or poor judgment? University presidents pride themselves on being data driven. Still despite clear evidence regarding the danger of the Delta variant, many insists on forcing faculty and staff back to an in-person work environment where they encounter tens and even hundreds of students every day and thus are much more likely than administrators to be exposed to the contagious Delta variant.
Working from home can be a productive setting for many faculty. While engaging in funded COVID-19 research, I (Orit) also developed a new Online Professional MA in Cultural Resource Management (CRM). By way of full disclosure: I worked as an ethnographer for seven happy years in CRM before joining academia, and am still occasionally engaged in CRM projects. Many anthropologists, especially those who hold MA degrees, find good paying interesting CRM careers. Our new Highlands program (https://www.nmhu.edu/CRM) presents a unique and affordable alternative to traditional graduate programs in anthropology. It prepares students who already work in CRM, or who plan to do so, for full professional CRM anthropological work in tribal, state, and federal agencies, as well as in the private sector and in not-for-profit organizations. The program, with its focus on the Southwest culture area, offers courses that address the new developments, techniques, and technical literature of anthropology and related professional fields of work. The program provides the necessary knowledge of Southwest cultures, research methods, as well as concepts, theories, rules and procedures needed for problem solving in CRM anthropology. The entire program is offered via online/distance learning; presents a unique and affordable alternative to traditional graduate programs in anthropology; provides working adults an opportunity to attain graduate education while continuing their employment; and, welcomes students who wish to become CRM professionals. Applications have already begun to arrive for the fall semester.
In a sense, on-line Covid teaching programs provided an unexpected opportunity for some students to complete their education. The Highlands CRM MA expands that possibility, as students living far from a university setting, especially on the numerous SW reservations, now have the possibility of completing their degree without the added cost of room and board away from home. Moreover, they can pursue studies fitted to the rhythm of work, or care for children or elderly family members, without disrupting the pace of daily life. This program is tailored to the cultural patterns and reality of Native American and Latinx family life in particular, but also increasingly, to the emerging structure of existence in this country and beyond.
The dream of a four year, in person college experience may never be completely revived. Covid has reshuffled the deck of the so-called American dream. This has been a sixty-year bubble punctured by an unexpected plague. Even as visitation at National Parks and Monuments exceeds all previous years (it’s outside…gotta be safe!), Covid pods reemerge in hospital ICU units, especially in states where vaccination rates are lowest. Working (Jeanne) in the Arizona Strip, which borders Utah and is surrounded by name Parks, including Zion and the Grand Canyon, we expect that at least half of our visitors won’t be vaccinated. So it will be masks back on, as Covid harvests its next crop in the 35 to 50 age group. This includes exhausted nurses, faculty putting together tenure packets, and parents of preteens. Tune in next issue as we track the continuing story of culture and change in Covid 21.