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Finding Balance During a Pandemic

By John Hausdoerffer

This past March, as my campus closed in the midst of the emergence of COVID-19, it felt like a different historical era passed with each daily news cycle. The day before, my daughter Atalaya, 12, and I could not wait to drive across the Utah desert in search of California snow. One sunset later, my wife Karen, Atalaya, and daughter Sol, 8, felt sheepish as we left the house for a ski into the West Elk Wilderness bordering our home of Gunnison. Weren’t we supposed to stay inside?

We skied uphill out of the parking lot, passing through an aspen grove as it shifted into a spruce stand. We sensed something timeless, calming us from the rapid changes around us. We rose in altitude and the air cooled as we entered a clearing that revealed the conglomerate walls of the Mill Castle Valley. What geological, ecological, and even social shocks, far greater than COVID-19, have these walls witnessed in the 30 million years since they were formed?

We stopped to chat less than six feet away from another family seeking solace from cultural confusion. I worried that I was too close to their baby who was sound asleep in a ski sled behind the father. My mind shifted from the timeless to the urgent: even though distant from civilization, was I setting a bad example by leaving the house while my society stayed home in solidarity with our elder neighbors close by and while communities of color disproportionately died farther away?

 Socially, I could not answer these questions with clarity, especially given how quickly our mores and taboos were and still are shifting under our feet with each passing day. But, personally, as we glided against the snows that will have since fed the waters of half a continent, this moment in the West Elks helped us transform fear into focus. Looking up one more time at the Mill Castle cliffs, I was reminded to balance a rapidly-shifting pandemic with the timeless lessons of the wild world that awaken deeper attention. Wildness, in that moment, taught me focus over fear, humility in the face of natural forces (be they geological or microbial), and that we are at our best when part of larger systems (be they social or natural).

Thinking back to that baby in the sled, I decided on that day that I would seek the wild while staying home. The fox out the window at sunrise, the snow softly covering the bird-feeder’s roof, the willows stretching into spring, the renewal of my inner-breath … there was a new-yet-ancient kind of wildness, through March and April, in staying home.

That week was the last time I stood in front of a classroom. Since then, Western Colorado University completed the Spring term through Zoom technology, and I did what I could to enhance Zoom with place-based experiences. When one dear colleague, now still recovering four months later, went into a COVID-coma for twenty-one days, as doctors prayed no one else would need his ventilator, I took over his ecology course. A colleague and I took his Gunnison place-based exercises, asked students to complete them in their disparate back yards, and then to regroup weekly on Zoom to compare notes. I called it “multi-place, place-based education” and felt very pleased. But I missed my students, my thinking community. I missed and still dearly miss the bee-hive buzz of faculty, community stakeholders, and students innovating from the spontaneous incubator of proximity.

Since then, nationally, 140,000 souls (creative, feeling, loving beings with only-once perspective on the world and with parents, children, nieces, nephews, friends and neighbors) have left our world from the unjust embarrassment of a nation scared to compromise individual liberty for scientific understanding. Since then, regionally, Gunnison has shown new possibility and hope for other regions—going from sixth in the nation for COVID-19 cases (per 10,000 people) on that day on skis at Mill Creek to a “blue-level” county that is the envy of regions trying to protect their hot-spot residents. Since then, Western Colorado University has worked very closely with the same county to require masks, social distancing, hand sanitizing, and other public-health-informed best practices to be able to open its doors to students in August.

Western plans to return. But it is a tall order, with serious consequences for all students as well as their classmates, roommates, family members, communities (in some cases vulnerable communities) if Western’s County-informed best practices fall short. What is the ideal balance between safety and engagement, between information that could be exchanged on Zoom and the kind of transformation only possible when we gather to learn, to listen, to unsettle each other in shared hope for a better world?

This question is hard to answer in the face of ever-shifting medical, cultural and political conditions. As a program that teaches adaptive management as our defining skill-set, managing COVID in an adaptive manner will be our ultimate challenge as both academic leaders and as teachers who believe in practicing what we preach. Anything other than transparency, openness to feedback and adaptation to new information in the face of COVID would lead to hubris, and world-historical social and environmental injustices from the very school that seeks to heal those very injustices. So, rather than offering a COVID plan forever set in stone, we offered our students the following statement of values as they plan their Fall return.

School of Environment & Sustainability (SES) COVID-19 Values

Universities have long sought to model ethical excellence for the human community. A university campus offers both challenging and compassionate experiences, opportunities and resources that uphold people’s ability to learn. For some, these are also vital to mental health, physical safety and survival. Universities are intellectual and literal homes.

Since Environment & Sustainability programs were developed in the late 1960s, their central mission has been to empower future generations with scientifically-informed decision-making skills. The global COVID-19 pandemic compels Western Colorado University’s SES to model this practice for our students. We feel a responsibility to show students a paragon of public health actions rooted in the best available science that is more protective than even well-informed government recommendations. Moreover, given the dramatic disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities (including communities of color) and given Western’s commitments to Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity and Internationalization, Western’s SES feels an added responsibility to consider spheres far beyond each student—from the roommate or family; to the Gunnison community; to communities students visit personally, professionally, and academically; to vulnerable communities beyond the physical reach of our students but not beyond the microbial reach of the virus. After all, the principles of environmental science, ethics, and justice that have framed SES for decades push us to see all beings and systems as connected and to live in such a way that the health of the self is founded in the health of all.

Risk cannot be eliminated. Assurances that we are working to minimize risk do not mean we have created a risk-free experience. The risk will exist before, during, and after our time together on campus. Thus, we cannot make decisions solely to reduce risk, but must focus instead upon caring for individuals.

Actions we require—mask wearing, social distancing, radically reduced class sizes, outside and online learning—are required because we care about each member of our community, as well as the people with whom they live and work each day. We expect every member of our community to act according to these guidelines out of care for others, regardless of the level of their concern for themselves.

We recognize that all members of our community—students, faculty, staff, family, friends, community partners—are experiencing sustained, unpredictable stressors due to the pandemic. The stress and concern we carry may not be visible and may surface unexpectedly. We have developed these plans knowing that we are operating from new and ever-shifting baselines where all members of our community are experiencing high emotions, worry, and concern. We commit not only to look out for each other, but also to create a learning experience that allows ample time for care, rest, reflection, and replenishment.

When John can sneak away from his School of Environment & Sustainability, he can be found rummaging around dumpsters for various building projects.

The Last Word is sponsored by Judith and Ed Kinzie.