It’s Mardi Gras season here in New Orleans with all the familiar sights: the king cakes, the beads, and—making their triumphant return in 2022—the parades. But we also see a new tradition, one that grew from pandemic-driven necessity and a longing for shared experience: the New Orleans house float. Last year, COVID canceled many of our beloved Mardi Gras traditions, particularly the parades where every member of the community could stand shoulder-to-shoulder in celebration. Instead, creative and resilient New Orleanians turned their homes into static “floats,” where people could bring joy to their neighbors, support local artists and businesses, and celebrate the Carnival season safely.
This year’s coexistence of the Mardi Gras parades and the house floats reminds us that, while life will continue after this pandemic, it may be changed forever. The same can be said for higher education: it will continue after the pandemic, though it may be different in important ways. While I don’t have a crystal ball—and the Jackson Square psychics are silent on the matter—I have a few predictions about what life in higher education will look like after COVID-19.
Researchers have played a tremendous role in diagnosing, understanding, and treating COVID-19, and—because of our specialized focus in infectious disease—Tulane researchers have been at the forefront of pandemic knowledge. But scientific breakthroughs don’t happen overnight; they are the result of years of study and incremental increases in knowledge. This new, heightened awareness of infectious disease will likely drive investment in biomedical research, so we are all better prepared for future threats to public health.
In the spring of 2020, we went from teaching classes in-person to teaching online in a matter of days. Thanks to technology, we were able to adapt quickly to continue our educational mission. But what if the next crisis is a technological one? To mitigate against unforeseen events, you need a team that can imagine every possibility and help you make a plan to overcome it. I predict a future where a wider range of subject matter experts have a seat at the planning table.
This is the big one. Before the pandemic, the educational trend lines hinted at an entirely virtual future—why go to a campus when you could just learn from home? But when we had to distance ourselves from one another, when every hug and handshake could mean disease and death, the impact on our collective psyche was painful beyond measure. It’s harder to get to know people when you interact virtually; it’s harder to share experiences that lead to greater empathy. When we share a space in our campus community, learning and living side by side, we have the chance for thousands of interactions both large and small. Those moments teach us about who we are, what we value, how we interact with others, and how we fit into the world. Those experiences can’t be replicated in an online chat or a video conference. People matter. Relationships and connections matter. We learn best when we learn together—and colleges and universities make that possible. It’s a lesson from COVID we must not forget.