January 16, 2022
Many higher education associations are preparing for annual meetings in the next few days, weeks, and months. With Omicron still spreading rapidly, association leaders say that they are keeping the health of attendees front of mind, whether their conference is fully virtual, in-person, or hybrid.
“We had planned a hybrid meeting from the beginning—not to say we anticipated Omicron, but we saw the opportunity over the past year and a half for greater and more diverse participation in virtual conferences,” said Dr. Dawn Michele Whitehead, vice president of the office of global citizenship for campus, community and careers at the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), a global membership organization that centers on undergraduate liberal education.
This Wednesday, AAC&U will start a four-day annual meeting after choosing last fall to offer an in-person and virtual component. In-person attendees will join events in Washington, D.C, and will be required to show proof of vaccination and wear masks indoors. Plenary sessions and some concurrent sessions will be live-streamed for both virtual and in-person registrants. All conference participants will be able to watch session recordings after the conference.
“I think people waited a little later than usual to register for the conference, especially those with an in-person dimension, because people were watching to see what was going to happen,” said Whitehead. “As people had a better sense of what was going on, we saw more people make a decision on virtual or in-person attendance.”
Whitehead noted that AAC&U has also been allowing members to switch from in-person to virtual at the last minute. In-person attendees at the conference can additionally access the virtual platform if they decide not to join sessions or if they report COVID-19 symptoms and can no longer be present in-person.
“This week, I have heard some people say things like, ‘I have a young child, they’re not vaccinated, so I’m not comfortable with attending in-person,’” said Whitehead. “So, we have seen people take advantage of those changes so that they can still participate.”
But not all associations have the resources to offer a hybrid conference.
About two weeks ago, the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), a membership association dedicated to nonprofit independent colleges and universities, brought together the presidents of independent colleges and universities from January 4 to 7 in Marco Island, Florida. At this annual conference called the Presidents Institute, attendees were required to be vaccinated with proof of vaccination.
“We knew early on that we didn’t have the staff to do a hybrid experience well,” said Dr. Marjorie Hass, president of CIC, on the choice to go in-person. “Then as Omicron spiked, we needed to review our plans, so we talked with medical advisors and with our board to come to a decision that we would be all in.”