Office of the President

August 24, 2021

The benefits – and safety – of in-person learning and working

Hilary Godwin, Dean of the School of Public Health

As we prepare to return to school and work in person, a little voice inside many of our heads is asking: “Is it safe?”, “Might it be better to wait to come back?” and even “Why bother coming back at all?”

While the answers to these questions may vary depending on individual circumstances and experiences, I can tell you what I know from the perspective of a public health professional and a leader in our institution.

I entered public health because I care deeply about the health and well-being of all people. I am in favor of returning to work and school in person because I am confident that we can do so safely. Our colleagues at UW Medicine have demonstrated over the last 18 months that we can create a safe in-person work environment despite COVID-19. This is because we are so fortunate to have broad access to highly effective vaccines. While we are currently seeing a surge in cases and hospitalizations due to the Delta variantthe vast majority of severe cases are in unvaccinated individuals and the severe cases among the vaccinated are overwhelmingly among those over age 80. UW has a vaccine mandate for faculty, staff and students, aligned with the governor’s mandate. At UW and across our state, we also require our community to wear masks indoors even though they are vaccinated so that we can protect the most vulnerable members of our community and limit unnecessary spread of the virus.

While I do expect the current surge in cases due to the Delta variant to wane in the coming months, I also expect that, as long as so many people worldwide are not vaccinated, other new variants of COVID-19 will continue to emerge. As a result, I expect COVID-19 cases to wax and wane for at least the next year and likely for another couple of years. Knowing this, we should expect to see masking requirements (and perhaps other interventions) wax and wane as well. In this context, “waiting for the current surge to subside” to return to campus does not make much sense to me, especially knowing that we can create a safe environment using the measures we already know work. Creating this safe environment will require commitment from all members of our community and some changes in our daily behaviors, but it is absolutely achievable.

Additionally, I believe we have a lot to gain from coming back together in person and that we should start reaping those benefits sooner rather than later. The last eighteen months have confirmed what we knew already: being isolated is not good for people’s mental health. I often say that public health is a team endeavor, and the same can be said for learning and for much of the important work we do as members of the UW community. We are healthier, and we do better work when we are together in our UW community.

I have consistently been impressed with how much the UW community has achieved and how we have persevered despite the tremendous challenges and stresses that we have experienced individually and collectively over the last 18 months. I have also felt like I – and we collectively — have spent much of our energy during this time responding to crises and change. We have real, substantive, and important work that requires our energy, work we cannot do when we are in this mode. I understand that coming back to campus after being away and isolated for so long will be hard, frustrating, and, at times, scary. Coming back as a community will help us to adapt and learn how to thrive under the conditions of this “new normal” we find ourselves in so we can get back to doing what we do best – making the world a better place.