SAN JUAN, P.R—As higher education associations slowly begin to return to in-person convenings, they might be wise to take note of how the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) has successfully planned its annual conference, attracting nearly 800 attendees to this island amid strict COVID-19 safety protocols.
Puerto Rico, which already had some of the strictest guidelines in place, has provided an extra layer of relief to those attending the academic conference for the first time since the coronavirus abruptly brought higher education meetings to a halt in the spring of 2020.
Puerto Rico has implemented severe penalties for individuals not in compliance with local mandates. In addition to the $300 fine for arriving without a valid negative test for those who are not vaccinated or traveling internationally, any passenger who does not comply with the orders and the local measures imposed by the Department of Health will be fined up to $5,000 for the first offense and up to $10,000 for additional offenses.
These aggressive efforts, including the fact that at least 73 percent of residents here are already fully vaccinated, are one of the reasons why COVID-19 has been easier to managed and why the numbers have consistently remained so low.
“Part of us coming to Puerto Rico and working with our partners on the ground, was knowing the things they were doing to protect the island,” said Dr. Jason P. Guilbeau, executive director of ASHE, the 46-year-old organization committed to the study of higher education. “This is such a unique place and a beautiful place, but we also wanted to be responsible tourists and responsible visitors.”
This year’s conference destination had been announced four months before COVID-19 dramatically altered the landscape of higher education and forced associations like ASHE to pivot to virtual conferences last year. But with the rollout of a vaccine earlier this year and a relaxing of travel restrictions by colleges and universities across the nation, the association offered its members a unique option: an in-person conference experience or the opportunity to live-stream some sessions and watch other recorded sessions virtually.
Though it’s technically a hybrid model, ASHE organizers are careful not to call it that.
“We can’t create virtually what is happening here in Puerto Rico,” said Guilbeau, who added that the virtual conference-goers will be able to access the audio from all ASHE conference sessions starting on December 1 and stretching through May 2022. “It is not a similar experience. We can’t recreate a virtual hug or handshake.”
In addition to Puerto Rico’s stringent vaccine mandates, ASHE officials went ahead and added another measure of security to keep attendees safe, including implementing social distance guidelines, and having participants scan a CLEAR Health Pass QR code—Puerto Rico’s health screening requirement—before a conference name badge was issued.
“There was intentionality around the selection of this conference and location years ago,” said Dr. D-L Stewart, president of ASHE, who noted that when ASHE officials visited the island back in July for a site visit, they were comfortable with the established protocols and the collaborative relationships that they had formed with local higher education leaders, that they felt comfortable moving forward with the conference.
This year’s conference titled, “Spanning & Unsettling the Borders of Higher Education,” included the Institute with Puerto Rican Higher Education Leaders, a day-long seminar that brought an intergenerational of ASHE members together to engage in collaborative work with Puerto Rican higher education officials. With funding from Ascendium, the Lumina Foundation, and The University of Denver, the Institute is the brainchild of Stewart and was organized by Dr. Vanessa Sansone, an assistant professor of higher education at The University of Texas at San Antonio.
“It’s the first time that a conference has come to Puerto Rico and we were invited to be partners,” said Dr. Lilliam Casillas- Martinez, a microbiologist at the University of Puerto Rico Humacao who participated in the Institute. After earning a Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut, Casillas-Martinez returned to her hometown to teach at the university, which has a student enrollment of about 3,000. She has been on the faculty for 22 years and her mission is to increase the number of Black Puerto Ricans in STEM fields.
“In Puerto Rico, we have been meeting all the time. We haven’t stopped,” she said, noticing that the pandemic did not alter in-person instruction.
Gabriele Haynes, a doctoral student at the University of Virgin Islands and a research fellow at the Institute, has lived in Puerto Rico for about two years. Though she has some concerns about how government finances higher education, she is pleased with how the pandemic has been handled.
“We have compliance,” she said, adding that when it comes to following COVID-19 mandates, locals have done what the government has asked them to do to stay safe. “The pandemic has not been a political thing in Puerto Rico it has been a public health issue and has been handled much better than most places in the states.
Even those who don’t want to get the vaccine, “happily get tested,” she said. “People are not throwing fits outside of Walmart or refusing to wear masks. That does not happen here.”
American Council on Education (ACE) recently announced that it will hold an in-person conference in San Diego in March. Like ASHE, attendees and vendors will be required to show that they are fully vaccinated or have a documented medical or religious exemption and present a negative COVID test within 48 hours of participation.
At a time when scholars need the physical support of each other in order to build and strengthen community, these in-person gatherings can be safe and productive if planned correctly, said Steward.
“For many people, this is the first time they’ve been on a plane going someplace in 20 months, and the first time, they’ve been at a conference in over a year and a half,” said Stewart. “So, how do we create an environment that recognizes that anxiety and to try and mitigate it as much as possible?”
As other scholarly organizations look to ASHE for guidance on how to bring their members back together again for these annual gatherings, U.S. cities might do well to study the protocols that Puerto Rico has put into place to curtail the spread of a pandemic that has now claimed the lives of more than 749,000 Americans.
“I feel safer traveling to Puerto Rico than I have traveling to Ohio because of what the Puerto Rican government has done,” said Stewart, adding that the travel restrictions across the continental U.S. does not “come close to the level of protection that this government has sought to protect its people.”