COVID-19 and the 236th AAS Meeting
Kevin B. Marvel, AAS Executive Officer
Megan Donahue, AAS President
In response to the increasing threat of COVID-19, the American Astronomical Society is looking into converting its 236th meeting, currently scheduled 31 May to 4 June in Madison, Wisconsin, from an on-site/in-person conference to a fully remote/virtual conference.
The AAS staff and Board of Trustees (BoT) have been closely monitoring and following daily updates and advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On Thursday, 12 March, Governor Tony Evers of Wisconsin declared a public health emergency in light of the worsening outbreak in the state. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services immediately followed up with a recommendation that all nonessential gatherings of 250 or more people be cancelled or postponed. Under these circumstances, proceeding with our normal summer meeting this year is simply not possible.
While this is an extraordinarily difficult decision, we believe it is the right one to protect the health and welfare of our members, staff, vendors, and other meeting participants. If we can pull it off, holding a virtual AAS 236 would likely have positive long-term effects. Our Sustainability Committee has been wrestling with how to lower the carbon footprint of AAS meetings and has been encouraging the Society to experiment with ways of enabling remote access to some sessions. Until recently, every software product we explored for this purpose left a lot to be desired. Now, though, virtual conferencing technology appears to have proliferated, matured, and become more affordable. We are optimistic that AAS 236 could not only be successful as an all-digital conference, but also that it could serve as a trailblazer to a future of more inclusive and sustainable AAS meetings.
The AAS staff and BoT are working closely with the AAS Vice-Presidents and volunteer leaders to explore how plenary lectures, regular oral sessions, press conferences, and iPoster sessions might be integrated into a virtual conference. We anticipate that invited talks and prize lectures can be streamed live in real time with interactive Q&A. We are also investigating the possibility of building a virtual exhibit hall where online attendees could wander through and learn about new books, products, and services from the many organizations and companies that support the astronomical sciences and regularly set up booths at AAS meetings.
We have many decisions yet to make, including whether and when to hold a virtual conference, what technologies we should use, and how much to charge for registration. Assuming we decide to proceed, we’ll announce new abstract and registration deadlines, revised registration fees, and procedures for connecting to the conference as a speaker, audience member, exhibitor, reporter, or other attendee. Please check the AAS 236 website and watch for follow-up emails.
For those who have already registered, we will send a separate email with more information if we do switch from an in-person/on-site meeting to a remote/virtual one. If you’ve already booked your hotel in Madison, there’s no need to take any action just yet, as all three official AAS hotels guarantee full refunds up to 48 hours in advance of check-in. Better to wait till we know for sure how we’re going to proceed with AAS 236 before doing anything you might have to undo later.
The AAS strives to continue fulfilling our mission to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe and will do all we can during this pandemic to keep our employees, volunteer leaders, members, and other stakeholders as healthy and secure as possible.