24 March 2020

Mission Possible: The AAS & COVID-19

Kevin Marvel

Kevin Marvel, American Astronomical Society (AAS)

From the Executive Office

It is difficult to focus on much else than the coronavirus and the impact of COVID-19 here and around the world. Each of us has a wide variety of personal concerns and is facing great uncertainty. Some, like me, have loved ones who are serving on the front lines of this crisis, providing health care services at hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices. Most of us have friends, family, and colleagues in high-risk groups. Although social distancing and staying home will slow the rate of the disease’s spread, the numbers are going to get worse before they get better; we must stay the course and maintain physical distancing for the time being.

I take heart at this difficult time in the amazing people stepping forward, leaning in, and making things happen — from local and state politicians making tough decisions, to individuals volunteering to help in a variety of ways: crafting homemade surgical masks, helping the elderly secure food and supplies, fulfilling online orders, delivering groceries, and simply sending good wishes and checking on each other. Here in the US, we’re even seeing cities and towns provide free meals to needy school-age children three times a day. It is inspiring to see so many doing so much, often at significant personal risk.

The astronomy community has shown the same sense of positive action that we see across the country, in ways specific to our discipline and circumstances. When colleges and universities moved overnight to online learning, most instructors were caught out, not knowing what to do, which tools were best, and how to approach this very different teaching-and-learning environment. Multiple online lists of software and curriculum materials, active discussions providing advice, and other helpful resources popped up overnight. AAS Education Committee chair Kim Coble, working with Sanlyn Buxner, Chris Impey, Matthew Wenger, and Frank Timmes, came up with some innovative ideas and got them up and running quickly. Check out their open Google doc and curated listing of educational resources. Chris Impey, who co-authored AAS-IOP eBooks on education with Sanlyn and Matthew, worked with Frank to record and post to the AAS YouTube channel conversations about best practices in online learning. We’ve made one chapter of one of the eBooks, on learner-centered teaching (including online teaching), available to all for free. Chris et al. will soon be hosting virtual office hours to talk about lessons learned and to offer advice for online teachers and learners.

Monona Terrace

Our journals are open for business while our editors work remotely, and our support vendors continue to operate manuscript submission, refereeing, and production services. If you’re wondering how to access the AAS journals while you’re stuck at home, we’ve provided some helpful tips. If you receive a request to serve as a referee, please don’t feel pressure to accept if you really cannot under the current circumstances; we understand and will find someone else to do it. The journals are vital to our field and vital for the Society, so we must carry forward. If you can help by performing a peer review, we really appreciate it; if you can write up your research results and submit a paper, great! Our science will continue, and we thank you for making the time and effort to help.

The Board of Trustees has formally decided to convert our June AAS meeting to a virtual one — a very sensible decision and one that ended up having no financial penalty for the Society, as the conference venue and hotels agreed to work with us to hold a future meeting in Madison to offset the lost revenue from this one. Pre-registered attendees will be fully refunded, as well.

With breathtaking speed, our crack meetings staff identified a viable set of technologies that will enable us to move forward with an engaging, valuable online conference. More information is posted online, with more to come as we finalize the details. We recognize that the cost of travel can be a barrier to attending our meetings, so moving #AAS236 from Madison to the internet may enable a larger number of people to participate. We will soon reopen abstract submission and registration in the hope that this is so. We envision having low registration fees that will enable everyone in our community to engage meaningfully for one or more days, either in real time or via recorded content that will be available on demand.

In closing, we are in unprecedented times facing unprecedented challenges. As a nation, as an organization, and as individuals we have great resources, and this crisis will eventually end. My priorities are to keep all AAS employees and volunteers safe and healthy; to keep all employees and contractors paid; to keep the Society operating and financially viable; and to continue to make progress toward accomplishing the mission and goals set by the Board of Trustees. With your help and the engaged commitment of our staff I know we will be successful, despite the difficult and uncertain path ahead.