Government and university groups field changing health and safety measures to gather in person

Masks were required and hand sanitizer was readily available when the American Public Works Association held its 2021 Public Works Expo in St. Louis, Mo. Organizers will evaluate the environment to plan safety protocols for this year’s event in August in Charlotte, N.C
Masks were required and hand sanitizer was readily available when the American Public Works Association held its 2021 Public Works Expo in St. Louis, Mo. Organizers will evaluate the environment to plan safety protocols for this year’s event in August in Charlotte, N.C

Government-based groups and higher-education entities are returning to in-person events, many for the first time in two years. That’s the good news. The bad news is organizers still have to navigate local, state, and federal health and safety guidelines. Attendees also sense uncertainty and are waiting longer than usual to register for events, making it tough on planners. And airline masking rules—be it requiring passengers to wear masks or not—continue to concern many.

When the largest federal employee union in the country held its legislative conference in late March at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill, organizers worked through changing local rules, says Julie Tippens, director of the legislative, political, and mobilization departments for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents 700,000 federal and D.C. government workers.

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant forced moving the event from February to March with little notice. During the event registration period, D.C. officials dropped the local vaccination requirement, reinstated it, then dropped it again. Still, registrations were down only slightly from pre-pandemic levels, at 603 for this year’s event versus 696 for the last conference held before COVID-19, Tippens says.

“We still had hand sanitizer, masks, and Plexiglas—things that people didn’t necessarily plan for at previous conferences,” Tippens says. The climate makes planning a balancing act between focusing on caution and content. “We tried to work on safety protocols but also tried not to get so caught up on it that we missed the context of the meeting.”

Those attending the AFGE legislative conference participated in rallies and workshops and heard from some high-profile speakers, including U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others addressed attendees via video.

“It was a good group and certainly a productive conference,” Tippens says.

The union has scheduled two more in-person events this year: its National Convention this month in Orlando, and its 2022 Diversity Week and Human Rights Training Conference in August in New Orleans.

Color-coded comfort levels

After a 2021 with no in-person events, the Association of Government Accountants (AGA) has several scheduled for the remainder of 2022, including four in Washington. Many include hybrid components, although that is not new for AGA, which was hosting online events well before the pandemic, says Lyndsay McKeown, AGA’s senior manager of marketing and design.

“Our events are attended by financial management professionals—auditors, accountants, budget officers, etc.—who work for the government either directly or as contractors,” McKeown says. “Our attendees come to learn the latest industry developments from government leaders and practitioners. They also get the opportunity to connect with colleagues from other offices across the country.”

In February, the organization held its first in-person event in two years. “Our February event required masks and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test,” McKeown notes.

In addition, the group’s meetings team implemented a color-coded name-badge lanyard system that allowed people to signal their comfort levels: red for social distancing, yellow for elbow bumps, and green for handshakes.

“It was really well received and something I see us continuing to use for our upcoming events,” McKeown says.

The group also will continue to follow established guidelines. “In terms of safety protocols, we’re abiding by the guidance set by local government(s) and the event venue,” she says. “As of now, it looks like our protocols are going to be masks and vaccines are strongly recommended but not required.”

Planning to plan

Points of Light holds an annual conference on volunteer service. This year's gathering will be a hybrid event, with more than 1,000 in-person attendees expected in Orlando, Fla.
Points of Light holds an annual conference on volunteer service. This year’s gathering will be a hybrid event, with more than 1,000 in-person attendees expected in Orlando, Fla.

Points of Light will hold its annual conference as a hybrid event next month at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando, Fla. More than 1,000 attendees are expected in person, with another 1,000 online. This will be the nonprofit group’s first in-person event since the pandemic, as its 2020 and 2021 conferences were virtual. Its audience, whether virtual or in person, is made up of global leaders across the nonprofit, corporate, and government sectors, from those early in their career to seasoned executives.

The organization, which is dedicated to volunteer service, draws attendees from nearly all 50 states and more than 20 countries, representing nonprofits; NGOs and social entrepreneurship organizations; national service; local, state, and federal governments; Fortune 500 companies; and small businesses.

Attracting international attendees has been especially difficult given pandemic travel restrictions. But to keep its in-person attendees safe, Points of Light plans to follow recommended local, state, and federal safety guidelines.

The American Public Works Association (APWA) is assessing the current environment regarding COVID-19 ahead of its August convention. This year’s Public Works Expo in Charlotte, N.C., is aptly named PWX 2022: Ready and Resilient.

“As it approaches, we’ll determine what protocols should be in place,” says Diana Forbes, director of meetings for APWA.

A 30,000-member organization serving professionals in all aspects of public works worldwide, APWA held its 2021 Expo in St. Louis, Mo., but canceled their 2020 event. The convention typically draws a range of public works employees, including directors, superintendents, managers, city planners, and city and county engineers. Touted as North America’s largest exhibit floor for public works equipment and services, the expo offers interactive sessions and workshops on everything from professional development to emergency planning, sustainable practices, and street and road construction.

Pre-pandemic, APWA officials could expect about 5,000 to attend the expo each year. Forbes says it is difficult to determine how many they’ll have this year, but “we are pacing at pre-COVID numbers.”

That’s good news for the host city. Visit Charlotte gives a conservative estimate that the event could have as much as a $7.1 million economic impact on the region.

Universities offer wisdom

Higher-education conferences have been using inventive ways to clear COVID-19 hurdles.

The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), dedicated to advancement of undergraduate liberal education, held its four-day annual meeting as a hybrid event in Washington this January. In-person attendees were required to show proof of vaccination and wear masks indoors. Plenary sessions and some concurrent sessions were livestreamed for both online and in-person attendees. Organizers were flexible in allowing members to change from in person to virtual up to the last minute.

Being able to attend the event is important to participants, including Mary Dana Hinton, president of Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. “To me, this is the place where the academic superheroes convene,” Hinton says in a video statement recorded at the annual meeting. “I never miss AAC&U.”

For AAC&U’s 2022 Knowledge Exchange Institute in May, the association reduced participant capacity by approximately 30 percent to allow more social distancing. Proof of vaccination also was required.

When the Council of Independent Colleges held its 2022 Presidents Institute on Florida’s Marco Island in January, they arranged for a healthcare provider to be onsite and offered COVID-19 testing for the approximately 700 attendees. The association of nonprofit independent colleges and universities also required attendees to wear masks and provide proof they were fully vaccinated at least two weeks before arriving. The organizers used a third-party vaccine verification system through which registrants submitted proof of vaccination. Meeting spaces were set up to create more distance between participants, and additional time was added between sessions to reduce congestion in hallways.

A component of the South by Southwest family of conferences and festivals, the SXSW EDU Conference & Festival was put on hold for two years. But the four-day SXSW EDU 2022 was back in Austin, Texas, in March for its first-ever hybrid event. The conference, aimed at teachers, nonprofits, and tech companies, fosters innovation and learning in the education industry. In-person attendees were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, but following the event, the organizers made the conference content available online on demand.

Organizers expect 500-plus attendees when the Southern Association for College Student Affairs (SACSA) hosts its annual conference this November at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex in Alabama, says conference chair Jessica Wildfire.

Organizers of the SACSA 2022 Conference—the association’s largest conference event of the year—have woven the pandemic topic into the gathering: A conference session will focus on the impact of and recovery from COVID-19.

“The association will be following the State of Alabama and City of Birmingham policies in regard to COVID-19,” Wildfire says. “As we get closer to the conference dates, all necessary information regarding COVID and accessibility for conference attendees will be on the conference website.”

Campus life

The University of South Alabama in Mobile took health and safety precautions during student registration and orientation events in 2021.
The University of South Alabama in Mobile took health and safety precautions during student registration and orientation events in 2021.

On-campus activities have been disrupted by the pandemic, as well, with universities and colleges adapting to constant changes.

The University of South Alabama in Mobile has navigated the pandemic, with “each semester different and each week different in the world of campus visits,” says Delisa Johnson, director of the university’s prospective student program and new
student orientation.

But things are improving. Johnson says the university hosted about 25 percent more visitors on campus in the first three months of 2022 than it had in the same time period last year. Organizers anticipate 1,200 or more guests for Fall 2022 USA Day, a special Saturday campus visitation event for prospective students and their parents. That’s up from the 1,000 guests who attended Fall 2021 USA Day, which was the first large-scale event the university had held since 2020.

“We offered a great deal of virtual options for experiencing campus and supplemented with in-person events as permitted,” Johnson notes. “In-person events did require safety precautions for health, as deemed necessary by the university depending on several factors. Many of those events required masks and social distancing. Because the events were often at different times and locations and under different circumstances, no two were the same.”

No two experiences being the same seems to be the standard of the last two years: The only constant is change. Government and higher-education organizations are powering through by recognizing the need for flexibility and creativity. That, and a lot of planning.

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