Noted without comment

Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn now lives in the Bay Area, where he attends the Lighthouse Church in San Francisco, and plays in the worship band. According to a recent news article — about how he recently recorded four songs that will benefit the church’s homeless ministries — being a Christian in the U.S. may require apology:

“While he doesn’t have ‘any hesitation’ identifying as a Christian, [Cockburn] is starting to wonder if that’s such a good thing to say in public in the U.S. these days. If someone asks if he’s a Christian, he still says, ‘Yes, I’m a Christian, but I got vaccinated.'”

COVID’s impact on health care providers

The Wild Hunt, a pagan news blog, has a good post on how health care providers are dealing with the current COVID surge: “Pagan health providers respond to the Delta variant surge.” The author, Stacy Psaros, interviews several nurses who say things like, “You have healthcare workers being driven out of the industry due to burnout, physical and emotional stress of the situation.” Psaros also includes a few facts about how the current surge is different, including that in the week ending August 19, 22.4% of the weekly reported COVID cases were children, according to the American Pediatric Association.

Towards the end of the article, Psaros spends too much time quoting a nurse who doesn’t believe in vaccine mandates for health care providers and doesn’t think the experts are to be trusted — so much so that the editors of The Wild Hunt had to insert a disclaimer refuting some of this interviewee’s more ridiculous assertions. Sadly, it sounds like Psaros agrees with this interviewee, while not really understanding how this kind of libertarianism actually contributes to the health care provider burnout she’s reporting on. Nevertheless, despite this serious flaw, the article is worth reading so you can hear from some health care providers about what they’re experiencing.

People

I’ve been at a religious education conference for most of a week now. It has been very nice to be able to talk with colleagues in person, face-to-face. But it’s also exhausting. I talk with people for an hour over breakfast, then teach a class where we spend a lot of time talking, then talk for an hour over lunch, and often for another hour after lunch — and then I’m ready for a two-hour nap.

Others at the conference are having similar experiences. It’s really good to be able to be in a big group of people for the first time since March, 2020, but it’s also really tiring.

Many conservative Christians are appalled by anti-vaxxers

Steve Hassen, a conservative Christian, has written a blog post that explains why conservative Christians should get vaccinated. The blog post is based on a podcast interview with Professor Warren Throckmorton, a psychologist. Here’s an excerpt from the blog post:

“I asked Throckmorton for his view on the COVID-19 pandemic and what he thinks about vaccination? He and his family are vaccinated. When I asked him about Christianity and science, he told me Biblical sources provide believers guidance. He pointed out that Timothy, a disciple of St. Paul, had a stomach ailment. He was not advised to pray or just have faith but to take a little wine (that is, treat the ailment). Luke, who wrote one of the Gospels, was himself a physician. God gave us incredible gifts: our minds, intelligence, and curiosity. Certainly, we are meant to use our minds and think and not allow irrational fears to cause harm and death.”

Hassen covers a lot of ground in his blog post. He takes on Trump: “How can anyone [who’s] religious think God is using Donald Trump?” He explains how science and conservative Christian faith are compatible. He critiques Christian nationalism and dominionism, two of the biggest threats to U.S. democracy today. And he touches on the problem of narcissism in the pastors of mega-churches (some of what he says there reminds me of one or two people who used to be ministers of some of our largest UU congregations).

Hassen reminds me of the conservative Christians I used to know back in the day: people whose intelligence, morals, and ethics I held in great respect, even while disagreeing with them on some theological points. Unitarian Universalists who like to demonize white evangelical conservative Christians might want to read this post, and expand their horizons a little bit. If we’re going to stop the threat to democracy represented by QAnon and Trumpism, we need all the allies we can get.

Masks for employees

A couple of weeks ago, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) decided that masks would be required in workplaces, unless all employees in a given area proved that they were vaccinated. Then the business community leaned on Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, and the rules quickly changed. Requiring businesses to determine the vaccination status of their employees would hamper the economy, said the business owners. Newsom is facing a recall vote so he quickly agreed, and Cal/OSHA had to fall into line, and now employees who say they’re vaccinated (no proof required) won’t have to wear masks.

Mitch Steiger of the California Labor Federation, AFL/CIO, disagrees with Newsom. Steiger pointed out that workers in rural areas — some rural counties in California have vaccination rates on the order of 25% — will especially be at risk. When the San Jose Mercury News asked for comment, Steiger said, “We will literally have decided to sacrifice workers’ lives in order to spare employers the inconvenience of looking at a vaccination card.”

It happened again

The state of California just changed the COVID rules again. As reported by Bay Area News Group:

“Under mounting pressure, California’s workplace-safety board on Wednesday voted to drop controversial new rules that would have required many workers to keep their masks on for months — just hours after state officials announced that vaccinated Californians can go mask free in most settings starting next week.”

(The “mounting pressure” was from business groups, who out-pressured employee groups and unions who emphasized the safety of workers. Next time some politician says, “We follow the science,” remember that there are still many things scientists don’t know about COVID, which means that politicians are responding to political pressure as much as they’re “following the science.”)

The most difficult aspect of complying with COVID rules is that they’re constantly changing. Those of us who work with children are going to be dealing with changing COVID rules for at least six more months, assuming the vaccine trials for children aged 5 to 11 are completed by late this year. And those of us who also work with children under age 5 may be dealing with changing COVID rules for another year.

It’s exhausting. You learn one set of rules, and they change. This is inevitable. Our knowledge of COVID keeps changing. Though Americans love to blame people — the Democrats blame the Republicans, the Republicans blame the Democrats — in this case, there are no people to blame. We can only blame the virus. It’s silly to blame an unthinking virus. So there’s no blame.

But it’s still exhausting. COVID rules are changing on a weekly basis. It’s impossible to keep up.

Mind-numbing

The State of California has been updating its COVID regulations over the past three or four weeks. As a religious educator, I have to familiarize myself with three separate sets of regulations: “industry guidance” for “places of worship and cultural ceremonies,” “cohorts for children and youth in supervised settings,” and “daycamps and other supervised youth activities.”

Reading through these regulations is a mind-numbing experience. Many of the regulations start off saying “you have to do thus-and-so” but then refer you to another Web page or PDF which says “you have to do this-and-that,” where the two different sources don’t exactly contradict each other, but don’t seem to be in full agreement either.

And sometimes the rules are vague. In my favorite example, the state rules frequently say that “physical distancing” is required, but then they don’t tell you exactly what distance is required. Are we supposed to assume six feet? But a year ago, some of the physical distancing requirements were greater than six feet, as for example the distance required to be maintained between two stable cohorts of children. And now federal recommendations from the CDC are saying that three feet might be enough physical distancing; is the state trying to be deliberately vague about the amount of physical distancing, so they can decide later whether to adopt the CDC guidelines or not?

And I’m glad I don’t have to deal very much with the “industry guidance” for “places of worship and cultural ceremonies,” because those regulations contradict themselves. Due to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, California is not allowed to have regulations for places of worship that differ from the regulations for other large gatherings. And the first page you hit on for “industry guidance” for “places of worship and cultural ceremonies” basically says to see the guidance for large gatherings, which should make things easier, right? — but then there’s also a link to a PDF with rules from 2020 that are clearly not acceptable under the Supreme Court ruling, but because they’re linked to from the current “guidance” mean that still you’re supposed to follow them — I guess?

I understand that this must be an incredibly difficult time for state regulators and state employees. I’m sure they’re doing their best. But as it stands now, the regulations are so disorganized that I sometimes find it impossible to understand what I’m supposed to do. I sometimes feel like they wrote these regulations assuming we’re all big corporations who can hire full-time staffers to sort through this mass of material. The things is, if you’re a small nonprofit or a small business and trying to figure it out on your own, the staffer who’s trying to make sense out of the regulations doesn’t have hours and hours of spare time because we’re already working overtime trying to deal with everything else the pandemic is throwing at us.

To top it all off, they keep updating the regulations. So I have to figure out if I should put in a lot of time now trying to figure out the regulations, or wait and see if they change things again next week.

My mind is numb.

Living in a sick world

Gospel singer Deitrick Haddon has released a new single in which he takes on pandemic deaths and grief. Listen to Haddon’s soaring, swooping gospel voice over a compelling trap backing track: “Sick World” by Dietrick Haddon.

What I especially like about this song is that Haddon gets the way grief is additive. All the grief we’ve experienced since the pandemic began gets added to all the grief we’ve experienced from COVID deaths and COVID-related deaths. Haddon specifically mentions Kobe Bryant’s death, and the official music video references the insurrectionists storming the Capitol building: these and many other events get added to the people we know who’ve died because of COVID. Here are some of the lyrics:

“We’ve got kids killing each other in Chicago,
Detroit just ain’t the same no more,
And it ain’t getting better on the West Coast —
Tell me why we treating each other so cold.
People would rather put faith in a vaccine
Than wearing a mask, keeping their hands clean,
And this will all go down in history
That thousands have died cause we cannot agree, yeah.
Living in a sick world, but I’m praying you are well,
We can’t stand to lose nobody else,
Can’t stand to lose nobody….”

I don’t listen to much gospel or hip hop any more, but the powerful lyrics and the high level of musicianship make this song worth a listen. And yes, I am praying that you are well.

Research on Zoom fatigue

An article published in the journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior, Jeremy N. Bailenson reviews existing research to try to understand why Zoom meetings can be so fatiguing. The article’s title, “Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue,” summarizes what Bailenson perceives to be the primary cause of Zoom fatigue: it’s the nonverbal elements of Zoom that are so tiring. In the article’s abstract, Bailenson also states the limits of his paper:

“The arguments are based on academic theory and research, but also have yet to be directly tested in the context of Zoom, and require future experimentation to confirm.”

Bailenson outlines four “possible explanations of Zoom fatigue”:

“Excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze, cognitive load, increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself, and constraints on physical mobility. All are based on academic research, but readers should consider these claims to be arguments, not yet scientific findings.”

Bailenson then suggests small changes to the user interface of Zoom. Smaller default size of heads in the Zoom window reduce the load of “close-up eye gaze.” Cognitive load may be reduced by making audio-only calls the default. Using the “Hide Self” feature in Zoom does away with the problem of staring at one’s own video feed. Finally constraints of physical mobility can be handled by hardware solutions: “Use an external webcam and external keyboard that allows more flexibility and control over various seating arrangements.”

Note that Bailenson firmly states that all his suggestions need to be confirmed by further research. I already disagree with Bailenson on at least one point. I don’t use the “Hide Self” feature on Zoom because it’s too easy to go off camera; instead I prefer the user interface of Google Meet which shows a tiny thumbnail view of oneself, too small to see details, but just large enough so you can see if you’re going off camera. Bailenson also points out some interesting possibilities for further research. For example:

“Very few psychology studies on mediated interaction examine groups larger than two or three people, and future work should examine the psychological costs and benefits of video compared to audio in larger groups.”

As I think about Bailenson’s article, here are some changes in the way I use Zoom that I’ll implement for myself:

  • I’ll sit further away from my webcam, to reduce excessive close-up eye gaze
  • I’ll continue to use my remote keyboard, and my under-desk cycling machine, to reduce my fatigue by allowing more physical mobility for myself
  • When teaching small groups, I’ll use more screen sharing, which reduces apparent head size and provides another center of interest so participants don’t have to stare at me or each other

One big problem with any video platform, from my point of view as a religious educator, is that a lot of what I do is social-emotional learning. And a big chunk of social-emotional learning is about using nonverbal communication in a way that simply isn’t possible on video calls. So I’m also going to remain aware that videoconferencing has definite limitations, and I’m not going to expect it to do things it cannot do.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on improving our uses of videoconferencing.

COVID-safe outdoor program space

The pandemic has forced many readjustments. Children’s programming is, I feel, a big challenge. Given that there’s still no vaccine in testing for children 12 and under, we may be looking at COVID restrictions in children’s programming for another academic year. Offering only online programming for another academic year does not feel like a good solution to me.

Our congregation is fortunate in having lots of good outdoor space. The problem with our outdoor space is that anyone can access it, and current regulations for children’s programming in our county require limiting access to children’s programming space so that only the children and staff may enter. So the congregation purchased that ugly orange emergency fencing and a bunch of steel fence posts, and last week I and one of the members of the Board of Trustees (who is teaching in one of our in-person classes, and who is also the teen member of the Board) installed a fence around our primary children’s program area.

It’s not very attractive, but it seems to do the job of keeping unauthorized persons out of the program area. Once you’re inside the children’s program area, it’s less visible. In fact, the program area looks reasonably attractive.

We have some more improvements in the works, and soon should have another COVID-safe in-person children’s programming area ready. We’re going to max out at two in-person children’s programming areas, however, because at this point each program area has to have its own bathroom. With the bathroom limitation and the maximum allowed group size fo social distancing, our capacity for in-person children’s programs has dropped from 80 children pre-pandemic, to 16 under current COVID regulations.