How are you all doing? Throughout the week, I collected some screenshots from Twitter that resonated with me and the experience of returning to campus for the fall semester. This past week marked my first time back in the classroom in 18 months. It was surreal. Partly because my department had moved into an entirely new building during Covid-19, so everything was unfamiliar from my desk to the classrooms I taught in. The mask-wearing part was actually pretty normal. In Northern Virginia, masks have been pretty consistent and pervasive. All of my students came masked and stayed masked. Only one or two seemed unused to talking without pulling their mask down (?), but I was suitably impressed with their efforts. They didn’t seem concerned about distancing, but then again, neither is our university. The students had elbow room between them, but that’s it. For context, my institution has both a vaccine and masks-indoors mandate and does regular testing. All that to say that while I have some anxiety coming into the classroom, I have nothing like the fear that so many others have to deal with at their institutions. What is it like where you are?
On the first day of classes, I opened the floor to discuss any topic or question on their minds, and, in both classes, I was asked what my opinion was on whether it was likely we would remain in-person all semester. Like the instructor in the tweet above, I was surprised at their surprise when I said my money was on another online pivot. I understood their disappointment if not their surprise. These are current sophomores who missed most of the spring semester of their senior year in high school and spent their first entire year of college online. They also asked me what we would do if I was notified of a Covid-19 positive test. I admitted to being somewhat stumped. We have not exactly received clear guidance on what to do in that case. I think the last I heard was that the university would determine the level of exposure through contact tracing and let me know if we have to go virtual for a period of time (?!). It seems I’m not alone in being unclear about what is going to happen. I saw an instructor on Twitter (who apparently had the power to decide for herself what action to take in the event of a covid-19 positive) tweet asking: what is the most responsible thing to do? Sadly, some of the folks who chimed in were already (!) in that situation and could give advice on what they did. My colleagues in our slack are just as confused, although some of them have made a preemptory decision to go online for a week in the event of exposure to allow time for testing. As I told the students, I’m afraid that even if we don’t pivot fully, we’ll end up on a whack-a-mole situation where we have to quarantine so much it’ll feel like fully online instruction.
Our first department meeting was almost exclusively devoted to navigating Covid-19, but even then, by the end of it, we didn’t know what the university’s position was on enforcing mask policies or what to do if a student or teacher became Covid-19 positive. Shortly after the term began, an email from the provost clarified the enforcement policy. At our institution, we can ban students who won’t wear masks from the classroom and call security if they refuse to leave. I should add that if they just don’t have access to a mask, they can get one from the student center for free or purchase one from the bookstore.
Is anyone else asking themselves if masked, distanced classes are really so much better than zoom classes? I am torn. For my class, a project-based, community-engaged, largely group-work style class, it is better to be in person for a myriad of reasons – but only if the students are allowed to huddle in groups, to pass objects back and forth without running each time to the sanitation station, to talk and move around freely. If my class was sage-on-the-stage style, I would absolutely insist on making it online because how exactly is screaming through cloth that’s leaving a sweat stain around my mouth for an hour at a bunch of uncomfortable students who can’t interact with each other or me better than a zoom class?
There’s been a viral tweet going around about a professor who resigned his position because a student refused to mask in his class, and, I’m assuming, his university had no policies like mine to support him. I’m not entirely sure about his circumstances, but it made me think about risking your life and risking your job (which in the USA means risking your health insurance and, thus, potentially your life). It seems like a rock and a hard place that’s going to crush many of us. And so many of the decision makers aren’t in these same rock-and-hard places (i.e. in high-contact roles). There’s a big difference between sitting in your own office all day typing away or going to meetings with five people and going to a campus with thousands of people to interact closely with 100 of them. The same can be said, of course, for all the workers who had to work in hospitals and grocery stores, airports and hotels the entire time of Covid-19.
How was your first week back (or, if that hasn’t happened yet, what are you anticipating)?
Stay tuned for more posts this year about teaching, research, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions and Instagram: @ecacademic (where I really nerd out about planning). You can also follow this blog (see the email subscribe button on the home page).