We’re Begging Students to Save Our LivesRoundup
tags: public health, colleges and universities, COVID-19
Amy Olberding is a professor of philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. Her latest book is The Wrong of Rudeness (2019).
This first week of fall semester, my colleagues are out making the rounds, meeting their classes for the first time and, this year, telling stories about their own lives. One professor speaks of her baby, too young to vaccinate. Another mentions an immunocompromised spouse at home. Still another tells of a sibling, lately deceased from Covid. Though each tale has its own rhythm and tone, they tend to end alike: Faculty nervously offer masks to their bare-faced students, who mostly decline to take them. Some look away sheepishly, some placidly stare, some sneer. Then class as we used to know it must begin, with introductory tours through syllabi, requirements, and course aims.
The University of Oklahoma, where I teach, is in a state that has barred requiring vaccinations or masks of students. This fact alone would make the university’s back-to-normal gambit dangerous. We are also in an “extremely high risk” area for Covid, where the Delta variant is finding plenty of unvaccinated hosts. In refusing to require masks, the university claims that it is abiding by the law and cannot do otherwise. But some school districts in the state have defied the ban on requiring masks, and our own law school-faculty say the law does not unambiguously forbid such a requirement (so long as we don’t single out the unvaccinated). In short, the university could defy or challenge the law. It has not.
When I arrived at my building to teach my first class, I was struck by the fact that there are no signs — not on the doors, not in the hallways, nowhere — encouraging the use of masks. I don’t feel great confidence that signs would generate more masking from students, yet I can’t help but shiver at an institution unwilling to make even this cheap gesture toward public health. Meanwhile, the university holds public events where unmasked administrators lead hundreds of unmasked freshmen in yelling out the school’s spirit chants.
Social distancing has also been eliminated in the classroom. This move, the administration claims, is a response to the CDC’s having lifted its recommendation for social distancing (never mind that the university is ignoring a raft of other CDC recommendations). The university also eliminated free Covid testing on campus. (If the university is conducting any surveillance testing of students, the faculty has not been told.) Assuming that a student seeks out testing and tests positive, that student is not required to notify their professors. The decision is left up to the student — it is something they can share or not, just as they can mask or not, vaccinate or not. As a result, we are living with opacity where case counts and exposure are concerned.
On the subject of masking, however, the administration is downright voluble. The week before our semester began, we received a flood of email explaining what we may and may not do with respect to classrooms and masking. We are instructed to “avoid” incentivizing students to wear masks by offering participation credit or bonus points — bribery is out. We are enjoined to “provide an inclusive learning environment,” which, we are told, means not negatively “impacting the learning” of the unmasked by requiring them to sit distant from the masked. By this same logic, we are “discouraged” from structuring in-class group work around masked and unmasked groups, lest doing so negatively impact learning, though how the learning of the masked might be inhibited by sitting with the unmasked is not addressed.
We are discouraged from “sharing Covid data that is not related to the course.” Presumably, nattering on about the state’s overburdened hospitals, worn-down physicians, and increasing death counts might constitute “pressure,” and faculty “should not pressure students to get vaccinated or wear a mask.” The most we can do is “encourage.” In practice, these guidelines have left faculty proffering details of their personal lives to crowds of unmasked students. We have become beggars and supplicants, hoping for mercy.
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