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27 Feb 2022

Face to face – And just like that, we are somehow at the end of February, and the spring semester looms large on the horizon. This is the fifth semester now since the pandemic started, and at long last it looks like we’re going back to in-person classes. At least, that is what we’ve been told. How this will actually work in practice remains to be seen.

“On some days I feel like things are going to work out, while on other days I don’t see how they possibly could.”

Of course, going back to in-person classes doesn’t mean going back to “normal” (that is, pre-pandemic norms). Everyone will still have to wear masks, which is not ideal. For one, it means that even though I will be able to see all of my students and not have to badger them to turn on their cameras, I will be able to see even less of their faces than usual. I am also very much not looking forward to having to teach while wearing a mask. But this precaution seems unavoidable for the time being.

Another precaution being taken is individual acrylic barriers at each seat. These are three-sided barriers that fold out and cocoon the students to the front and sides—assuming that they lean into the little boxes and don’t lean back in their chairs. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like looking out over a classroom full of masked students sequestered behind transparent cages, like a horde of naughty little Magnetos. Well, I won’t have to imagine for long, because that is going to be my reality next week.

Is it worth going back to in-person classes if this is what it is going to be like, at least for the time being? I’ve thought long and hard about this question, and the optimistic side of me says, yes, it is worth it. Because the optimistic side of me sees this as a temporary inconvenience, a painful but necessary transitional stage that must be endured before we can get back to something more closely resembling “normal.” If this is what I have to put up with in order to get our students back into the classrooms, where they can have a more interactive learning experience, then I can do this.

I do have a pessimistic side, too, though, and this darker side of me wonders if we’re not just building ourselves a house of cards that will collapse at the slightest breeze. And I’m afraid to report that the pessimistic side of me was encouraged the other day by something that happened in our building. I had spent most of the morning meeting with my TA for a special class I’ve been tasked with this semester, after which I composed an email to my assistant for a big project that has been taking up much of my time these days. Feeling good that I had gotten some practical things done, I decided to check my email before breaking out my lunch—soup and a sandwich brought from home. As usual, over half of the items in my inbox could immediately be deep-sixed (always a cleansing, cathartic experience), but then I caught sight of a foreboding email from one of our department TAs. Turns out that there had been a confirmed COVID case in our building, and as a result the entire building would be closed for disinfection for two hours and change, starting at half past noon.

I went down to our department office and found our TAs buzzing around like bees from a fallen hive. I managed to quickly grab the TA who had sent the email and asked her if we could just hole up in our offices or if we had to evacuate. Her harried reply was that the disinfectant could be harmful to humans, so everyone had to evacuate. I just nodded, wished her luck, and went back up to my office. Even though the building would be open again before three o’clock, it was impractical for me to head somewhere else to wait out the disinfection, so I packed up my things and walked back home. There I finally ate my lunch and then tried to get some work done in spite of the construction going on right across from my study. I was only moderately successful.

Let me back up for a minute, though. What exactly does it mean to have a confirmed COVID case in our building? That sounds pretty serious, as if they suddenly discovered that someone with COVID was in our building, but all it means is that someone who works in our building tested positive for COVID at some point. We have no idea when they were last in the building, how long they were in the building, where they were in the building, etc. And even if we did, what good does disinfecting the entire building do? We’ve known since early on that the virus doesn’t survive very long on surfaces, so it’s quite likely that any virus that may have gotten onto any surface was already long dead by the time the disinfecting team arrived. But because one person tested positive, everyone got kicked out for what amounts to sanitation theater (if I can borrow—and twist—a term from TSA critics). It felt like seeing an ant crawling on your wall and burning your entire house down in response.

So I have to wonder what’s going to happen when we go back to in-person classes and a student tests positive. Notice that I said “when” here and not “if,” because this is inevitable. Confirmed cases have been skyrocketing here, and for some time now we have been well over 100,000 new cases daily. It would be a genuine miracle if no student (or teacher) ever tested positive. What are we are going to do when this happens? I was talking with some colleagues earlier this week, and one of them half-jokingly said that he was sure we were only going to have a single in-person class this semester—because someone will test positive and the school will panic and we will be back to online classes by the end of the week.

Now, this is not necessarily the administration’s fault. The school is just trying to stay on the right side of the government regulations, so I don’t blame them for this. Really, it’s up to the government now to make good on a promise they made months ago—that we were going to start “living with COVID.” Granted, this promise was made before omicron was a thing, but I think it’s clear now that omicron isn’t nearly as deadly as previous variants like delta. We have seen a spike in deaths recently with the increase in cases, but the numbers have been roughly the same as they were during the last spike in December. Back in December, though, we had fewer than 10,000 new cases a day. Just to clarify: Confirmed cases have risen by two orders of magnitude, yet deaths have remained roughly the same. Obviously, no number of deaths and severe cases is ideal, but I think we need to tailor our measures to the reality we are facing.

The good news is that there are signs of this beginning to happen. A few weeks back, the government raised the limit on the number of people that could eat together in a restaurant from four to six, and they have not walked that back despite the increase in the number of cases. Also, just last week (I believe it was), they dropped the requirements for contact-tracing check-ins (generally via QR code) at non-restaurant businesses—that is, any place where you do not need to take off your mask. And I just heard that, starting in March, they are dropping the quarantine obligation for family members of infected individuals (right now, if one member of a household is infected, the entire household has to quarantine). I think that more could be done—for one, the government could make good on its promise to stop reporting new case numbers, since all that does at this point is foster an atmosphere of fear and panic—but we do appear to be moving in the right direction.

So we’ll have to see how it goes. I’ve been swinging back and forth between optimism and pessimism; on some days I feel like things are going to work out, while on other days I don’t see how they possibly could. Today, I think, I’m feeling positive. But the truth is that we won’t know how feasible this return to in-person classes will be until we actually start the semester. For now I’ve got my fingers crossed. I’ll let you know what happens.

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