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Back to school at a college without Covid mask or vaccine mandates

The first week on campus was as anxious and frustrating as it was exciting and moving. My students feel it too.
Dr. Emily Contois prepares to teach in-person for the first time in 18 months on a campus with no mask or vaccine mandates.
Dr. Emily Contois prepares to teach in-person for the first time in 18 months on a campus with no mask or vaccine mandates.Dr. Emily Contois

When I walked into my first class of the fall semester at the end of last month, my eyes welled up with tears. “Oh, my. Hi, everyone!” I said, as my voice broke, overcome by emotion to see my students in-person together, ready to learn, for the first time in a year and a half.

But my joy was tempered by an extra variable: fear laced with uncertainty. As I return to in-person classes, there are no mask or vaccine requirements at my university nor in the city or state where I live. I now carry a grave responsibility for not only my students’ learning and professional development, but also for their safety and, potentially, their lives.

When I walked into my first class of the fall semester at the end of last month, my eyes welled up with tears.

For the last 2 1/2 semesters I have been teaching my college seminars online. Some students logged on from their family homes, while many resided here on campus, attending a mix of online, in-person and hybrid classes. For me, online classes were the best choice amid the spreading Covid-19 pandemic, but they still took a toll. Under nonpandemic conditions, teaching is like a chemical equation that balances. I put huge amounts of energy in, and so do my students. We ideally end class energized, vibrating from the exchange of ideas and the social experience of learning together.

Teaching online in a pandemic with frequent Wi-Fi struggles meant many, if not the majority, of my students could not turn on their cameras; I taught most days to a screen full of black squares rather than engaged faces. A number of my students and their families got Covid-19, meaning students were absent far more often, needing assignment extensions, resources and extra support. As all students struggled with living in a pandemic, many simply had less enthusiasm and motivation to commit to their studies. The teaching formula didn’t balance anymore.

For 2 1/2 semesters, I left each class a bit more depleted than when I started, until my reserves were gone. My faculty colleagues with children (and often without child care) felt far greater imbalances. Data from fall 2020 found that more than half of the faculty surveyed felt so overworked, stressed and unhopeful during the pandemic that they had considered leaving the professoriate.

Once the vaccination became available to teachers and students last spring, some of that hope returned. My students and I together wished for the fall we craved: in-person, energetic, fulfilling and worthwhile. I was even able to get my second vaccine shot on campus: free, convenient and quick. But my enthusiasm for fall quickly waned as not enough people got the vaccination.

What’s more, rather than promoting public health, Oklahoma’s governor impeded it, banning mask and vaccine mandates in schools, and universities too, in the name of personal choice. On campus our first week, the combined vaccination rate for students, faculty and staff was nearly 70 percent. Because of this, administrators repeatedly said our campus was safer than anywhere in our city. This is comparatively true, but it is certainly less safe than many other colleges and universities where my colleagues work, which have required vaccines and achieved vaccination rates upward of 90 percent.

My university does not require masks, but I am permitted to do so in my classes. One of my students commented that it meant a great deal to him that faculty members are doing everything they can to keep students safe. At the same time, another student rightly said masking in class feels pointless. It doesn’t do much good to combat Covid-19 if professors require masks in class, but masks aren’t required (and are thus not being worn) in other campus spaces, such as the gym or student union. Nevertheless, I am grateful that all of my students readily wear masks in class. My heart breaks for faculty friends at other universities who are begging their students to voluntarily mask up, to no avail.

For all these reasons, the first week on campus was as anxious and frustrating as it was exciting and moving. My students feel it too. When I asked about our return to campus life, they described it as surreal. Although we now have access to vaccinations, by metrics like the number of cases and hospitalizations, the pandemic is the same, or even worse, than it was during previous semesters. Despite this, the campus mask mandate that had been in place for a year has been rescinded, as has social distancing.

When I asked, multiple students told me they fear the return to in-person classes is temporary. They are bracing for campus Covid-19 numbers to spike and with them a return to online learning. They worry they’ll be quarantined in their dorms and apartments, again, conditions that led many of them to struggle with their studies and their mental health. One of my students is just starting her second year of college. This week in person was her first taste of the typical college experience. She’s uncertain how long it will last. Striking a different chord, my students finishing their degrees dearly want a good final year, one to make up for the many months they’ve lost. They carry this added emotional weight everywhere, at all times.

As I reflect upon my conscientious students’ perspectives, I worry their Covid-19 experience is just one more institutional failure that defines Generation Z, another moment when people in power have let them down. Although some students dismiss pandemic precautions, a cohort of my most diligent students have done all they can — remained socially isolated all last semester and the one before that, got vaccinated, are wearing masks — and it’s not enough, making all their efforts feel futile. One student described how his fear has transformed into a deep annoyance. He feels a constant, festering frustration that this is simply how things are now. Just as this generation faces unfair burdens with climate crisis, gun violence and political division, I worry they now feel desensitized to Covid-19. It’s a battle they inherited but will not be able to win on their own.

I urge those in power to take action to do more to keep students, faculty and staff (and their families and communities beyond campus) safe. Until they do, I fear for my own health and safety as I teach in person this semester, and I worry endlessly for my colleagues who are immunocompromised or have children too young to be vaccinated.

I also fear for my students’ futures. I’m concerned for their health and safety, their college experience and their currently fragile mental states. How will these catastrophic failures shape them? I want them to see democracy in action, citizens working together, innovation sprouting from necessity, impossibilities rendered asunder, hope persevering rather than dissipating. If nothing else, I’ll ensure this happens in the classroom, from behind our masks — however frustrating and fruitless it might feel.