I am an instructor at Texas A&M, and I have always loved my job. But this semester, the classroom feels like a very unsafe space. In fact, it feels actively hostile.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I struggled through the isolation and panic of the situation like everyone else. My spouse and I stayed home as much as possible. All of my classes were taught remotely. I avoided any indoor venues or socializing with anyone outside our household. As the pandemic progressed, I followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines carefully — I wore a mask indoors, I practiced social distancing and I got vaccinated as early as I was qualified. Finally, by early summer 2021, it felt like all of our concerted effort was going to pay off and everything was going to return to normal.
Unfortunately, it’s now early fall, and things in our town are anything but normal. At a time when most of our country is finally starting to see a decrease in COVID-19 rates, cases in Brazos County have skyrocketed, and are now at their highest level since the pandemic began.
What changed? Students returned to campus, and in-person classes resumed.
The return of in-person teaching doesn’t have to be a problem in and of itself. If people would pay attention to medical experts and conduct themselves according to the best practices, in-person learning can be conducted safely.
But that is not happening.
If you walk around campus, enter an academic building or participate in a classroom exercise, you would assume that everything is back to normal. Very few people — students, faculty and staff — are wearing masks. Almost no one is exercising additional social distancing. Northgate bars and restaurants are as crowded as ever. Our football stadium and tailgate venues attract thousands of fans for every home game.
Everyone is behaving normally. But things are not normal.
As of Oct. 4, we have 120 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people in Brazos County. That’s four times the current national average. It’s one of the highest rates of infection in the state and in the country. One in six individuals in Brazos County have gotten infected with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. And those numbers keep climbing.
I take great pride in delivering quality content to my students in the classroom. I enjoy group and individual interactions, and helping students achieve “lightbulb” moments, where the “aha” expression on their face is worth more than all the paychecks I’ve ever received. Achieving these moments in a remote environment is never as rewarding as it is in person. So I was looking forward to this fall semester. But only if we could return to the classroom in a safe way.
That is not happening.
I can’t require my students to wear masks. Our governor and our school have outlawed mask mandates. I can “strongly encourage” mask usage, but students can ignore my encouragement, and many do. Furthermore, every time I encourage the use of masks in the classroom, the atmosphere of the classroom changes. The facial expressions of my students harden. They lean back in their seats and cross their arms. Several of them sneer at me. The belligerence is palpable. It’s uncomfortable. It feels dangerous.
I’ve been teaching for 25 years, and for the first time in my life, the classroom feels like an unsafe space.
And it isn’t just the classroom.
In other circumstances, I would discuss my worries with the head of my department. But after seeing my supervisor strolling the corridors of our building without a mask, I realize that our administration is unlikely to be a receptive audience for my concerns. For the first time in my career, I feel isolated and unsupported by my department, my college and my university.
The same problem is true across campus — our leaders are flaunting the strong advice of the CDC and infectious disease experts. Masks are absent at most indoor gatherings. Social events on campus are proceeding like everything is normal. It’s no surprise our students are following the bad example of our leadership.
Brazos County has suffered a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 infections since the beginning of the semester. In addition to vaccinations, mitigating future COVID-19 spread requires two additional, simple steps — increased social distancing and facial masks in enclosed spaces. Our community is suffering from needless sickness and death due to a blatant disregard for common sense and science.
And frankly, I’m sick to death of it all.