Returning to normalcy

Opinion columnist Sam Somogye discusses the benefits of returning to in-person classes for Texas A&M following a stint of virtual learning due to the pandemic. 

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.

(14) comments

Agtastic

Thank you! It has been cowardly of the administration not to defy the governor and protect us. Silver taps for a student who died needlessly of Covid because of a culture of pro-disease, anti-society attitude. Is this really the Aggie way?

Hammertime!

You could take a leave of absence since you cannot respect the students' desire to live life free of a mask. Or, you could wear multiple masks and get a booster every month.

These students are adults. Their attendance pays your salary.

Have some more respect for them

LonKYoung

Yes! And for the cause of freedom, we should ignore all traffic laws, right? Sure, lots of people will die, but at least we won't be controlled! And while we are at it, let's eliminate all other governmental restrictions such as the prohibition on domestic violence, assault, breaking and entering, drunk driving, shooting bullets into crowds, stealing, vandalism, arson, tax evasion, etc.

No civilized society is "free" in the way you seem to interpret the word. We have many, many restrictions that are necessary to protect the innocent from people so selfish they can't be bothered to wear a simple mask during a pandemic to save lives.

Yes, the students are adults. But, what about that should allow them to carelessly transmit a deadly virus and kill others? Remember that every one of the over 700k Americans who have died of COVID caught it from someone else. How about you have some more respect for them?

EngineerFromAggieland

BTW, more Texas A&M students have been killed by driving, drunk driving, domestic violence, and assault then by COVID-19. So, by your reasoning we should abandon cars, abandon modern life, abandon everything so that we don't have a chance of dying by our own or someone else's actions. Modern life requires we take risks to sustain our way of life. We can hide in our closets and hope the shadow man doesn't find us -- but what kind of life is that? A life that almost all of us do not want to live.

EngineerFromAggieland

I agree that "common sense" and scient should drive our COVID-19 responses. However, the common cloth and surgical masks that most people wear do not stop the spread of COVID-19 -- nor any other virus. You see -- its the math part of science why they don't work. The COVID-19 virus is 0.1 microns in size. Riding vapor as you breathe in/out it is approximately 1 micron. There are typically 452 pores in cotton cloth *per centimeter*. Each pore averages 200 microns and can be as large as 500 microns. Let's say that your cotton mask is 65 centimeters in size -- that means there are approximately 30,000 pores in your cotton mask. With each pore instantaneosly permitting 200 virus particles -- your mask is permitting up to 5,8 million virus particles *through* it at any given moment. Of course, inhale and exhale lasts for seconds -- not an instantaneous moment. Now we must include the wide gaps beween your mask and your face around your nose, and around your cheeks and chin. Open passages for virus flow. The fact of the matter is that not one single peer-reviewed scientific study has *ever* concluded that common cloth or surgical masks prevent the srpead of virsuses. Not one. Thus, the reason N95, N98, N100, and separate respirator systems are used to protect researchers from hamrful viruses in BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs. So, you want us to embrace science. Sciense says masks don't work. Thus, the campus is embracing science by not embracing masks. In fact -- people may wear masks and visit someone who is knowingly sick with COVID-19 thinking the mask will protect them (whether worn by one or both) and become infected. So, in that respect -- they can actually cause COVID-19 to spread. There is the science. Gig'Em!

LonKYoung

As a physician in the community who continues to attend to patients dying largely as a result of misinformation like this post, I am obligated to reply.

Not one study? Wrong. There are lots of studies that have demonstrated the effectiveness of masking. In fact, our beloved University was involved with one of the earliest and most influential published over a year ago, that you can read about here:

https://today.tamu.edu/2020/06/12/texas-am-study-face-masks-critical-in-preventing-spread-of-covid-19/

And here is a nice review from the National Academy of Science of the many studies that have investigated this question up through 9 months ago, entitled "An evidence review of face masks against COVID-19." Spoiler alert: they work. It even addresses your concern that masking will cause carelessness and increased spread. Interestingly, it was the first article to pop up in a Google search.

https://www.pnas.org/content/118/4/e2014564118

With regard to your rambling about the size of COVID particles and masks, I'll make it simple. It is true that a bullet is much smaller than the gap between trees in a forest, but it is still unlikely you can shoot a bullet through a forest without hitting a tree. Just like forests aren't a single row of trees, masks aren't a single layer of fabric, and particles that traverse complex layers of fabric will almost always strike one of the threads. And this says nothing about electrostatic attraction of particles, etc. I would think an engineer would know these things.

Misinformation like this is literally killing people. I see the suffering every day. I find it hard to believe that anyone would lie when the consequences are death, so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you just fell victim to the fallacy of believing what you WANT to believe, not what you HAVE REASON to believe and convincing yourself with numbers and "facts" that don't apply.

EngineerFromAggieland

Yes, not one peer reviewed study. The "heralded" study you cite has a petition against it to have it retracted.

Why? The methodology and math are wrong. In fact, preposterous. The author(s) failed to account for a lag between infection and testing -- which is typically 5-8 days.

The author(s) also did not account for other changes that may be contributing factors in the observations -- such as people taking their food at restaurants curbside, having their groceries delivered to their homes, working remotely from home, avoiding people that cough and sneeze, the warming of the weather such that people move from constant close proximity in an enclosed space to outdoors and free air ventilation.

So, yes -- total trash that study is. That is why no one quotes from it, much less relies upon it for policy. One cannot take a litany of factors and focus on only one variable and not account for the others and then conclude that only the one variable focused on was completely responsible for the changes observed.

Here is an example of another observational study such as the one you cited: A person observes that the Sun is larger than the Moon when observed from their front lawn. They measure the two to make sure that indeed the Sun is larger. Then they conclude that the Sun *must* be closer to the Earth then the Moon because of the single variable that they focused on shows that the sun is measurable larger from the vantage point of the lawn.

In Engineering -- they teach us that we must account for *all* significant factors. That we must rule in possibilities as well as rule them out. In this “study” the author does neither. What did they teach you in medicine?

Likewise your attempted illustration falls flat: A forest is a large area covered densely by trees. Indeed, miles, tens, and hundreds of miles of trees. Thus, if one were to "shoot a bullet" through a forest and hit a tree -- the impact is due to the depth of the forest. Now, compare the thickness of a mask (approximately 0.008 inches) to the “thickness” of a forest (again -- miles, if not tens and hundreds of miles).

So, how many masks does someone have to wear in order to reach the required “thickness” where the virus is stopped “by a tree” (e.g. a cotton fiber)? Certainly not 1 mask. Not two masks (though Fauci has stared stating that two was better than one). Not even three masks. 10? 20? Again – certainly NOT one! But there is an amazing thing about the masks that Fauci wears. Fauci wears a custom fit N95 mask covered up by a cotton mask. A well-fitting N95 mask so that there are no air gaps - that's another subject and I agree that they do assist in protecting people from COVID-19. But, we are talking about simple cotton masks with gaps all around it and the wearer’s face that is typically worn by people.

Simple cotton masks do not work. Thus, common cotton masks do not work because the math is against them -- at both the macro level and the micro level.

'Electrostatic attraction of particles' you say? Please read or watch _The Princess Bride_. You keep using that word. I do not think it has the applicability to moisture laden cotton fiber masks that you think it does. Now, if the masks have an Ionizer and batteries to power it -- let's talk about electrostatic attraction.

What is your view of the bacteria buildup on masks and the person's constant intake of such a petri dish environment for hours upon hours? Is that not a health risk?

Have you ever thought that you are the source of misinformation that is killing people by asserting that wearing a cloth mask is going to protect someone from an airborne virus?

That people may take your counsel to heart and wear a cotton mask to visit a relative who is sick with COVID-19 and contract it through the useless mask? Again, may I turn to BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs (we have one on campus). Do researchers in these labs use cotton masks to protect them from the airborne viruses they may be working with? Yes or No? The answer is “No”. Why? Because cotton masks will not stop a virus. It will not protect the wearer nor those around the wearer. That's the math. That's the science.

RusselRay

Thank you so much for your comments, Lon.

Russel Ray '77

Class2000

Thank you so much for your comments, EngineerFromAggieland.

Drs

I too am a physician. As of March of 2020 there were many physicians treating this virus. I was one of them. This was long before there was a vaccine. The patients were all returning to their normal health. The elderly, the obese, the diabetics were at high risk. With treatment they too were doing well. The anxiety, depression, suicide, domestic violence and alcoholism have skyrocketed. It is no longer a virus we fear. It is simply fear. Please research your mask theory. They definitely do more harm than good. Having an MD does not make a person know the science. Science is based on observation. Observing what is around us. Not just numbers that are manipulated. Look around you. If you fear being ill then work in your health. Lose weight, walk, eat lots of vegetables. Eat lots of fish. Take the recommended supplements. And if you get this virus seek the treatments that are available and have been available since early 2020. And turn off the news.

Kingboy

Well, to those physicians who have commented: are you prescribing Ivermectin

in course of your treatment protocol?

To the teacher who first wrote of his dismay, there are plenty of teaching jobs in other states that require masking and hopefully this professor will not discriminate against those students who cross their arms with a belligerent look on their face when lectured regarding masking.

Drs

Ivermectin does work. Yes it is part of the treatment protocol. Some need a steroid and if there is a developing pneumonia, then an antibiotic.

EngineerFromAggieland

Yes, Ivermectin does work. Myself and several family members are alive today due to Ivermectin and the the doctors who prescribed it. I developed pneumonia and had to also be prescribed an antibiotic and a steroid. But, the big change came after my first does of Ivermectin. Night and day it was.

Not only are we alive -- but also millions of people in India. Let's compare India where Ivermectin has been used liberally as an off-label treatment for COVID-19 and was passed out by the Indian government stats below). Big Pharmacy has been targeting India and threatening to removed pharma manufacturing from it unless they stop letting the world know how effective Ivermectin is. Riddle of this (anyone): Why are so many Americans getting so sick and dying so much while very few in India are doing the same? We have everything. Everything -- but widespread use of Ivermectin, and big Pharma is demanding an end to it.

India:

Vaccination rate: ~20%

14-Day Confirmed Cases per 1 million: 223

14-Day Confirmed Deaths per 1 million: 2.63

Doctors per 1,000: 1.34

World Hygiene Ranking: 143

United States:

Vaccination rate: ~52%

14-Day Confirmed Cases per 1 million: 4,225

14-Day Confirmed Deaths per 1 million: 75.19

Doctors per 1,000: 2.9

World Hygiene Ranking: 21

https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/biweekly-covid-cases-per-million-people?tab=chart&country=IND~USA

https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/biweekly-covid-deaths-per-million-people?tab=chart&country=IND~USA

https://www.indexmundi.com/facts/indicators/SH.STA.BASS.ZS/rankings

https://www.firstpost.com/india/covid-19-mask-wearing-social-distancing-practices-declining-among-public-finds-pan-india-survey-10042441.html

https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/these-are-the-states-with-mask-mandates

Note to Battalion Editors: Please do not censor this post and others discussing Ivermectin. As a University and as Journalists -- free and open debate must be a pinnacle for the search for truth. Thank you!

Drs

I posted a comment which was removed

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.