Returning to campus amid the highly contagious omicron variant does little to tackle an unavoidable surge.
When I landed in Chapel Hill last week, I was taken aback by my Uber driver — who asked whether or not he could keep his mask on during our 25-minute ride from the airport. According to his logic, the new variant was “basically a cold,” and other passengers didn’t mind if he opted to not wear one, despite company policy. His ambivalence toward caution was unsettling, for both his well-being and mine.
Similarly, the University’s plan for the spring appears insufficient in addressing the surge of omicron variant cases engrossing the nation. Along with the frustration around remote learning for both students and instructors, the lukewarm policy delays the inevitable.
My visit to family in New York over the holidays was eclipsed by the intense rise of breakthrough infections that clobbered the city in record-breaking numbers. I myself was exposed to COVID-19 on my third day back, and, after testing positive, spent a half of the break quarantining in my childhood home. The other half was spent hearing about more positive cases from friends navigating isolation with a desire to see and spend time with their family.
As the omicron variant and positive cases swell nationwide, University administration had to determine the best course of action for the spring semester. Their conclusion, in consultation with health and academic officials, was to uphold the Jan. 10 start date, commit to in-person instruction and hand over the responsibility of making any concrete decision to school deans.
Over the course of the semester, quarantine protocol will reflect the recently abbreviated isolation period of five days. Instructors are thus expected to prepare for a variety of outcomes over the course of the semester, planning for student absences as well as their own, while remaining committed to teaching in person.
Other universities seem to be exploring alternative possibilities for the start of the semester. One solution has been to extend winter break. Not only does this stall the pace to which students congregate in the area, it gives universities time to watch state and nationwide COVID-19 trends. Syracuse University and Howard University will both start their semesters at the end of the month.
Another approach is a university-wide decision to begin with remote learning. Schools including Duke University, Georgetown University and American University have welcomed this approach.
UNC has chosen to do neither, subjecting not only students and instructors to the chaos of increased positive cases and impermanent modes of teaching and learning, but leaving the larger Chapel Hill community vulnerable to a spike.
This puzzle of moving parts introduces complications for graduate student instructors that have to navigate satisfying their own teaching and learning preferences while also considering the health and safety of themselves, their students and the other individuals in their life that exist beyond the University.
I myself am scheduled to teach my first class as the instructor of record. My previous experience has included being a teaching assistant, tasked with supporting faculty and perhaps leading a recitation period once a week. My excitement for this course is now overshadowed by the uncertainty of the best approach to teaching that both fosters student engagement and exercises the right amount of caution that a highly transmissible disease warrants.
Remote learning isn’t fun for students or instructors, and the prospect of returning to Zoom is daunting. But I carry the burden of doing what I can to slow the spread and eliminate at least one site of potential exposure. This is a burden the University has allotted to myself and other graduate instructors and faculty.
Though the symptoms for this new variant are like the common cold and may not cause mass hospitalizations, the University’s indifference to a nearly imminent surge across campus in this first month of the semester highlights a missed opportunity for a more aggressive approach that would avert waves of infection.
Regardless of how the semester starts, we as a University, city, state, nation and global community will have to deal with the impact of this variant and any other newly discovered ones over the next few months. Before we know it, we will pass the two-year mark of the official start of this seemingly never-ending pandemic that has altered all of our lives — and taken a toll on our collective mental well-being.
There is no crystal ball to show us exactly how the next couple of weeks will go, but there is one thing the past two years should have shown us. Institutions like UNC need to make nontraditional allowances that prioritize the mental and physical health of its community — especially now as we march, exhausted, into another unpredictable semester.
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