On going back to the office, part 2

So a few weeks ago, I wrote a post on my feelings about returning to the office after nearly a year and half of working from home. At the time, I felt pretty good about it. Obviously, it was going to be a big change but I was tired of feeling so isolated. I wanted to be among people again and this felt like a good opportunity for a fresh start. Plus, I was grateful that, unlike many of my colleagues who have been working in-person this whole time, I got to wait to go back until things felt more safe again.

As Lin-Manuel Miranda might say, time has made a fool of that last point.

Which I kind of expected. I knew there were going to be variants and that things could get bad again, but like most people, I had no idea how bad they were going to get or how quickly. Now we’re at the start of a new semester and honestly I’m a lot more anxious and scared about what’s going to happen than I expected to be.

Which is to say, I’m lucky enough to work on a campus where students are required to be vaccinated and where everyone is more or less required to wear a mask indoors, vaccinated or not.(1) That’s a lot different from some friends of mine at other schools where even talking about the vaccination to students, much less encouraging them to get one, can get you in a lot of trouble.

Still. Last spring, vaccines were not widely available yet and so we had very few people on campus and every precaution in place to protect the people who were here, including strict rules about masking and social distancing and sanitation and regular testing for anyone who spent time on campus. Even with those rules in place, we ended up with 200 cases on campus at one point and there was worry that the residence hall that was being used to isolate students who had tested positive was going to reach or possibly exceed capacity. And that was with the earlier version of the virus that was apparently less contagious than the Delta variant is.

At the time, this was scary but the university seemed to have a pretty clear plan for what we would do if things got really bad. Like, we knew we had to be ready to pivot if the infection rate on campus or in the surrounding community passed a certain threshold.

This semester, we have vaccines, a vaccine mandate for students, and a pretty high vaccination rate for faculty and staff. But classrooms, including lecture halls, will be just as full as usual. As far as I know, the residence halls are just as full as usual. Students who test positive for COVID are not going to be isolated at all and can still come to class in person. In the library, we will once again be offering reference services and instruction sessions in-person. If there is a plan in place for what we’re going to do if things start to go really wrong, no one is telling us what it is.

Last fall, I wrote that the one good thing about going into such a scary fall semester was knowing that it would likely be the only one that would feel so uncertain and dangerous. Well, time made a fool of that prediction, too. Last year felt a little like walking on ice without knowing if it was going to hold us or not. There were definite cracks, but it did hold. This year, the plunge into icy water feels a lot more inevitable.

Obviously, the university has its reasons for doing things this way despite the renewed danger. One is because the “in-person experience” is what students want, according to a survey that was administered last year. Obviously, there are also a lot of financial reasons. There’s also the reality that life as we knew it before COVID is probably over and we need to learn how to live our lives in this new reality where the best hope is that COVID will eventually become endemic like the flu or common colds and so feel like less of a threat. It would not be realistic to expect the university to be able to continue to operate the same way it did last year indefinitely. Not if we want to survive as an institution.

So my feeling about the new semester is…not great. I am open to being pleasantly surprised. I just don’t have much hope right now that I will be. Realistically, the only thing I feel like I can hope for right now is that even though things will probably never go back to the way they were before COVID, they will get better again at some point and they may even stay that way for more than two weeks at a time. Until then, fingers crossed that we can all make it through this current period with as little serious damage as possible. Good luck.

Also, I promise to post about something more fun/cheerful next week. 😊

*

(1) I say “more or less” because there apparently is some fine print in the policy that says vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks indoors as long as they have sufficient space around them. Unrelated: A week and two long reference shifts into the semester, I have yet to meet a student who can wear a mask properly for more than two minutes a time.

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