It’s Monday afternoon and I’m standing in front of about 30 masked Temple students. Some are smiling at me. I can’t see their mouths, of course, but the crinkle in the corners of their eyes betrays them. “I haven’t taught in person in a year, and the last time, it only lasted for a week,” I say. “You know as well as I do what it means for us to be here together.”
This is supposed to be a straightforward rehearsal of my classroom’s mask policy, not an emotional appeal. But my heart gets caught in my throat and my eyes start to sting, tears welling. I manage to compose myself and push ahead. This time, anyway.
Many of us who teach in higher ed have felt our emotions running high the last few weeks. Alongside the usual stress, excitement, and nerves of a new school year have been anxiety, resignation, and, for some, a simmering rage. Around the country, universities are welcoming back thousands of students, many for the first time in more than a year. But what we imagined just a few months ago as a joyous return to “normal” has instead been disrupted by the virulence of the delta variant, stalled vaccination rates, and obstinance and timidity from many of our leaders.
The result is a mishmash of policies, varying from state to state and institution to institution, around how to keep students, staff, faculty, and communities safe from the ravages of COVID-19. The mess has elevated both the danger and the frustration, at a time when collective patience has worn especially thin.
Call this learning to live with COVID-19. As medical experts and public health officials have been telling us for months, the virus is here to stay. COVID-19 will become endemic — an illness that waxes and wanes but is always present, like the flu or malaria. That means societies must adjust to the serious and ever-changing illness in our midst. Institutions, from retail establishments to the government, from churches to restaurants, have the formidable task of figuring out what to retain and what to jettison from our pre-pandemic life. Some of these changes will be permanent. None of this is easy. And the stakes could not be higher.
One would hope that Temple University and other institutions of higher learning would be at an advantage when it comes to this kind of evolution. Universities are full of professional thinkers and planners, after all. But so far, the push has been to get back to our old ways as much as possible, to put on a happy face that denies the new reality before us. So far, many of our universities seem condemned to repeat past mistakes.
I have chosen to limit the time I spend on campus. It’s not because I don’t care about Temple’s community—it’s because I do.
Call that learning to live, and learn, with COVID-19. But we’re not learning, which jeopardizes how we’ll live.
I have been stunned this past week how Temple has proceeded amid COVID-19’s fourth wave. We have been invited to gather regularly on the basis that masking requirements are enough to face contagious delta — even though our community is only partially vaccinated and mask compliance is rarely ironclad. There are crowds in hallways and lobbies between classes. As much as I get wanting to revitalize our campus, such events can and will be case incubators. For good reason, I have chosen to limit the time I spend on campus, and I know many of my colleagues feel the same. It’s not because I don’t care about Temple’s community — it’s because I do.
A pretend-our-way-back-to-normal attitude ignores one of the first lessons from the pandemic: The virus thrives when we let down our guard. Togetherness can be a powerful intoxicant that lowers our defenses. Thanks to unclear and overly optimistic promises from our federal government, many of the earlier protections were eliminated — right in time for universities to make plans for the fall, and for the delta variant to spread. Amid the current threat and still-muddled guidelines, we have all had to make our own determinations about how to behave. Leaving the house becomes a form of risk calculus, and we all use different equations.
A second lesson is that there is no magic bullet for tamping down this pandemic. Vaccines are certainly our strongest weapon — and Temple, pressured by the city, is requiring faculty, staff, and students to be fully vaccinated by mid-October. Temple has also mandated masks in public spaces like classrooms and buildings and for on-campus events. But we know that social spaces like dormitories and off-campus housing cannot be controlled, and it’s hard to keep track of patchwork rules. We know that breakthrough cases will happen, that vaccinated people can transmit the virus, and that children under 12 are not yet eligible.
Temple is part of a broader Philadelphia community with variable vaccination rates. And there are ongoing questions about to what degree vaccines lose their efficacy over time — particularly pertinent for older and immunocompromised people, many of whom were vaccinated early and may need boosters in coming months. With that information, Temple should have a more robust testing policy in place than required testing for just the unvaccinated. For example, Northeastern University in Boston is testing all members of its campus community weekly. Other schools are experimenting with wastewater testing or having all students tested before the fall semester starts.
So much of what I have heard this past week was about getting the old Temple back. But personally, I don’t want the old Temple back. I want a new Temple: one that will do more to care for the most vulnerable members of its community, one that is sensitive to the needs of parents, the infirm, and the elderly, one that is a better neighbor to North Philadelphia and a better steward of its abundant resources. I want a Temple where leaders make decisions proactively rather than reactively and where we are sober rather than pollyannaish about what lies ahead.
Teaching in person this week has been moving and overwhelming. I understand the drive to get back to the way things used to be. But our institutions of learning will fail if we don’t show that we’ve learned anything from the past year ourselves.
Devon Powers is an associate professor of advertising at Temple University.