It’s September 2020.
We sit across our circular dining table barely catching our breath and sigh once again. With teeth gritting and hard faces, we stare into what has become a thick air of disbelief. There’s a palpable heaviness that lingers only in the swelter of summer. Forty percent of the college students are absent from just one of my husband’s courses, having been quarantined or COVID positive. These students are not free to stay on campus and so are sent home only to potentially infect their fragile family and communities.
We raise our eyes, stop studying the long cuts on the glass dining table and begin to clear the way into the near future where I could be forced to return to Telehealth with my clients in need of mental health treatment. I am immediately resentful of punishing my clients for something entirely not my fault and having to acknowledge the egregious lack of leadership by both the college, as well as, its larger governing body.
I begin to plead with my husband, ‘Please! Please find a way to hold classes virtually – even if it’s for a shortened amount of time.’ My husband’s stubbornness, not to mention his fervent need to follow ALL the rules, makes me look like a gumby pretzling acrobat. Worse yet, his loyalty to a university completely willing to pick off people for their dollar looks worse than pushing a statue of a bronzed mule. And as expectation would dictate, he is not free to simply do what is best for himself and his students.
I try to remind myself that Telehealth for mental health does work, but nothing can replace the compassionate resonance transmitted in the cosmic electricity when two people are together sharing space. The flat faced version of myself saddens my soul when I want to get up and pull a tissue for my client. COVID now leaves us in a hold of loneliness we thought was not possible. Of course, for some Telehealth can stop the hard work altogether. The detraction of the the personal and palpable connection, like missing a soft fabric to run our fingers through, can halt the therapeutic process. It begs the question to the eyes of the universities leadership; do you know how far the red threads of your actions would reach? – And all because the sloppy version of face-to-face courses were far more important than people’s lives.
Here’s the reality of in person courses in 2020……. a masked professor stands at a blackboard in an enclosed room with a shower curtain version of a sneeze guard, sometimes held up with blue tape and only the width of two standard desks. Masked students await the glorious instruction of a pseudo burglar in appearance screaming muffled formulas and theories. Every written word on white and black boards is obstructed, leading professors to speak by playing peek-a-boo. The literal demonstration I received used a pillow, peeking around and above it in the desperate hope of being heard. There are no questions, no engagement from students as their professor has turned into Zorro and they likely spend the entire time hoping they grasped something of value as they peer through plexiglass.
Eight hundreed young women ‘Rush’ for their choice Sorority only to have the college push past 10 percent of its student population with COVID. The administration openly blames students for the spread while congregating at parties, fraternities and sororities – and dorms; all of which could only happen if the campus was open. Rapidly, the university becomes a national news story as the largest COVID spreaders across the U.S. college system.
It is understood in physiological development, we haven’t finished out our brains optimal functioning until we are twenty-five…..TWENTY-FIVE years old! So, sending in my eighteen-nineteen year old to a diseased college is begging them to throw flying hands up with a loud party-yowl and just hope for the best. This is not to say young people are classically stupid, it illuminates the reality that we ALL wear an invincibility cape at this age. It only seems reasonable that the system they are moving young people into would assume some small responsibility.
Opportunities for creativity that could have made this university the gold medal standard on how to make campus, classroom and community life work has been squandered. The local town has become disowned by the university, further dividing the disparity of the highest socioeconomic class student body with a significantly low socioeconomic, minority community. Perhaps local leaders – the Mayor, city council and elected leaders could have united with college administration igniting courageous acts to meet the needs of the community and university alike. Imagine an overflow of danishes, bagels and burnt coffee at scratched folding tables while leaders choose to lean into the fear and leave acknowledging, validating the needs of the university AND the community.
Instead, an interest in privilege and dollars prevail.
This county has approximately 45 thousand residents, with 48 percent minority. Pressing forward with in classroom instruction, on campus activities like rushing for sororities and fraternities and on campus meetings breeds immorality while a deadly virus presses its weight upon our chests. So many will die and the sticky blood of this decision will stain the university’s hands. A lack of a direct death of a student does not release the college from the deaths that are occurring through transmission.
As mental health therapists, we are called to activate ourselves from a place to vulnerability, invoking courage when we are in deep fear. It is our responsibility as leaders to walk in that unchartered path – choose to do hard things. Do not interpret these words as a belief in shutting the world down. My spouse and I have spoken at length the ever teetering potential loss that could ensue, including financial consequences arriving right at our door step.
My husband and I look back towards one another, perhaps done with the ranting and sneering into the nearby kitchen windows. We discuss the possibility of him quarantining himself for the rest of the semester, both myself and our teenage daughter.
Another deep, long sigh.
Faculty do not appear to be getting sick in class, but how do we know with certainty? Our table, this home, suddenly starts to stretch out longer, warbling my ability to see clearly. He already seems so very far away and I crumple up my face in disbelief.
No more kisses and long, deep hugs after a day of bewilderment in the wild world. No more snuggling my head into his chest while we wait for “all of this mess” to just go away. More time covering your face, forced to hide from those we are most open to. And no more witnessing of the tenderness between him and my daughter as he kisses her on the forehead, standing in the bathroom before bed. It’s more than my mind can hold. The grief has already begun and a decision hasn’t been made.
With the current trajectory that my scientist spouse continues to calculate, by Thanksgiving, 25 percent of the total faculty and students will have this ravenous disease; approximately 1,600 students. There are no words for the potential devastation for the fragile community surrounding this college campus.
Fast Forward one year, late August 2021.
It would seem the science fairies have gifted the universe a medical marvel, one that has not been readily seen since the polio vaccine (This not to say many other vaccines should go unnoticed: HPV, Meningitis, and Shingles, just to name a few). We have a way out of COVID death for anyone 12 years and older. We even have a small window of bliss where something like ‘normal’ reappears. That is, until Delta arrives…..and I am not discussing our next flight to vacation island.
As the world is ravaged, many countries lag on purchasing their vaccines out of their own cockiness to stop the spread while others have no resources to vaccinate. Of course, the United States has a massive stockpile – only to have misinformation, extreme mistrust of our government and conspiracies create a wild frenzy of lies. It feels like only the nerds will sift through the data to know the truth, but then again, if science were taken seriously, perhaps the pandemic of misinformation would not be the secondary pandemic. 18-29 year olds have the lowest vaccination rate and are currently filling up hospitals, potentially creating a more deadly return to college as previous mandates for masks and physical distancing has ended. And despite necessary vaccines to enter college for exponentially less dangerous diseases, no vaccinations for COVID are required.
Students are already testing positive while participating in Sorority Rush. Professors are already going to miss the first weeks of class while in quarantine. As many as 20 percent are already missing from the first week of classes and university COVID positive cases are double that of 2020. My own clients are facing down one sick or dying person after another, surpassing hundreds of lives lost to this terrible disease. My clients in health care have said they are forced to make life and death choices while breathing machines are gone and are now watching the march of COVID death at a much greater intensity than their first 3 surges. It’s overwhelming and hard to imagine most of these deaths would just not be if the pandemic of misinformation was eradicated. So now, My husband and I are once again staring at each other in grief and disbelief……and wondering when science died.