Tales from Campus: Playing Hide-and-Seek with COVID

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It took two years of hide-and-seek but COVID finally caught me. 

Since March 2020 I’ve had my academic life upended by words like pivot, remote, and asynchronous. Somehow, through all of the classroom changes and content delivery modifications, I’ve remained healthy. Earlier in the Pandemic I suggested in a blog that faculty ask students to share their COVID stories as a way to record history as it happens. What was their experience? How did it impact their lives or their families’ lives? This blog, then, is my entry to the historical record.

I’ve tried to do everything “right” during this pandemic. I’ve listened to scientists, I’ve continued to mask in stores and public places even after mandates ended. I got a second booster shot when I was eligible. Yet despite all my thinking, over-thinking and handwashing, there was nothing I could do to prevent COVID from visiting my home. After a couple days of a stuffy nose I decided, out of an abundance of caution, to stop in to our campus testing center before my 10am Tuesday class. It was only a matter of minutes before all my plans for the week ahead were canceled. A sense of fear and dread set in: while I felt ok overall, the knowledge that this virus has killed more than six million people worldwide had an immediate psychological impact on me. 

I was fortunate to have a mild case of COVID – a week at home, a couple boxes of tissues and a lot of Netflix hours later, I was back on campus teaching the following Tuesday. Though I wish I could say definitively that my students missed me … the closest I can come to an assessment of their feelings is that they were genuinely concerned about my health when I returned. They asked lots of questions, which led me to conclude that we as a society are far from “over” the stress of this pandemic and we are certainly not finished talking about it. 

Earlier this week news outlets broadcast images of airline passengers cheering the end of the mask mandate as if we as a society could claim victory over this silent killer. My students, however, when faced with discussion of the virus with someone who had recently suffered from it showed only concern. One asked if I wanted them to start masking in class again, in spite of the end of the mandate on our campus. As much as we seem to be bombarded by data about numbers and cases, there are still many people who have never experienced the virus in their own homes and who continue to harbor intense anxiety about how it could negatively impact them or their family.

I’m grateful that my college is continuing to actively engage in on-campus testing. My positive test that Tuesday morning led me to test my asymptomatic son, who also turned out to be positive. Our access to testing, thankfully, kept us from our weekly visit to my severely compromised father who resides in a nursing home where spread of the virus was previously been catastrophic. 

As a historian I know that this pandemic will eventually morph into something similar to the yearly challenges of influenza. Until that happens, however, I will continue to encourage my students to engage with their intellectual discomfort about the virus: ask questions, read and study the data, and get tested. And most importantly, continue to feel empathy for the emotional and physical struggles of strangers. Sharing our personal experiences from this historic time is a great way to recognize the common struggles of human beings in the 21st century.

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.