Monday, February 28, 2022


While there are far more pressing and scary issues happening in the world-and in this country-like the war on Ukraine and a determination that needed and appropriate medical treatment for transgender kids is “child abuse” in Texas, I am also a bit frantic about the end of the masking mandates here in my little bubble of Massachusetts.

Let me start by saying I went to a science high school-actually the same high school that Neil deGrasse Tyson went to-so it isn’t that I don’t respect science-I certainly do (and I’m sure the char marks on the ceiling from my hijinks with a Bunsen burner there have been painted over since then). I trust the federal and state experts on epidemiology and public health. I am vaccinated, boosted, and still voluntarily get PCR tested every week (kudos to my school for making that available). I am thrilled at the numbers going down-way down-the New York Times has Massachusetts as a pale yellow on its map where if you are in a state that is shaded deep red, you are on COVID fire. I have no reasonably articulable reason for my fear and yet, I am consumed and a little paralyzed by it.

Here is what fuels my trepidation:

  1. I teach undergraduates as well-and for this entire semester, including the very first day, I haven’t had full class attendance because of quarantine, positive tests, and potential exposures.
  2. I teach classes in the evening division, and I have students who took their families on trips during the past week because it was public school vacation week-they’ll be back tonight-hopefully.
  3. Spring break is in two weeks and students, understandably, want to get away. And then come back.
  4. I have a child who is a high school student who will be in a building with kids who just spent their break traveling or competing in sports with kids from all over the state.
  5. There is always a person on the subway who has no mask on at all, or has a mask covering just their chin, or has zipped up their winter jacket to cover their nose and mouth just so they can get on the train….
  6. I cannot control what other people do or what risks they consider acceptable.

The last one is the ultimate truth for me--and everyone else. I have spoken with students who are also fearful, and it puts me in the position of trying to reassure them as much as I am trying to reassure myself.  I’m not sure I’m being genuine in those moments-and I am not sure if sharing my true feelings is helpful either.

And yet, this is like when students come to me about poor exam results, and we determine what about their exam performance they can pinpoint and refine for next time. Trying to predict a professor’s likely exam questions is not a good use of time you could otherwise spend doing what will give you the wherewithal to tackle what is coming. I advise students to be in control of what they can do because facing an exam with fear rather than a plan is not effective.

I suppose I also need to understand the same things about the great unmasking about to happen. There are always going to be unknowns in the world: politics, opinions, exam questions, and viruses you cannot see coming at you, but I know and teach that fear should not be the weapon I reach for when I encounter them. I’m going to go to make a plan....

(Liz Stillman)

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