Zinnia’s college adventures, year 3: A Florida public university is forcing us into conditions of unchecked pandemic exposure

Zinnia JonesI have been a student in the Florida community college and public university system since spring of 2019, and as of the fall 2021 semester it looks like just about everything that isn’t my own personal academic performance – including the educational system itself – has gone completely sideways. This is now the second summer where our state has been the global hotspot of the pandemic. During last year’s, I took summer semester off and spent a week in late June in an Orlando ICU with my wife as she was recovering from near-fatal strokes, then packed my fall schedule with whatever courses I could find that were available online. By this summer term, continuing to work toward my statistics degree required registering for classes that were only available in-person, and this has also been the case for this fall term. I am now attending fully in-person for the first time since spring 2019, this time at one of the largest universities in the country during a pandemic that is worse than ever and still worsening.

What I wish my devastatingly insecure pre-college self could know is that I can succeed masterfully in higher education even as the world around me decides to give up and take itself apart. Whatever that’s worth now, I know I can do it, and so my thoughts on college have been elsewhere during the first week of fall semester. What I want everyone else to know is how bad the pandemic situation in the Florida educational system has become. It is a deliberately engineered nightmare cultivated from the most unwise decisions that decisionmakers could possibly make and I am in the middle of that nightmare until those engineers choose to bring it to an end.

My required entry-level biology class, which did not transfer from the community college, takes place in a classroom building of three stories, each with one large hallway running alongside a number of lecture halls. I wait outside in the Florida heat and humidity of noon, soaked in sweat in a matter of minutes, because just a brief peek into the building shows that the hallway is packed so tightly I can’t imagine sitting in that density of people before class. Ultimately it won’t make a difference anyway – there’s no way to avoid the crowds ready to enter the class and squeeze through the doors. Forget masks (and it seems like at least a quarter of the students have), other people’s sweat is on me, countless other people making contact and establishing a social distance of zero. A lecture hall seats 450 students and this class is at full enrollment. Look to whatever’s in front of you, behind you, to either immediate side – that’s where the other students are, other lungs, other breath. Your six-foot radius of distance, never actually a magic number of safety to begin with, is now occupied by eight other people. Three aren’t bothering with masks and you’ll sit there next to them for at least an hour. I’ve had three Pfizer vaccines and antibodies are still a finite quantity that can be exceeded by a quantity of viral particles; these conditions of prolonged close contact among massive numbers of sweating young people are much like those that led to widespread infection with the Delta variant among hundreds of vaccinated people in Provincetown.

But vaccination is not required at this university and neither are masks. Our biology professor informs us of this as she also informs us that she has an autoimmune disease, and asks us to choose to wear masks and not approach any closer than six feet – she has a family. She cannot require us to wear masks, but she does put pictures of her family on the projector and tells us all about them. Do you remember when please spare my life, I have a family wasn’t typically covered during the syllabus review on the first day? She makes clear that attendance is not required, lectures will also be broadcast via Zoom, and generally conveys that she does not want us to be packed into the room like this. I’m acutely aware of how warm the room has been getting since we walked in. In a room of over 400 young people in Florida right now, it’s vanishingly unlikely that not one of them is currently infected and contagious. I enrolled in these courses telling myself that I know the risks and I accept those risks, but it wasn’t until this moment that the reality finally sank in. It’s here right now, isn’t it? It’s in the room with us right now. This, us, here, where we are right now, is unbelievably dangerous.

Who is managing and mitigating this known danger? Only the voluntary individual efforts of students and their instructors. The university offers vague language about “expecting” us to wear masks, “please”, and we receive multiple emails offering to enter us into various raffles if we get vaccinated. After I replied to this email and suggested that a mandate for students to be vaccinated would be more effective than a voluntary incentive lottery, much as I was required to have my blood drawn to check for MMR vaccine titers before I could even transfer to the university, their response was that the university cannot require COVID-19 vaccination or masking because it is not specified in the current statutes or regulations governing vaccination requirements for the university system.

A nation rife with ornery wannabe revolutionaries, stockpiling rifles in anticipation of the opportunity to get into an exciting firefight with the government should it ever be needed in the name of some unrecognizable notion of “liberty”, has turned out to be largely unwilling to risk some chance of legal exposure down the road to protect students and staff from a known present threat. I am surrounded by a society that isn’t interested in any solution that doesn’t involve getting to shoot things. I exaggerate – the university did also recommend last December, in a message from the dean of the college of medicine, that we should eat only those baked goods made with sugar substitutes, take very small bites of small portions of food, and read nutrition labels “religiously” because even fruit juice may have “unhealthy” sugars. This was the real threat facing the United States over the past winter: “overindulging”.

I learned later that day in a smaller classroom of 50 that the university will cancel classes in the event that a football game is taking place on a given evening. This professor had earlier offered that on the subject of wearing masks in class and getting vaccinated, we should “make the choice that’s best for you”. This soars beyond the misapplication of individualism to public health and decays into sheer solipsism: there exists an objective external fact of what is most effective in preventing the transmission of this virus, and its behavior is not governed by an individual’s subjective beliefs and opinions on what does or does not work. Any student could decide that vaccines are poison and their favorite antimalarial/antibiotic/antiparasitic is “best for them” to fight a virus, but that does not mean this is what’s actually best for them. My most charitable interpretation of this statement is that our professor did mean to refer to that objective best, gently trusting us to understand what actually is best here and that acting in the collective best interest is synonymous with acting in your individual best interest.

Yet another professor specified in the class COVID-19 policy that discussions on health choices or politics are off-limits, as these are “contentious” and do not pertain to computer science. This is a subtle trick of language, eliding the fact that these health choices directly come to bear on being alive, a prerequisite to learning computer science. It’s tantamount to a heckler’s veto: under a no-politics injunction, one faction may choose to politicize the not-inherently-political issue of health measures known to mitigate a pandemic respiratory disease, thereby making any acknowledgment or discussion of these facts off-limits. This week, that professor has moved to remote lectures after experiencing unspecified respiratory symptoms and self-isolating, although we’re assured none of us were likely to be exposed to anything as the professor was wearing a KN95 mask and currently has a negative test result.

I hadn’t attended class anyway (lectures were already broadcast on Zoom) because that Tuesday morning I had a fairly rough emotional breakdown over what I had witnessed that Monday. I realized I was risking all of our lives so I could learn what a “variable” is before I’m considered knowledgeable enough in programming concepts to be capable of writing C code. I’ve been alive long enough to see schools turn into sites of gunfire, knowing all the exits, spotting objects to throw at a shooter in your last moments. Now nobody even needs to bring a gun before we’re playing Russian roulette.

Working within class attendance policies I’ve been able to reduce my in-person exposure to three one-hour periods weekly on most weeks. To me, the present situation is very unlike the last time I attended in-person. I liked making friends, as I had an entirely new access to what it meant to be social and sociable compared to high school as a severely depressed and dysphoric teenager. Being extroverted, affable, conversational, it was something I wanted because I actually got something out of it for the first time. It was new, it was rewarding, and even in the middle of Florida there was a possibility of getting to know someone without yet becoming aware of some hostile ideological element within them. That ideology would usually be at some remove, a matter of their vote having some downstream effects that might lead to a bathroom bill or the appointment of an inept judge or something happening somewhere other than the here-and-now. Their accountability for such things, and the consequences faced by me and my community, would be laundered through numerous intermediate processes and chained probabilities and the time this all takes.

No more. All of this has now been collapsed to the very point of contact, as their politicized beliefs and choices may now be immediately impactful. That unmasked face may be someone who chooses to take no precautions of distancing anywhere in their lives even when they can, who won’t bother to get vaccinated, who might decide to go about their daily life anyway knowing that they cannot taste or smell anything. These have become political displays of disregard for my very survival, my wife’s survival, our professor’s survival, everyone’s survival. This isn’t an emphasis on our part of pointing out how their actions couple to consequences; these have become deliberate signals that they have specifically adopted to convey their political position on matters of basic science. There is no opportunity for them or for us to pretend anymore that there can be a diffusion of responsibility here. It’s about whether I’m going to catch a deadly virus from you right here, right now in calculus 1. This situation hinders the development of friend relationships because of the uncertainty of whether their very presence is directly jeopardizing my life and whether they hold beliefs that are utterly repulsive with no blunting of distance – whether they’re of a kind with the hundreds of deniers who harassed my stroke survivor wife with a blood clotting disorder because she posted on Twitter about getting her vaccine. Why risk getting to know anyone?

How do you learn in an environment like this? It’s really not the best. I’m quickly recognizing my moods follow a pattern of crying uncontrollably and being inexplicably irritable the nights and mornings before class, and I’m realizing this is because I’m scared. I’m about to walk into a room with a virus that has killed millions and anyone who is supposed to be in charge of protecting us seems intent on doing the very opposite at every turn. I don’t want to die. My emotions are happening for a reason and that reason is understandable. It’s difficult for me to concentrate during the first five or ten minutes of class because I don’t feel safe, which is not an issue I had before the pandemic. I’m a 32-year-old mom whose stepson recently turned 18 – imagine how difficult this is for a child who only popped into adulthood a few weeks ago. I have children who look to me for guidance and for help understanding what this world has become, and the reality is that I am terrified in a way that is difficult to fight.

But I am fighting it. I’m forcing myself to focus and after the first ten minutes in class something switches over and I put it out of my mind. A fundamental lack of immediate physical safety makes it much harder to think calmly and procedurally about more complex and abstract topics that are unrelated to that safety, and I have to credit my professors for somehow making limits or ggplot2 more compelling than death in the air. I am working at this obstacle, one I haven’t faced before, one that none of us should have to face at all, and I am overcoming it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to say the same for making friends again. 

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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