OPINION: Personal responsibility is not enough to end COVID-19


Graphic done by Megan Fisher

Sarah Olive, community submission

As a graduate instructor who completed her undergraduate degree at WKU, I occupy the unique positions of alumna, current student, former student employee, and current faculty member. In other words, I know this school. It is my second home.

Consequently, I have also witnessed WKU’s failure to guide and support its Hilltoppers through the Covid-19 pandemic. I have watched these failures from my classroom desks, from the digital windows of countless Zoom meetings, and now, from my own office in Cherry Hall. 

Western’s administration has for too long placed the onus of mitigating the pandemic on its students and instructors. Now, it is time for Western to support its talk of personal responsibility with decisive administrative action.

As we near the third week of the Fall semester, my classroom attendance dwindles. Several students have already forwarded their positive Covid-19 results to my e-mail and sheepishly asked if I will excuse their absences from my class. We are more than a year into the pandemic, and my students are still forced to weigh their education against the safety of themselves and their peers. I tell them to try their best to keep up with the work, to schedule a Zoom meeting with me if they feel lost, to let me know if the struggle to maintain their health and their grades is overwhelming them. Yet, I know we are fighting a losing battle. 

Any student or faculty member knows missing two weeks of class can be detrimental to an education; and still, this does not begin to mention the difficulty of returning to the classroom while battling lingering symptoms like fatigue, muscle weakness, and shortness of breath.

Since returning to in-person classes, our school has emphasized the importance of personal responsibility. It is our job, as students and instructors, to support our community in ending Covid-19. It is our job to wear masks, to encourage each other to take the vaccine, to socially distance. 

Yet, every day at my job, I watch as twenty-two students pile into a classroom that hardly leaves room for their backpacks, let alone six feet of distance between desks. It is my job to open a window or suggest class outside, only to project my voice over the noise of construction outside our classrooms. It is my job to tell my students to wear their masks over their noses, to refrain from removing their masks to eat, drink water, or take a break from the hot, stuffy air. It is my job to enforce a normal learning environment in a time that is anything but normal.

My students tell me the last thing they want is yet another year of online classes. These are the students who sacrificed their proms, their high school graduations, and their senior trips. These are the students who tell me they felt unprepared for college thanks to over a year of online school. The last thing they want is to sacrifice football games, greek life, and homecoming celebrations. 

They want to be college students, just like I wanted to be when I was a freshman in 2016. As their instructor, I want for all of us a safe and productive learning environment. Yet, if I stopped my lesson plan for every askew mask sitting under a nose or upper lip, for every mask removed for a sip of water or, God forbid, a sneeze or cough, I would stop my class every five minutes.

If I removed every student who refused to wear a mask correctly after several reminders, after several students already in quarantine, I may not have a class at all. With the constant threat of Covid-19, there is no hope for a safe and productive learning environment for students.

Every time I remind my students to wear their masks, I am reminded of the 1950s Cold War “Duck and Cover” public service announcements in which the animated Bert the Turtle shows children how to duck and cover under a desk in the event of an atomic bomb. Today, we laugh at the panic and naivety these PSAs reflect. A wooden desk might help in the event of a distant threat, but what if the threat occurs right above your own head? 

In the chaos of the pandemic, I worry the mask mandate may be no better than the old duck and cover advice. We know that masks can prevent the spread of Covid-19, but to what extent? The masks work in the best-case scenarios: when other students and instructors wear their masks properly, socially distance, and above all, get vaccinated. 

What about the students who don’t wear their masks correctly, cannot socially distance in their dorms, and are not vaccinated? How helpful is a mask in stopping the spread when any number of students in class could have been exposed to the 96 positive on-campus cases tested between August 31 and September 2?

Since the FDA’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine, hundreds of American universities have adopted a vaccine mandate in some capacity, with exceptions for students with medical or religious concerns. Some schools require the first dose by a fall deadline in order to take classes in person. Others require weekly Covid-19 testing until students get the vaccine. 

Perhaps Western could require proof of vaccination as a requirement for entry to our football games and other crowded, school spirit events. In any case, it is clear stopping the spread of Covid-19 will take more than parking permits, Apple products, and dining dollars.

For the last year or so, I believed in personal responsibility. I gave up my 2020 commencement, tucked away my cords and stole, and spent what should have been my Topper Walk alone in my apartment. 

I wore my mask, emptied bottles of hand sanitizer, isolated myself from friends and family and waited until I was fully vaccinated to venture into the world again. I told myself it was for the greater welfare of our community. I told myself that these sacrifices and personal responsibility would put an end to Covid-19. 

Now, I prepare myself for online classes and the inevitable isolation I know we will face if we do not have decisive leadership from our community leaders, including the administration at WKU.