Under-vaccinated Southern states spent the summer coping with escalating infection numbers and ongoing vaccine hesitancy. To add insult to injury, the states that were hit the hardest tended to be those whose governors had refused to allow vaccine and mask mandates. Even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) corrected course and recommended that all Americans, including the vaccinated, return to indoor masking, these governors remained steadfast in their opposition to mandates.
As the start of the new school year approached and COVID-19 infections continued to surge, this antagonistic approach to indoor masking led to an inevitable clash between scientifically informed public health policy and the law of the land as determined by state governors. Caught in the middle of this battle were teachers, staff and students. While nearly everyone desperately wanted to be able to return to in-person teaching as planned, by early August this began to look less and less wise without mask and vaccine mandates in place. This was the situation at my university, the University of Texas at Austin.
University reopening plans were made back in Spring 2021 when the arrival and surprisingly high efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines made it easy to assume that the worst of this pandemic was behind us. Ninety percent of classes were to be instructed in person. As it became clear that, thanks to the incredibly contagious delta variant, the COVID-19 situation in Austin, Texas, was far worse this year than a year ago, many questioned the feasibility of in-person classes at UT. In the weeks before classes started on Aug. 25, members of the campus community awaited word on adjustments to our reopening plan from our provost and president.
Based on the thoughtful, evidence-based response to COVID-19 in 2020, during which nearly all classes were taught online, we trusted our university leadership to devise a plan that foregrounded the safety of the community. Instead, and despite the risks to the entire community as well as the city of Austin, UT stuck to its original reopening plan with only a few minor additions (e.g. students were asked to upload a negative COVID-19 test before returning to campus, but there have been no consequences for the approximately 20 percent who opted not to do so). Understandably, this lackluster response generated significant pushback from all parts of the campus, including students. In response to the uproar, UT’s leadership decided to allow deans to grant an unspecified number of non-medical waivers, ostensibly for pedagogical reasons or because a classroom did not permit any social distancing. These waivers granted instructors the freedom to teach online for the first 3.5 weeks of the term. Faculty at high risk of severe illness or death from a COVID-19 infection could apply for a waiver to teach online for the duration of the semester. All other instructional faculty were expected to teach in person.
In this way, the responsibility for creating a safe learning and teaching environment shifted from UT’s leadership to individual instructors, some of them advanced graduate students. UT leadership strongly encouraged incoming and returning students to get vaccinated in emails but declined to depart from Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) ban on mandates. Instructors were provided with an extensive, constantly expanding and difficult to use FAQ document to guide our efforts to encourage masking without overstepping. There is little humor to be found in COVID-19, but some of us could not help but laugh when we came across one tip for incentivizing indoor masking: reward students with a treat like an individually wrapped cookie if a certain percentage mask for a certain number of class meetings. State money could not be used to pay for these treats, and the treats had to be distributed outside. I am sure that the person who came up with this idea meant well but, in the context of a raging pandemic and growing anxiety, it missed the mark.
To me, it was reminiscent of grade school classroom management techniques, with the added element of requiring the instructor to pay for the bribe out of their own pocket and somehow find a way to distribute the prize to (potentially) hundreds of students. Oh, and we must somehow do this for no more than $50 and in such a way that no student feels singled out. Don’t get me wrong: everyone enjoys a good cookie. But, given the politicization of mask-wearing in Texas, the notion that a student would decide to don a mask for a cookie is ridiculous. Indeed, far more likely to incentivize student behaviors are UT’s efforts to encourage vaccination with various prizes, including a tour of the athletic department, cash and two tickets to a UT football game with the president.
Rather than offer cookie bribes, many instructors chose to strongly encourage mask-wearing in their syllabuses and at the start of semester emails. Instructors offer masks to students who might not have one available. Some instructors, including me, worked a discussion of the pros and cons of masking into our courses, to remind students of the many factors to consider when choosing to mask or not. Instructors wear masks themselves and openly discuss their reasons for doing so, even when they are also vaccinated. Student leaders called for a mask mandate and encouraged their peers to wear masks indoors.
Jennifer Ebbeler is an associate professor in the Department of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin.