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Over the past several weeks, teachers and students across the country have returned to in-person learning under a variety of health-and-safety protocols. At the University of Iowa, and at other institutions in more conservative states, there is no vaccination mandate in place, nor are instructors allowed to require masks in their classrooms. Though the university’s administration encourages vaccinations and masks, teachers are banned from discussing students’ vaccination status, organizing classroom seating according to mask usage, or otherwise providing “tangible incentives” for wearing masks.
I recently spoke by phone with Silvia Secchi, a professor of geographical and sustainability sciences who has taught courses on subjects like climate change and environmental economics at the university since 2017. We spoke about her experiences in the classroom, and the challenges of teaching in an environment with so few protections against covid-19 infection. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
What classes are you teaching now, and what safety protocols are there in those classes?
At the moment, I am teaching two classes. One has four hundred students, and I’m responsible for the lecture part, which is online, but I’m also responsible for coördinating the discussion sections. There are seventeen of them, with six teaching assistants, and they’re all face to face. And then I also teach a class that has about fifty-five students, which is also face to face.
In terms of the safety protocols, we don’t have any mask or vaccine mandates. We also are really limited in our online options if something happens—so if I get covid and I have to quarantine, I can only teach online for one or two classes. If I want to keep teaching online, I have to have somebody in the classroom with the students while I Zoom from my home, essentially to proctor. So we have another person in my classroom just to make sure the students are there, potentially exposing another person.
You’re allowed to tell people what the school’s recommendations are and say that you support those guidelines, but without requiring them. Is that accurate? And are you allowed to ask any questions of your students?
No, we are not allowed to ask any questions regarding their covid vaccination status, why they are or are not wearing masks. So everything is geared toward protecting their feelings. I would say it goes beyond confidentiality. We don’t have equivalent measures to protect the health and feelings of those who decide they want to be masked, who are vaccinated, and who may feel uncomfortable in a classroom where their classmates are not. [In an e-mail, a spokesperson for the University of Iowa said that it “strongly encourages students, faculty, and staff to get vaccinated and wear a mask, particularly in all classroom settings and during in-person office hours,” and added that these guidelines have been created “with input from members of the Faculty Senate.”]
What was most striking to me about the rules is that, for anyone who’s ever been in school, your professor or your teacher usually has a fair amount of leeway in what they tell you to do, whether it’s not to put your feet up on the desk or not to show up without a shirt on, or not to interrupt people. The idea that a teacher should have some control over his or her own classroom is generally, I think, pretty universally agreed upon.
We cannot even ask for them to wear masks during office hours, in our own offices. That’s where we’re at. And what you’re pointing out, too, is how this is actually really troubling to me as an instructor because I feel like my agency is being restricted, in ways that negatively impact my pedagogy in ways that go beyond covid.
What do you mean by that?
I mean that I am being forced to behave in ways that are contrary to the best science and the best public-health advice. And I cannot even discuss this with my students. My students and I talk about power and power structures and how progress is impeded by powerful interests who prefer to have things the way they are, when we talk about climate change. And I feel the same thing is happening to us now with classrooms, but I am being gagged and I cannot discuss this with my students.
Would you be allowed to say that you chose to get vaccinated, and you chose to get vaccinated because it’s the best thing to do for your health and the health of your students?
Yes, we can do that, but when we do that we’re bringing it back to individual responsibility, when this is a collective problem. So, again, I’m drawing parallels with how I teach climate change to my students. You know, you can do the best you can in terms of not driving to campus, not eating a certain kind of food, and being very mindful about how much you recycle, but the pandemic is not a problem that we’re going to solve at an individual level. It requires collective action. It requires mask mandates. It requires vaccine mandates. And I cannot use this critical example in the way I teach. So I feel like they’re clipping my wings, not just in terms of whether they’re protecting everybody’s health but also in what we can or cannot say about things really germane to the subjects we study.
What would you say to people who think, You are vaccinated. Your health is probably going to be O.K. We know people who are vaccinated can get it, but the rates for hospitalizations and deaths, especially for people who are not over the age of seventy-five, are quite good. So then why are you so concerned with what others do?
Several things. I would say we all are mandated to wear seat belts. Everybody’s supposed to wear a seat belt for collectively reducing risk. I have lots of colleagues at the hospital. The hospital is almost full again, and these people’s lives have been essentially hell for a year and a half, and I’m concerned about them. I have colleagues with small children who are really, really afraid of what is going on, and we’re having breakthrough cases. And, by the way, we’re having trouble getting tested as well. We have to officially say we are symptomatic if we want to get tested.
So this is a collective problem. Bringing this back to individual responsibility is actually a very good example of the failures of conversations in the United States about what the social contract is and what it’s about. It’s not about me for me. I’m vaccinated. That’s not how society works. That’s not how we implement policies for the collective. The talk is all about freedom. It really is irrelevant to those of us who study how policy is made for the greater good and think about trade-offs and things like that.
What are the precautions normally taken for immunocompromised students and teachers, and what are they now?
Last semester, we would make accommodations so that faculty and grad students could teach online. We don’t have these anymore. So if you are an immunocompromised teaching assistant, you have to go into the classroom, if that’s your assignment. And there is no way to change that.
In terms of the students who are taking classes immunocompromised, we don’t really have anything in place. Before, we were encouraged to record lectures and put the lectures online so that the students could make up assignments, or didn’t have to show up in class. Well, we are now not required to do that, and we’re not even encouraged to do that. For my class that has fifty-five students, they are all in the classroom. And if they’re not in the classroom and we do a lot of activities in class, they lose those points and it’s up to my discretion to give them another assignment. So, frankly, the message is if you’re an immunocompromised student, maybe you shouldn’t be attending the University of Iowa this fall.
Why do you think the decision to not require vaccines and masks came about?
Well, I’m from Italy originally. We have a term for “a secret that everybody knows.” We are hearing through the grapevine that the university is being threatened with retaliatory actions by the legislature and, by extension, the Board of Regents that governs the universities, with things like “Well, if you do that, we’re going to cut funding, we’re going to eliminate tenure,” which has been threatened in Iowa again and again. And I just feel like, well, if that’s what they’re going to do, that’s what we’re going to do. If this is the showdown they want to have, the only thing we have is our reputation as a place where we make and teach the best science. We have a fantastic college of public health. I can just think what my colleagues are thinking over there, being essentially gagged and forced to teach in a setting that goes against their best knowledge and their own advice to other people. [In a statement, a spokesperson for the Board of Regents did not directly answer a question about fears that the university’s funding would be imperilled by mandates, but did say that an Iowa law prevents the university from requiring proof of vaccination on campus.]
So if this is how it’s going to go down, this is how it’s going to go down. And I hope that the federal government would use its power, like it’s done in other cases, to say, “If you cut their funding, we are going to replenish their coffers, because this is ridiculous.” We’re essentially trading our long-term reputation for short-term assurances from a legislature that is dominated by an anti-science agenda.
What are your colleagues saying about this? Do most of them share your perspective?
I think morale has never been this low. We feel like it’s very performative—you know, “Oh, we thank you so much for what you’re doing, but at the same time we don’t really care about your mental and physical health and that of your family, and you’re going to do what you’re going to do because we tell you to do it.” So I think that there are people who are more resigned, and people who are more afraid. Some of us are more upset. The people who have small children, who have all sorts of life issues, with day cares getting closed and testing their kids before they send them to school, versus those of us who are maybe older and just really see the institution as a whole in decline because of these actions, versus others who are just keeping very, very quiet and looking for a job somewhere else. All these things are happening, and we’re well aware of them.
Have you talked to anyone in the administration about all this?
We’re being told it’s not a two-way conversation. In the limited interactions that I’ve had, they’re, like, “Oh, they’re forcing our hand. There’s nothing we can do.” Do you know what? All these administrators have tenure, too. If it’s really bad and it goes against your ethical principles, you can resign. Or you can just say, “O.K., you’re telling us to do that. I am not going to do that. If you don’t want me to do that, fire me.” I think making a public stand that this is not acceptable and it’s damaging the credibility of the institution is not something that they’ve even thought about.
I was looking at the provost’s guidelines before we talked, and it says, “Instructors should be especially mindful to avoid discussing a student’s vaccination status. Additionally, you may not penalize or criticize students for not wearing face masks; provide tangible incentives, such as extra credit or a higher grade, to students who wear face masks; or direct students to sit in different areas of the classroom based on whether they are wearing face masks.” I’m curious if you’ve had conversations with students about all of this.
I think I’m still figuring out how I want to do this in the classroom. I have been talking to students out of the classroom—students that I don’t teach so that I don’t go against the guidelines, students that I have relationships with, students that I mentor. The ones that I’ve been talking to tend to be appalled. They’re, like, “How can we be doing this?,” and “I’m sorry for you that you have to go in the classroom like that with these kinds of policies in place.” But, obviously, that’s not the only opinion out there, because the students who are not masked must have different opinions from this.
And in my classroom it fluctuates, but I think it’s getting better. I think we started with half of them unmasked, and a good quarter of them were unmasked today. Mostly, what I have told them is “I can’t talk to you guys about that, and maybe you want to think about why that is the case.” I have told them that I am doing things differently in the way the groups are set up because I don’t want to penalize the students who are masked and afraid of sitting next to students who are not masked. I said the groups are going to be self-forming, so that if you are masked, and are not comfortable sitting next to somebody who is unmasked, you have the agency to move and go work with somebody who has a mask on. So I said that, but I haven’t addressed the issue head on. I think at some point I will.
How do you think you might do so?
I think what is going to happen is, at some point in class, we’re going to be discussing some collective-action issue, and in the context of that collective action I’m going to ask, What are other examples? It could be climate change, it could be some overuse of natural resources. And I am really hopeful that covid will come up, and they will bring it up themselves. Then we’ll discuss it that way and think about the parallels between what is happening, for example, with climate-change inaction and how certain people are driving the agenda, and what is happening with covid and how and why we’re not following the best science.
It’s pretty clear that there are certain interests that benefit from not doing anything about climate change. I’m not actually sure that’s the case here.
Well, yes. This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot in terms of my class and how I incorporate these changes. I think a lot of people think that they benefit from no masks—there is this issue of fake news and distortion of information and how science is perceived. In the case of climate change, it’s pretty clear that there are real benefits for the fossil-fuel industry. Here, I think there are perceived benefits on the part of the business community. I think that’s what’s driving a lot of the things we’re doing in Iowa. Iowa has been doing a lot of things to force the economy to stay open.
I just meant that you could open up businesses with vaccine and mask mandates and everyone could win, you know?
Oh, yeah. And there is a whole conversation about federalism—some of the things that are being done at the state level, it’s just because they don’t want to follow the federal protocols because of the politics of that. But the state also wants to impede local control. We actually have a mask mandate in Iowa City, and the state is going after our mayor for that. And the university is saying that the mask mandate doesn’t cover university property, so you don’t have to wear a mask on the university campus. In Iowa, we’re really good about talking about local control for things that certain people want, but not for other things. We particularly don’t want local control on masking and vaccination mandates.
Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.