By Briana Brady, Opinion Editor
Originally published on August 17, 2020
I feel a deep sense of personal responsibility to write this article. Yes, it’s somewhat my job to—though, in reality, it should be all of ours—but I feel the significance of the interconnected effects that our individual actions in this moment catalyze. Let me first get a few things out of the way: I am a senior, I am someone who performs much better in face-to-face environments as opposed to online classes, I am someone who is involved in extracurriculars on- and off-campus, and I am a student who would typically be excited to return to school after summer break. So, on paper, I would be someone who would much prefer to come back to campus rather than stay home and experience the semester in a completely virtual manner. However, when I woke up this morning, I could not shake the weight I felt about physically returning to UTC (even with a mask mandate) in the middle of a pandemic that is currently pummeling the southeastern corridor of the United States.
I had only one face-to-face class on my first day, and I arrived on campus about 30 minutes early. I needed to go to the library to print my syllabus, and I was pleased to see that the library was requiring everyone to swipe their MocsID in an effort to track traffic throughout the building. However, within ten seconds of being in the library and walking up to the computer, I noticed that a young man standing next to me had completely pulled down his mask and proceeded to leave it down for the next ten-to-fifteen minutes that passed before I left the library. I thought about saying something to him, but I felt my comments would not be well-received, and instead I exited the building as quickly as I could.
Walking the hallways to go to class soon after, I came across a student who pulled down her mask inside the building to interact with her phone, and I later saw three more campus community members sitting or walking within that same building without their masks.
Additionally, clearly posted on my classroom door was a sign stating that the maximum capacity for my classroom was to be ten people, yet there were eleven students in the classroom plus the professor. None of these observations made me feel particularly safe during my relatively brief time on campus.
Tack on to those observations upwards of ten additional students I noticed in my two hours on campus passing by others on campus without properly wearing their masks. I even saw groups of students sitting together within a six-foot distance while mask-less. On behalf of the Echo, I wanted to document the evidence as best I could, so I captured four photo examples of students not wearing their masks in non-socially-distant settings on campus to support my observations.
In an email sent to Chancellor Angle this afternoon, I relayed my remarks as described above, noting that while students were not complying with the mandate, maintenance workers were wearing masks despite tirelessly laboring in the sweltering heat. I also attached the four photos I captured to my email while asking him for his reaction to my observations. I sincerely appreciate that Chancellor Angle responded to my email a few hours later, but I was largely disappointed with the content of his response.
After explaining what the university had done over the summer to ensure the safest return possible and sharing a story of himself offering corrective guidance to a student he observed while on a walk throughout campus earlier today, Chancellor Angle wrote in his email reply that he was “pleased with how many people were complying with the mask mandate and…hoping compliance will increase each day.”
He repeatedly emphasized to me the individual responsibility we have to protect one another by not only practicing wearing a mask and social distancing ourselves, but also asking people not following the guidelines to do so.
He stated that “If we encounter people standing near us without a mask, we simply must speak up and ask them to wear a mask and social distance. If we do not speak up, COVID will spread…everyone must comply and ask others to do the same.”
In response to that, I wonder why the responsibility falls on those students following the rules to patrol others not doing the same. I think of students not always comfortable addressing their peers in a direct manner having to confront others about mask wearing when they’re perhaps already feeling vulnerable by simply being near someone not complying.
At my place of work off-campus, I as a shift supervisor am responsible for enforcing our company’s mask mandate to any patrons frequenting the establishment (and have no problem doing so), but even with some degree of relative power that is hardly ever a pleasant experience. While at school, I don’t feel the burden should fall on fellow students to address non-compliant peers and professors on their own, especially when resulting social dynamics will undeniably evolve as a result.
Chancellor Angle sent me a follow-up email to his reply as well, noting that it “is nice to see” one person’s viewpoint on the return to campus; in this email, he linked me to a tweet by Sam Luther, a reporter at News Channel 9, who stated that “of the hundreds of students [he] saw on campus” he “didn’t see a single student without a mask on.” Yet, the four images that I sent Chancellor Angle in my original email proving the contrary were never directly acknowledged in either email, nor were my stated concerns or observations directly responded to or empathized with. Instead, the emphasis regarding where we go from here was put on compliant students to course-correct non-compliant students, and I was additionally offered a non-student perspective on the campus situation to counteract my own evidence.
It feels deeply wrong to me to see if this “experiment” of returning to campus, at least partially, can work in a COVID hotspot while other schools across the country have made the responsible decision to not put student, faculty, and staff lives at risk and resign to virtual learning.
Because let’s be honest, it’s not just the students who are going to be part of this experiment. The risks we are taking in returning to campus have the potential to affect anyone from the MocsExpress bus drivers, to UTC Police Department, to Crossroads dining staff, as well as professors and administrators. Add on to these risks the domino effect that UTC students could have on the greater Chattanooga community and beyond, and most logical folks could deduce that we are really taking a gamble in trying to make this work.
While students should of course look out for the best interests of one another and hold each another accountable to a reasonable extent in the socially-tense and tumultuous waters of college, at the end of the day, those in power are responsible for those they represent. If folks in positions of power cannot keep us safe on campus—which the intricacies of trying to realistically accomplish on a college campus are absolutely daunting to consider—then we should not be on campus, simple as that. It is our duty to play our part in the bigger cause, which is doing all we can to slow the spread of this pandemic in our community and most assuredly, far beyond.