Back to school for academics in fisheries

Today is the first day of school at universities across the country, and even though some people have successfully adjusted their lives to the rules of our new world, more adjustments seem like a guarantee, which can be a significant source of stress.

The point of this article is not to exacerbate anyone’s anxiety but to write about how I feel on this day, as a second year PhD student, and the factors that have affected my stance going into this semester. I hope that this is helpful to my colleagues if only because it is relatable and validating on a personal level.

I’ve been able to keep busy working at home since March, working on various writing projects, and computer coding scripts for data analysis. It has been extremely difficult for me to be isolated for so long, but with some encouragement from family and friends, I realized I should talk with a professional about some of the difficulties I’ve been facing.  Better late than never, I scheduled an appointment with student counseling services and look forward to the conversation.  

In a recent study on the effects of the pandemic on Canadian grad students, 72% of those surveyed reported an increase in feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness, or helplessness as a result of Covid-19 ( I certainly count myself among them. But, I also count myself lucky because my field season in Alabama was not canceled, and although it took time to figure out how to do our research safely with proper distancing, I’ve been able to get out of the house for some much-needed river time. In another stroke of luck, last Friday, I tested negative for Covid-19.

I had to visit campus for my mandatory free Covid-19 test in an old gymnasium, and it seemed sanitary enough. There were floor markers for where to stand in line, and hand sanitizer bottles everywhere. Everyone was wearing a mask, which made me feel safe, but I looked at all the other students waiting with me in silence and wondered which ones were at the bar the night before, or which ones were planning house parties for the weekend. I had a sickening suspicion that these students would not adhere to university guidelines, and I wondered what that would mean for me as a student and teaching assistant this semester.

In general, I feel better than I did this spring because I know I have more control over my own exposure. I live alone, and my office is in an off-campus private building shared by only a few lab-mates. I plan to keep working from home with limited office visits, I’ve enrolled in classes with online teaching modes, and my advisors do not force me to do anything I’m not comfortable with. In the spring I felt anxious and uncertain about trying to protect myself, but nowadays I feel frustrated and worried with the continued lack of buy-in from my community on public health guidelines. I’m worried about Auburn as a community because I’m skeptical about the undergraduates’ commitment to public safety, and about university policies regarding campus housing and in-person lectures.

I’m even more worried about my colleagues elsewhere in the southeast, where policies range from some required in-person meetings, to requiring graduate teaching assistants to take the temperature of each one of their students every day. I was shocked when I read the following thread on twitter last week.

Trevor Branch, an associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle tweeted on August 6th:

“I’m super mad right now at @NichollsState University, which is deliberately putting faculty and students at risk of death from covid, as follows:

1) Requiring 1 hr of in person face time for every class per week

2) Requiring teaching assistants to take the temperature of every student every day, putting them at extreme risk since many students are failing to wear masks or not covering their mouth/nose…

3) Forcing @NichollsState grad students to sit in classes while a few professors (given permission to teach remotely because of health conditions) teach remotely on the screen (how dumb does this get, just let those classes be completely online!)…

4) @NichollsState Not taking advice from epidemiologists, health people etc. but deliberately forcing unsafe conditions that will lead to a massive outbreak and deaths among students and faculty….

5) @NichollsState placing faculty in an impossible place: risk their lives and those of their students, quit their jobs, go on strike (and probably get fired)

cc: @edyong209 @CraigAWelch

This needs major media attention and pressure. It’s so unsafe.”

I hope that anyone who feels trapped by their institution’s outright dangerous policies, or even just worried about shaky guidelines has some kind of mechanism for voicing their grievances, and changing those policies. If not, hopefully you have a contingency plan that you feel safe about. Now more than ever, we need to support our colleagues, and make sure everyone comes out of this pandemic unscathed.

For the most part, I feel safe here in Auburn, but I hope that the university switches to remote learning as soon as possible. I’m going to do my best to support my colleagues, and keep everyone in my contact network safe from harm by following guidelines and mandates for public safety. If you don’t feel safe, and there is something we at The Fisheries Blog can do about it to help advance your ability to communicate, please let us know in the comments. For now, keep those masks on, and stay safe.

Cover photo by Lorie Skarpness

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article do not reflect the opinions of anyone at the Fisheries Blog except me, Henry (Hank) Hershey.

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