Mind Sacrifice

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Biden accelerates timeline for adults to qualify for vaccines (Washington Post)
Everyone 16 and older is now eligible for the COVID vaccine in Wisconsin (channel3000.com)

There is a part of me that wants to complain about how I seemed to get over the last of the side effects of my second COVID-19 vaccination just as my four-day holiday weekend came to an end, but even if I was sure that it would be read in the spirit of humour I’d offer it in, this still doesn’t feel like the proper time for that kind of humour. I’m not waking up with flu-like aches in my muscles any longer, I’m catching up on my sleep deficit, and I’m finally feeling like my old self when I teach again. Tomorrow will mark two weeks since I finished my vaccination course, and while I have no plans to start becoming any kind of social butterfly after that, I’ll probably still feel some sense of relief once I cross that threshold, and I will gladly take any relief I can get from the weight of the past year-plus of dealing with the pandemic and the havoc it continues to wreak on all our lives.

As my campus approaches the last month of the semester here, knowing that I’ve gotten my vaccinations out of the way — and, perhaps more importantly, the side effects of those vaccinations — helps me feel better about my chances of finishing the term strongly for my students. The fact that all of my students (at least the ones currently living in Wisconsin, since I do have some international students attending my Zoom classes from their home countries this semester) can now get vaccinated should be another reason for me to feel better about how everything is going right now. The timing of students becoming vaccine-eligible so close to the end of the semester, though, is more than a little disconcerting to me.

Even if younger people are less likely to contract, or suffer severe symptoms from, COVID-19, and even if fewer of them deal with side effects from the vaccination than older people do, there’s no way for them to know for certain that they won’t be forced to deal with the same “flu-like symptoms” that I, and at least some of my colleagues, have been telling them about over the past month, if they’re not already witnessing their older family members dealing with the same problems. The possibility of having to deal with severe fatigue and body aches and brain fog at the end of a semester, when final papers are due and exams need to be taken, would be frightening enough at the end of a normal school year. With students and instructors alike worn out from the struggles of the past year (including the difficulties of online classes), suffering those symptoms around finals week could be catastrophic.

If I were a student in one of my classes right now, I honestly don’t know if I could bring myself to schedule my vaccinations until after the end of the school year, simply because I’d be worried about months of studying giving way to a bunch of failed classes due to vaccine side effects when all the big stuff comes due. Everyone should be getting vaccinated as quickly as possible, and if I hadn’t already gotten my shots then I’d definitely be scheduling them now as early as I could get them, but it’s too easy to see college student Sean putting them off until after the end of the semester to avoid any possibility of bombing final exams. I can only imagine that college students across the country right now, as they become eligible to start their course of COVID-19 vaccinations, are having to deal with the same dilemma, and it’s not a choice that any student, college or otherwise, should be forced to make.

For my part, after I came back to teach classes following my first vaccination sidelining me for a couple of days, I was proactive in telling my students that I was more than willing to be extra-flexible with deadlines in the event that they suffered the same side effects that I did after my shots, and that their first priority should be getting vaccinated as quickly as they’re comfortable doing so. I’m fortunate to work on a campus where I know that my bosses will support me in this, and that my colleagues are likely extending the same opportunities to their students. Not every student in America is that lucky, though, and as we approach May, I fear that more and more stories of high school and college students being forced to make such an unthinkable choice, literally risking their lives just to make sure their brains and bodies are fully functional during their finals, will be popping up across the country.

This past year has made us all painfully aware of the limitations of online learning, especially when circumstances force us to adopt it at such a wide scale. (It’s also showing us that the standardized testing regime literally doesn’t care if people die in the service of them getting their precious numbers, but that’s a rant for another time.) The last thing we need to do is introduce one more life-or-death obstacle at the end of the most difficult school year that most of us, students and instructors alike, have ever faced. Getting as many people vaccinated against COVID-19 as quickly as possible is worlds more important than any final exams or papers could ever be. If schools and instructors won’t work around students’ vaccinations, then that’s all the evidence anyone should need about how little they actually care about their students.

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