Doty: Living with People

What happens when someone coughs in an in-person class?

by Matthew Doty

It happened on the Thursday of the first week of school. I walked into my classes that week, excited to resume in-person learning. I was going to meet new people, be part of a community again and feel like I could make those important connections I missed while we were online. The world was a bright shining sea of people to talk to and classes to walk to. Life was beautiful and I had nothing to worry about. Nothing could go wrong.

It only took three days of in-person classes before someone sitting next to me let out a sound that had become foreign to me after about two years of lockdown and social distancing. Thinking back, the noise they made could have been completely normal, but to my recently hypochondriac ears, it sounded like my classmate rattled out the deepest, throatiest cough ever coughed by a human. Props to them for what seemed like a hard-fought battle to stifle it, but once that thing scratched and clawed its way out from the deepest corners of their chest, I sized them up a little differently.

I mean, who were they, I thought, to come into this classroom sick when we are all trying so desperately to get some semblance of normality back? What if it’s COVID-19? If you get me sick and I can’t come to classes or see my friends any more, have you thought of that? I assume you got your vaccine, but who really knows? Yuck. I angled my chair away from them a little bit (what this practically accomplished I did not know then and do not know now), scooted a little further away, and continued class. In my head, when I remember the incident, I still picture a cloud of virus particles seeping from their mask.

From that moment, my view of in-person classes was dimmer, albeit slightly, and my eyes were a little bit more open to the realities of going to in-person classes again. Being near people in close proximity, even when masked and vaccinated, does make it more likely that you contract COVID-19 if only because you are exposed to it more often. For someone like me, who is (or likes to think he is) relatively healthy, vaccinated and living with similar such people, the higher exposure to COVID-19 was a negligible aspect of returning to in-person classes. I was lucky to have been able to return to classes with my blinders on, thinking almost exclusively about socializing in class and putting COVID-19 worries on the backburner.

But, as it happens, seeing people more frequently means getting sick with all kinds of fun illnesses, and by the third week of school my roommates and I started to come down with something. None of our symptoms screamed that we had COVID-19, but we thought that having one of us schedule a test at the Rec was only right. I sent an email to my professor, telling him the situation and he understood and provided accommodations. My test came back negative, and given that my symptoms were mild, I headed to all three of my in-person classes the next day.

In class, as I sniffled, coughed here and there and gave off a general air of being unwell, I could see why classmates may be wary of sitting next to me. I held back all signals of sickness I could, and at one point I even considered telling my partner for a class activity that I was a little under the weather, but had gotten my negative test; it was impossible to do so without addressing the elephant in the room, and so I left it.

I buckle a little under the weight of my own hypocrisy when I think about those two episodes. By a perfect sequence of events, I landed right in the same shoes as the girl sitting next to me that first week; the girl that I viscerally judged for having come to class sick, and hoped that no one would judge me. I realize now that while I stick by my decision to go to class that day, that is only because I have all the information about the condition I was in. I felt comfortable with the idea that my classmates should entrust their safety to my decision making. I wanted them to give me the exact trust that I did not even consider giving to my classmate.

We are never going to know the length to which someone next to us has gone to protect the rest of us from the pandemic. After all, most COVID-19 spread is asymptomatic, so if a cough or two here and there puts us on edge, we should be much more worried about the majority of us that are not hacking up a lung in class. We will not know if those sitting next to us have been tested and vaccinated, what they do on the weekends or whether their friends are vaccinated. These things are hard to confirm even when someone does tell us, and this type of constant confirmation should not be a goal of ours. Look, I am all for vaccination and mask requirements, and I get a test at the Rec everytime I feel an echo of a whisper of a tingle in my throat. But at a certain point, we need to be comfortable with the fact that we cannot control the minute behavior of the people around us, especially if we ourselves are not part of or living with someone in an at-risk population. If not for our connections to those classmates, for our own sanity. I hear people all too often tell stories similar to the two above, and I wonder how long it will take for us to be comfortable with the many implications of living alongside other people again.