Students, Not Statistics

Connecting by Zoom with infected players, a professor encounters the impact of COVID-19 on individuals many people see only through a football face mask.

Author: Damian Zurro ’03, ’15 Ph.D.

Isolation is used to separate people infected with the virus (those who are sick with COVID-19 and those with no symptoms) from people who are not infected. The University will isolate individuals who have tested positive in addition to those who are symptomatic and are awaiting test results. People who are in isolation need to remain isolated until it’s safe for them to be around others—

I recognize it instantly from the curtains. They’re those thick blackout ones that all hotels have. Because we always meet in the day, they’re almost always open. The student sits at the desk, with the window off to one side. As if on cue, the Wi-Fi almost always cuts out briefly just as we’re exchanging greetings. The tone of voice I strive for, warm and encouraging with an undertone of concern, betrays my knowledge: my student has tested positive for COVID-19 and is joining our Zoom session from one of the University’s designated isolation locations.

It’s happened several times this semester. Infected students are required to quickly relocate to their isolation spot, where they receive frequent check-ins and food delivered to their rooms.

I teach a supplementary writing course structured around weekly meetings with the instructor in which we focus on the student’s writing across the disciplines. We get to know each other well over the semester. In the pandemic era, that has meant using Zoom to find each other wherever we are.

During the recent team outbreak that led to the postponement of the Wake Forest game, I met with several football players in isolation or quarantine. Because of public interest in the team, people sometimes forget that these are young people, students like any other.

“How are you doing?” I ask, trying to push down the worry that’s vaulting up from my stomach.

Most reply with some variation of, “Fine.” The mixture of stoicism and wanting to deflect attention runs robust at this age.

“It looks like you’re somewhere else,” I say, revealing that I can tell right away that something’s up.

My observation is usually followed by the student explaining that they’ve tested positive and are now in isolation. I always immediately query if they’re well enough to work. Every single student has said yes, so we proceed.

Images fill my head of vibrant, fit young men who make my Saturdays so enjoyable, now cut down and ill. In this condition, they look like little boys in that way sickness can sometimes make people regress.

Faculty are asked to remember the importance students place on interacting with faculty and that you leverage technology in ways that give you better opportunity to connect with students.

For each of these young men, the symptoms are different, from what I can see during a few weekly check-ins. One student seems very tired. Another talks of flu-like symptoms and chills that, on the day before we met, kept him in bed, fully dressed, in a hoodie, with no relief.

Another student scares me. He joins the session lying on the bed and not that long into our meeting, I can hear labored breathing, the computer microphone picking up a more-than-slight wheeze. And then there’s the cough: that dry, crackling outburst I’ve only heard on news stories about COVID-19 patients. The coughs are not continual; they are more like flying insects that get trapped in your house. For the most part, they leave you alone, off doing their own thing, but every so often, they zip in to bother you, reminding you of their irritating presence.

Did they recover from the sniffles so they can get back to playing football or nah?” This question appeared in the replies to a Notre Dame sports reporter I follow on Twitter.

Meanwhile, I’m meeting with another player in isolation, reclining on the bed, bundled up in sweatshirt, knit hat and pants.

“Are you sleeping through the night?” I inquire.

“Last night was terrible! You go from cold to hot and back and can’t get comfortable,” he replies, the fatigue invading his face. Sniffles, indeed.

Students come to Notre Dame to have the opportunity to learn from and interact with our wonderful faculty, which is why we have placed such an emphasis on face-to-face instruction during the fall semester.

“Am I a monster for doing this?!” I interrogate myself. “Shouldn’t I shut down the session 30 seconds after the student speaks the word COVID? How could anyone possibly be in the mood to focus on school?”

Like every student in isolation, he can’t exit the room at all, spending all those hours studying, attending class, doing work, checking his phone, keeping in touch with family, friends, coaches, and medical staff, trying to stay warm.

“The hat’s made me too hot!” he asserts, moving away and throwing off his hat before resettling back on the bed and adjusting his hair.

I’m doing my best to be more than a face in a box. I’m only a few miles away, but I might as well be halfway around the world. I decide my purpose for these sessions won’t be writing; it will be human connection with these students who are so alone.

As my week comes to an end, images fill my head of vibrant, fit young men who make my Saturdays so enjoyable, now cut down and ill. In this condition, they look like little boys in that way sickness can sometimes make people regress.

All the members of the team who have caught COVID-19 have recovered, as far as I know, and there’s every reason to believe that all those currently ill will recover too. They’ll be back on the field, in the form most of the world knows them, showing out in games, doing antics on social media, maintaining poise in interviews. They’ll be the one-dimensional entertainment providers that they are to countless watchers who can’t comprehend why we’re making such a big deal out of this whole COVID thing.

But for now, HERE we are.

Damian Zurro is an assistant teaching professor in the University Writing Program.