GC: About that Photo_graphic

One night in early August, I stopped by Park Hall to get books from my office. Entering a classroom to inspect the new Zoom equipment, I noticed the ancient wooden desk I’d leaned against for years in class discussion. Then I started laughing and pulled out my phone.

I sent the picture to colleagues in Park, figuring they had a right to know what awaited them in the fall. The image spread to social media. Pretty soon, a cruddy desk with an awkwardly sized rectangle of clear plastic glued to it — and blue painter’s tape to hold it up while the glue under the brackets dried — encapsulated many things angering Georgians during the pandemic. Stupidity. Waste. Incompetence. Lies. The University System of Georgia’s reopening plan. And, of course, weaknesses in the Bulldogs’ defense.

Pizzino_Shield_Courtesy

Christopher Pizzino noticed a plexiglass shield affixed to a desk in Park Hall when he went to retrieve items from his office in early August. (Courtesy/Christopher Pizzino)

But why this image? Is this sad little barrier against airborne coronavirus droplets much more absurd than the one separating you from the cashier at the grocery store? What about the “hygiene theater” assuring us that surface cleaning makes it safe to eat at indoor restaurants? Why do we only laugh when a particular picture makes reality come crashing through?

Twitter’s reaction to this image shows how strained our relationship to reality has become. On the one hand, Americans like to believe they despise hypocrisy and propaganda. But on the other hand, as T.S. Eliot observes at the opening of “Four Quartets,” human kind cannot bear very much reality. We desire moments of clarity, certainly — but only moments. We need the deeper, uglier truth to stay outside the frame.

The truth, first, of our own lives in pandemic conditions, when the very things we want most — contact, intimacy, community — have turned against us, and the things we must do to survive demand more risk. And also, the fact that while we’re all at risk right now, some are at more risk, with less reward, and sometimes for no good reason.

Many students are living in dorms and eating in dining halls designed for social contact, not social separation. Many staff workers have been stretched to the breaking point getting ready for the fall term, and when they aren’t gluing plexiglass to old desks, they do essential work. The skilled staff who maintain and repair Park Hall are the only reason it didn’t collapse years ago.

Other staff workers are told they must be on campus, though their jobs can be done from home. At the same time, if classes move completely online this semester, some will face unemployment. And then there are graduate teaching assistants, who are the most poorly paid teachers on campus. Some who have medical vulnerabilities are being forced to work in person so that we can keep the percentage of fully-online classes low. And all this is happening in a state where COVID-19 has affected poor communities and Black communities the most harshly.

How can we bring these vulnerable people into focus? We might start by saying the name of staff worker Ana Cabrera Lopez, the first member of the UGA community to die of COVID-19.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of a member of the University of Georgia community. Our sympathy goes out to our co-worker’s family and friends. Out of respect for them, we will not comment further,” commented Greg Trevor from UGA’s Office of Media and Communications, after pressure from the press.

Not for the first time, what strikes Mr. Trevor — and President Jere Morehead, who tells him what to say — as wise and respectful strikes me as stupid and vile. Is the plan to copy and paste this statement once per death going forward? Why is it disrespectful to name a co-worker? Are we supposed to believe that if President Morehead dies of COVID-19, the university will not say his name, or comment extensively on his life? It may be argued that Ana Cabrera Lopez, unlike Jere Morehead, was not a public figure. But that is exactly the point.

Together, we can confront the reality of the most at-risk lives here at UGA. But my picture of the botched plastic surgery done to that desk on Park Hall’s second floor doesn’t do the job. It doesn’t really show the precarious position of our students, graduate students and staff. These are the people the university serves, and the people who serve them most honorably — because they serve with the least reward, and often with the greatest risk.

There may be a single, helpful image to encapsulate our sense of who is most vulnerable during this pandemic. I hope we don’t find it. That would be too easy.

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(4) comments

ATL17AndCSCAtUGA

While a death is tragic, and certainly attention should be given to what changes should be made to prevent this happening again, whether that be lowering requirements for more at-risk staff or making particular places more sanitary; I'm not sure that this was avoidable. The author's complaint about the plexiglass seems odd, as the argument appears to be "what's this supposed to do?/This isn't how I would have assembled it." I've also seen the plexiglass panels and doubt that they do much, but they were put there to add that little bit of protection, so I can't be mad at UGA for trying to add things like that.

The University hasn't been shy about going online either: rather than having 12 on campus classes per week, I now have 4.5, 3 of which are outdoors.

I dont think there's anything else UGA can do at the moment without cancelling altogether, as students are customers who pay normally insane prices for decent learning. If they wanted to learn exclusively online, they wouldn't be at UGA. Of course there is a balance between student needs and safety, but I believe it has been found already.

gafan87

I agree with your thoughtful, rational reply. Trying to understand the thought process of these types of opinion columns is an exercise in futility. There is always a pre-existing bias to condemn and destroy what some might perceive as failure, yet there is never any suggestion of an alternative "better" solution. Never. Not one. Just complain and condemn because that's easy. UGA leadership continues to do what it feels is best for the entire UGA community.

sale1

Here are a few suggestions that have been put forward. 

First, test more. From what I have read from (including from experts at UGA), the number of tests performed by the University is inadequate to monitor infections, let alone help control them. Some other schools are testing significantly more, and they are faring much better than UGA. 

Second, the University administration needs to be more forthcoming with information. The weekly status reports are widely viewed as inadequate in comparison to the daily reports produced at other schools, even USG schools.  The UGA reports are inherently dated when they come out. Daily reports would give students and other stakeholders a better idea of whether they could safely come to campus. Many want that information. It exists, but it’s not being reported.

Those reports aside, the administration appears to be fairly tight lipped with information. Why did it take so long for the administration to acknowledge that the Georgia Center was being used for isolation? I heard that rumor days before an official announcement. What are the infection rates in the residence halls? What sort of models is the University using to predict infections and deaths in the community? Surely these things exist, but to my knowledge, it’s not being published. Many people feel that they are simply being left in the dark. 

Lastly, the administration should involve more members of the community (at all levels) in the decision making process. The administration might be doing what it thinks is best for everyone, but the decisions are being made top-down and without (according to many) adequate input from the people actually in the trenches. Of course those people are going to complain. 

sale1

A quick comment about the University not being shy about going online. There was a great deal of confusion about what "in-person" actually meant. Colleges, departments, and individual instructors muddled through as best they could, without clear guidelines from the Univeristy leadership.

What I'm seeing now is that students are opting for Zoom even if they could attend in person, and faculty are as a result minimizing the amount of time they are in the classroom. Campus is a ghost town as a result.

I mention this because I don't think it was what the administration intended. It's what the students and instructors are choosing to do.

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