April 19, 2022

SPARACIO | Unmasking a New Reality

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No one but myself ended up moving into my first-year suite due to the pandemic, leaving an empty,  unlocked room with the name “Joy” written on it after the student named Joy never moved in. This room soon became a hang-out spot for my group of friends. I cannot help but find some irony in the parallel of Joy as a person’s name and joy as an emotion — the irony of an empty room becoming filled with joy in a time marked by quite the opposite. Every Cornellian has lived their own pandemic life. When they enter the doorway to Joy’s room, they will see something different than I would: a different story, a different perspective adding to the collective history of the pandemic. Though evidently, this history is still in the making. 

In one of my government classes, a quote by historian James Gelvin was recently written on the board: “Historians writing today are so close to the events of the past century that they are unable to gain the perspective distance provides.” This quote made me wonder about what perspective I have on the pandemic, especially considering how, as a recent New York Times opinion article makes it clear, the pandemic is not yet over. As for the many happenings around the world, perspective is key — both the perspective gained from the passage of time and the perspective of an individual based on their lived experiences. 

What kind of perspective on the pandemic do I have as a person who experienced the height of the early pandemic in high school, running out of Physics class and straight into the shower at home (to wash off COVID-19, whatever we thought that would accomplish), finding that gravity was suspended, leaving everyone floating around like virus particles. Now, beginning the final stretch of my sophomore year and having watched multiple phases of the pandemic, I would like to reflect on the contested and confusing process of easing back into normalcy (whatever that means). But just as perspective illustrates, normal is different for everyone. 

While I finally feel that I am back to normal life, it is undoubtable that reality and “normalcy” have altered. At such an impressionable point in our lives, it seems probable that the pandemic will influence us psychologically, mentally and developmentally — something we may not uncover for years to come. I look back at my cacophonous college experience thus far and wonder how much the pandemic has actually influenced it. Would I have chosen my majors sooner had I experienced in-person classes? Did I arrive at the majors I chose because of the pandemic? Perhaps. 

Now, the most prescient reminder of the pandemic for me is the masks that students continue to wear in the classroom. After talking to students in Klarman and having conversations with friends, I’ve noticed that many students express feelings of dislike towards the psychological distance that masks create in the classroom; despite the ability to share space, the inability to see the faces of fellow students and professors prevents connection. Both professors and students have noted issues of being heard; professors often struggle to project their voices and students struggle to hear their professors and one another. There are also obvious issues of recognition, which came to a point last year when I stood maskless in front of a mirror and was surprised to see that I had a nose. Also mentioned were the inconsistencies in University policy, especially when it comes to masking. I think that in some ways, this has led to relaxed masking in class. It is not uncommon to see students with masks below their noses, something that professors respond to in varied ways. At the core of college is our education, so while I am tired of masking, I think it is important to ensure that the classroom is a safe haven for immunocompromised individuals and individuals interacting with high-risk friends/family members. 

I’ve realized that in some ways, masks have become mirrors of the past. They connect us to the beginning of the pandemic and the various stages: new variants, vaccinations, changing policy guidelines and the connection to the political world. I wonder, though, can we let go of the pandemic when we let go of the mask? When we don’t have to wear them in class, will we have reached normal? And what if we are past the point of return to normal? What if we have unmasked a new reality? 

With the University reducing masking to just the classroom and public transportation, decreasing testing frequency and suspending the booster requirement for the 2022-2023 academic year, it seems that we are returning to some form of normal. Though we return in some ways to a pre-pandemic Cornell, norms have changed. Many students will leave Cornell and enter a workforce with either a hybrid or work-from-home setup. Many meetings for student organizations, classes and other activities are still holding Zoom meetings (sometimes in addition to in-person). 

I think that one of the largest changes brought about by the pandemic is the creation of a hybrid life. Given the predisposition of my generation to use technology and social media, the transition to a hybrid world would probably be easily accepted. This is not to say that there are some advantages to this, especially for the business world where cost minimization is always a factor. I do believe it is important to understand changing norms and shifts in culture prompted by the pandemic, some of which will have adverse effects. For example, one article from The New York Times details the tendency created by Zoom to optimize socialization; there is no long goodbye if you can just click a button, no spontaneity if you can’t bump into someone you know in the hallway, creating a desire to interact efficiently and productively rather than interact meaningfully. 

There will not be a single day where we can unmask, jump up and down in celebration, and declare the pandemic to be over. It’s been almost a year since the door to Joy’s room was locked behind me. But, that doesn’t mean that we cannot find joy in our new reality, opening the door to questions and looking through the window of perspective. Every day we unmask a new reality, and the only way to find out what our new reality holds is just to keep on living. 

​​Rebecca Sparacio (she/her) is a sophomore in the Dyson School. She can be reached at [email protected] The Space Between runs every other Wednesday this semester.