OMICRON IS THE COMMON COLD Graffiti on the Maryland Avenue Bridge over the JFX

Picture of a cloudy sky at sunset, light orange and pink at the bottom and stretching up to clouds and light blue sky. There is graffiti on the bridge in the foreground that reads, "OMICRON IS THE COMMON COLD."

It snowed on Sunday, which I know made lots of people really happy, but for me, snow on the ground means no biking, and I hate no biking. I know, I know, I could still bike, and many people do, but when there’s ice, braking and turning can toss you right off your bike, and I do a lot of those things while riding. For me it’s not worth the risk, so I just wait out the day or two for warmer temperatures that make the roads safer for me.

So I waited until Wednesday, and I still didn’t really want to ride my bike, but I knew if I didn’t ride it to my daily errands it would be easy to keep not riding it in the winter, and I know my life is just a zillion times better when I ride, so I got on my bike and rode up the hill to an appointment with my acupuncturist. Then I rode to the grocery store for chocolate bars and the the coffee shop for a fancy latte and then home for a late lunch before heading back down the hill to meet N. and S. for an afternoon beer. On a Wednesday! What a gift of a life!

N. and I both had COVID before Christmas, so we were out flexing our temporary immunity by sitting inside a restaurant. I can’t tell if it’s ok to do this, or if I should just be staying home like before. I’m vaxxed and boosted, and more than three weeks out from having COVID, so on a personal level, I don’t think there’s a safer time for me to sit inside with a beer with my mask off. And yet it still feels like a decadent choice, because the virus is running rampant and so many people, especially the people serving me this beer, are facing incredible risks of infection. And I don’t even really like beer.

But I do like friends, and it felt so good to see a couple of them live and in person. Sociality is not a second order need. Finding safe ways to be together has been incredibly important to me throughout the pandemic, still is. Outside has long been the safest place, and I have leaned into that safety since nearly the beginning of this thing. Walking, running, biking, waving to neighbors, saying my how-you-doings, hanging out in backyards and on porches, all of it has kept me going and feeling like a human being. Vaccines opened up safer ways to be inside, too, and going to the theater and movies and museums with friends, it was all so important to me before this latest surge. This stuff matters, and I wish we spent as much time talking about safe ways to be together as we do yelling at each other to not do things

And I was so relieved to finally be back in person with students this fall. In person learning is incredibly important to me. The conversations we had in my classrooms were so much richer than any we managed online, all of us staring at blank boxes on the screen as we scrolled away on our phones or in other windows on our computers instead of being present in class. That wasn’t true for everyone, of course, but I know that once I mute my video in a meeting, scrolling through Twitter is what I end up doing rather than paying attention. It isn’t our fault that our attention works like this–it is what the technology is designed to do. It steals our attention, and it doesn’t give it back.

As COVID surges beyond anything we’ve seen before all of this is back on my mind in a way it wasn’t there before the holidays. I don’t want to teach online again, even as I’m teaching online right now. In person learning matters to me. Public health matters to me, too. There are few spaces, none of them online, as far as I can tell, where we can have real conversations about these priorities, both of which are at the top of my list. To suggest schools should be in person, even if that means exposing more people to COVID, means people accuse you of not caring if children, their teachers, and their family members die. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t care if kids die, come on. To suggest they close during this surge means people accuse you of not caring about all the kids who will go hungry without school-provided meals or who will suffer permanent learning loss because closing schools for a week or two means closing them forever. So little nuance, so little generosity.

I snapped this picture on my ride back up the hill after my beer and french fries, just as the sun started going down. Omicron is most definitely not the common cold. And evidence is piling up that it is nowhere near as deadly as earlier variants even as it is much more transmissible, be that because so many of us are vaccinated or have already been infected, or because this is how viruses mutate–to spread faster and not kill their hosts to maximize their own life potential. The link between cases and hospitalizations and deaths appears to be breaking now. That is what we’ve wanted. And we have to figure out how to move forward in this new COVID reality, because the shut downs of 2020 aren’t coming back, and, at the risk of drawing ire if anyone from Twitter should happen to read this, I don’t think they should.

I don’t know the way forward. I suspect enough of us will be sick at the same time to make calls for in person learning to commence immediately irrelevant. Schools can’t be in session if most of the teachers and students are home sick. I hope this wave passes as quickly as they predict it will, and that our largely successful efforts to safely teach and learn in person last fall can continue. This will never mean risk-free workplaces or lives. We’ve never had them, and we never will. We should have alternatives for those who cannot safely be back in person at work and school. And I can’t wait to be sitting in a circle in a classroom with a bunch of smart students who put their phones down and talk to each other about ideas.

I finished my ride with my eyes turning west as I watched the pale yellows and pinks turn dark and glowing. It is a gift that I can ride my bike right now. I know intimately, from cancer to covid, that this gift is temporary. Everything is.

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