The past few months seems like one big blur. I close my eyes and try to remember what my life was like a few months ago back in March, before the pandemic was declared. I was teaching biology at Rutgers University—Camden. It was a typical semester. I was preparing for my trip to Patagonia over spring break. I have never been to South America so I was excited to experience some new culture, but more importantly to see the native wildlife. I was thrilled because we were going to Peninsula Valdés, which was known for its marine life. I have seen a lot of species in captivity, but not in the wild. However, my excitement was cut short when Rutgers University announced that all scheduled study abroad trips were canceled two weeks before spring break. To some people this may not seem like a big deal, but to me, I knew it was major. Canceling just one trip two weeks before departure is messy, and generally refunds are not possible. This was the entire university (over 100 programs!). Each trip is roughly $3k per student—estimate about 20 students per trip (some trips have more, some less). That is a lot of money for Rutgers to lose, and they would have to refund all that money back to the students lest they wanted lawsuits. No for-profit company in Corporate America wants to willingly take a financial loss unless the potential outcomes are far worse. In this particular case, it was. The virus was making its way into the United States. China was “contained,” but Italy was not, which is how the majority of cases came to our country. I knew immediately after Rutgers’ announcement that the situation was serious. It was ‘better’ for Rutgers to take this financial loss instead of allowing students to leave the country on their trips.

The week leading up to spring break, the news was rampant with reports of the virus. I changed my curriculum and made a lecture about the new virus from China. I gave a quick lesson about how viruses worked, so we could focus on the current situation. By this time the number of infections were increasing exponentially and we had the first NJ death—I told my students that I may not see them again in-person after spring break. I explained how quickly the virus was spreading and I told them to stay safe. During my first lecture that day, Rutgers made another announcement telling students that spring break was starting early and that they needed to move out of their dorms in two days—they were not coming back. I left that night after my second lecture with one final look at my office—one final glance to make sure I had everything I needed. I may not be coming back either.

NJ numbers continued to climb—spillover from NY. Many people work in NY, but live in North Jersey. I hunkered down at home with my fiancé, roommate, and our animals—everyone was suddenly working remotely from home. I had to rapidly figure out how I was going to teach my in-person courses online for the remainder of the semester. I developed a remote learning method that sufficed, but more importantly was considerate of my students. Many students are disadvantaged in various ways—including internet access or even owning a computer. Before, with students being on campus, they did not have these excuses. The students had access to free Wi-Fi and computers on campus. Then there were the students with food and housing insecurities to think of—or the ones that needed to work multiple jobs. Going to college suddenly became a major burden to the students, but I still had to get them to complete their work—even if it was for the sake of completion. During those weeks, I buried myself in my work, revamping my lectures and testing materials. The stay-at-home order was issued at some point during this time. Cases continued to increase—trickling down from NY into North Jersey and making its way to South Jersey. Community spread was seen and the World Health Organization waited until the last possible minute to declare a pandemic. I preemptively started creating cloth face masks for myself, friends and family. I would convert a lecture during the day, make masks in the evening. It was a great relief once I submitted those final grades and the semester ended. By then we were still in the thick of it, but NJ had plateaued. I was sewing like mad at this point—made my first quilt, made my first bat plushie, crocheted a two-person lap blanket. Anything to keep me busy so time would pass along with the madness of constantly being indoors. It became a ritual to take a break during the day and listen to Governor Murphy’s daily reports about the virus. How many more people were infected today? How many died today? The whole scenario felt like a flood occurred. The water kept rising and rising and everyone seemed to be panicking in the world—suddenly the water was above my head and I sank. I was drowning, but then suddenly I could breathe underwater. Everything normalized, which is not necessarily a good thing. I enjoyed the Tiger King documentary on Netflix with the rest of the world. Corporate America started lying to its employees, promising that their jobs would be spared, but a few weeks later mass layoffs occurred. Unemployment was jammed, people were panicking. The news of the virus normalized, but the effects of an unstable economy dealing with the virus was just starting. Civil unrest was rearing.

People who do not understand science and only care about themselves started getting restless and whining. Protests started—they were tired of the pandemic lockdown. They cried that their freedom was being infringed upon—and misinformation about the virus was common at this point. America started re-opening even though science said it was too soon.

My wedding was supposed to be this October. My fiancé and I canceled it because of the pandemic. A wedding is supposed to be a time of celebration, but the thought of one asymptomatic person attending the wedding and infecting the family horrified us. It happened many times, not too long ago—some families ignored the warnings about congregating because of the virus, and most of them are dead. Those that survived are grieving about their dead relatives and grappling with the hard truth that they contributed to their deaths. My fiancé and I do not want that on our consciousness—so we canceled.

Then it happened, a black American was chased and gunned down. It had happened too many times before, but not during a time when nearly everyone in the world was watching with little to do because of a pandemic and lack of work. He was only going for his daily jog, but now he was dead with little justice. Then it happened again, another black American was killed—no justice. She was sleeping only moments prior. Then another black American slowly suffocated to death for nearly 9 minutes—again no justice. A white American decided to use her white privilege against a black American to scare him. The world responded and #Blackbirdersweek was born. I watched with the rest of the world as American racism reared its ugly head again in the news. Protests started and have continued until this day. The cry for the end of racism is bigger than ever, and stronger than ever before. The perfect storm occurred to allow all of this to happen. Black Lives Matter leads the current movement, but it is so much more. The people cry for justice—they cry for a better life. I cry with them.

It has only been four months since the pandemic started in America. It feels like March was a year ago. So much has happened in such a short amount of time. We still have climate change to contend with, and there are many battles ahead. It is an election year, and our nation is broken. I am tired, but I continue to push forward like many others in the world. NJ virus cases and deaths are at the lowest they have been since everything first started, but other parts of the nation continue to rise—still part of the first wave, although many say it is the second phase. Cases dropped regionally, not nationally. We are not out of the woods yet. Be smart, stay safe, fight for a better life for everyone, especially marginalized groups, and continue fighting for our planet.

Written by Denise Hassinger, MSc., FCW Treasurer