The story of university professor Paola De Simone collapsing and dying of Covid-19 while in the middle of an online lecture to her students is both disturbing and heartbreaking.
A college professor in Buenos Aires, Argentina, De Simone had been battling symptoms of the coronavirus for several weeks.
While delivering an online lecture via Zoom to her students from her home on September 2, she reportedly collapsed and died. De Simone had been a professor of government and international relations at Universidad Argentina de la Empresa in Buenos Aires for 15 years. She was just 46 years old.
Just days earlier, she had noted on Twitter that she had been fighting COVID-19 for a month with no improvement. She was married to a doctor who was himself overwhelmed by the demands of the pandemic, and they had a young daughter together.
During the online Zoom lecture, the class of 40 students noted her labored breathing and urged her to call an ambulance. They even offered to call for help if she would tell them her address. But before she could get out the information, she gasped, “I can’t,” and collapsed. Undoubtedly traumatized, the students waited helplessly in what must have been a surreal vigil until her husband arrived.
Universidad officials described her as “a passionate and dedicated teacher” and a “great” person. Fellow professors and students hailed her “spirit and dedication to her students.”
While she was undoubtedly devoted and beloved by her students and colleagues alike, De Simone’s death raises questions about the expectations for those who teach – especially online.
In a traditional onsite college classroom, if an instructor is sick, they take time off and the school finds a substitute. Or class is simply cancelled, the students see the note on the door and go off to grab a coffee, knowing there will likely be make-up work at some point. There are provisions that can be made, Plans B and C for compensating when an instructor gets sick.
But in the post-Covid world, the boundaries have blurred, and the margins have disappeared. The ones we hail as “dedicated” seem to be succumbing to self-sacrifice, pushing themselves even harder than before the pandemic.
Is it now the expectation that those who teach online will do so even when they are sick and dying?
Why take a ‘sick day’ when you can just stay home and teach without spreading your germs to others? When you can just haul your computer into your bed with you and grade assignments in between bouts of excruciating coughs?
Has the pandemic propelled us past the point of time off for illness, since all work can now be done from home surrounded by puke basins, tissues, vaporizers, and medicines, just beyond the glowing screen?
Or do we as teachers push ourselves to the point of exhaustion and even death precisely because of this passion and dedication to our students? And is this, well, healthy?
I’m one to talk.
My students gently jibe me about “taking on too much,” and “making them look bad” because of juggling so many commitments. “You’re not modeling good self-care, Dr. Schade,” one of them cajoled in a recent online class meeting. And she’s right.
I’ve been teaching online for the past four years, and I’ve learned how tempting it is to squeeze in as many meetings, classes, student conferences, and coursework as possible into a single day. On the one hand, there is incredible freedom with teaching online. I can take my classroom anywhere! I can grade while sitting in the car waiting for my kids to finish their martial arts lesson. There’s no need for butts in chairs in order to reach and teach my students with substantive, engaging pedagogy.
But the downside is that this boundary-erasure can result in loss of sabbath-time and sacred space. And when it comes down to taking care of ourselves or taking care of students, many of us choose the latter. Even if, apparently, it kills us.
The truth is, I can imagine myself in Dr. De Simone’s same position. I can see myself believing that even when battling a life-threatening illness, or simply a miserable cold, I can push through it in order to keep teaching. I will rationalize this by thinking that I can get through this one lecture, no matter how shallow and labored my breathing is. Surely I can log onto the discussion board in the midst of my medicine-induced haze and compose coherent sentences that show the students I’m engaged and that I care.
How can I justify taking “sick time” when I don’t have to drive to the school and stand upright for a class? Certainly I don’t need to trouble my administration to find a substitute to finish out my course for me, or to relieve me from an upcoming course before it even begins. I don’t want them to think I’m a slacker, do I?
When the pandemic began, grace abounded. Everyone understood how difficult it was to move into this strange, new, fully-online world, so we cut each other slack. But that slack seems to have become a taut wire snaking from our computers to our brains and bodies tightening relentlessly.
I can only surmise what drove De Simone to teach unto death.
I don’t know if she felt pressured by her administration or her faculty colleagues to keep teaching through her illness. Maybe she was just consumed by an ethic of hard work and love for her students. Perhaps she had taken time off and was so sick of being sick that she decided to come back to her teaching to try to feel normal again. Or maybe it’s just one more tragic outcome of the Covid19 pandemic snuffing out yet another a bright light in this world.
But maybe we need to rethink the expectations for teachers in the age of Covid19. This includes the expectations that administrators and students place on instructors, but, more importantly, the demands we place on ourselves.
Like the well-recognized metaphor of placing the oxygen mask on your own face before helping another, we do need to give ourselves time to catch our breath – literally. We may think that we are helping our students and that we don’t want to waste one precious opportunity to teach them.
But De Simone will have no more opportunities with her students.
Perhaps she would have died even if she had not been teaching that day. Maybe she should be valorized as a hero for dying while doing what she loved best – teaching. But is that truly the memory she wanted to leave with her students? Is this what any teacher wants for their students?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I think educators, students, and administrators should be asking these questions and begin having these conversations. And it’s a conversation I need to have with myself as well.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or the ELCA; her opinions are her own. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is also the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).