‘A buoy in the water’

Photo courtesy of Meg BakerBefore COVID. Sarah Townsend soaks up the sun at the Rochester Lilac Festival in May 2019. The past year has been hard on the SUNY Geneseo senior, who’s doing her best to tread water until she graduates in May.

GENESEO — Sarah Townsend isn’t one to use profanity, but this time, she couldn’t help it.

It might have been the monotony of the past few months of lock down finally catching up with her, or perhaps it was the stress of the COVID-like symptoms she was experiencing and the uncertainty of the test she was on her way to take.

Maybe it was the sight of a fellow SUNY Geneseo student, sauntering down Court Street in a nurse’s costume with a group of friends, clearly on her way to a Halloween party at a packed and poorly ventilated fraternity house.

Whatever the reason, Townsend rolled down her window and let the group of mask-less revelers have it.

“I was like ‘Are you effing crazy? There’s a global pandemic, go home,’” recalled Townsend during an interview last week. “I’m yelling that as we’re driving by out the passenger window and usually when I yell about something, I feel relieved, but I didn’t even feel any relief because all they did was laugh. I just felt crazy. That’s the best way to put it.”

That moment of unreality – “I just felt so – like I was living in a different world from people,” – at the corner of Main and Court streets was one of the many low points Townsend has grappled with over the past year.

For Townsend and thousands of other SUNY Geneseo students, the pandemic became real the afternoon of March 11, 2020 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he was ordering all SUNY campuses to switch over to remote instruction.

“You always think ‘Little Geneseo, the town I live in, so small, it’s not going to affect us.’ Well then it did,” she said.

Townsend was sitting in an English class when she got the news in an email from college administrators. While she doesn’t remember 9/11 – she was one year old – Townsend imagines her memories of that day are similar to others’ recollections of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Her professor called an early end to the class and Townsend left, crying. She made a beeline for the student union to attend a club meeting and, on her way across campus, came across person after person in much the same state.

It had been Townsend’s ambition to attend SUNY Geneseo and become a teacher since she was in the fifth grade.

Following Cuomo’s announcement and the one soon after that school districts across the region would likewise close to in-person instruction, Townsend’s immediate thoughts turned to how the closures would affect her student teaching and other in-person teacher observation experiences – both necessary steps to securing her initial teaching certification.

As her fall semester wore on, the pandemic continued to get worse and the public health measures put in place to slow the virus’s spread started taking a toll on Townsend’s mental health.

In October, the weekend before she shouted out her car window at the drunken Halloween partyers, Townsend’s mental state had deteriorated to such a point that she called her mother and asked her to come visit her in Geneseo.

Townsend knew it was a bad idea, especially with public health experts cautioning against unnecessary travel. But the new medications she’d been prescribed before returning to school didn’t seem to be working anymore and she felt herself starting to spiral.

The visit went well enough but a few days later, Townsend started experiencing flu-like symptoms. She put them down to the seasonal flu vaccine she’d received a few days prior but when her mother called and said she was getting tested for COVID-19, Townsend decided it best to get tested too.

“So on Halloween I went and got tested for COVID, I’m seeing all these people going to parties, dressed up, no masks and I have to go get a test for COVID for seeing my mom,” said Townsend, whose test came back positive. “I felt, like, crazy. I was like ‘This isn’t fair.’ What I thought was going to help me spiraled me even further. I was pretty much giving up, crying every day, getting through the semester.”

And Townsend did get through the semester. She’s getting through the current one, too.

She still wants to teach and is hoping to enroll in a special, three-semester graduate program in the fall that will yield both a master’s degree and her initial teaching certification.

Despite the potential positives on the horizon, it’s hard for Townsend to find a silver lining in a pandemic that has waylaid her career goals, robbed her of a year of memories with friends and family and killed more than 2.6 million fellow humans to date.

If there’s any saving grace to be found, said Townsend, it’s that the past year has shown people and systems for who and what they are. That’s not exactly a check in the pandemic’s plus column, she said, but it’s at least useful to have a clearer understanding of the nature of things.

“We’re seeing truth now. The things that are happening are terrible, but people are finally bringing them to light. There’s finally a chance for change,” she said. “...corny as it is, 2020 vision, you know? Even though everything was bad, we saw the truth. We saw the truth about people, we saw the truth about the system and now we can reflect on those truths and act on them accordingly.”

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