My second Covid-19 vaccination was nearly a month ago, but I am still adjusting to what I can do again. It takes time to recalibrate after so many months of circumscribed activities and tragic news stories. But even official guidelines for what is safe and responsible aren’t clear-cut; recommendations vary community to community and epidemiologist to epidemiologist. And, if I’m honest, I run hermit-y by nature. It may be harder for me to emerge from my social isolation than it was to enter it last spring. Despite missing my old life, it can be more comfortable to stay in a groove than to find a way over the edges and out again.
Even so, I am thrilled to be vaccinated. When New Hampshire opened the 50+ age bracket at eight o’clock on a Monday morning in late March, my computer was booted and ready to go. Unsurprisingly, there were glitches with the sign-up system. For about 90 minutes I proved I am not a robot. After identifying sidewalks, fire hydrants, hills, and bicycles in countless, maddeningly ambiguous photos, I’d be kicked off and have to start again. My favorite task was “identify the taxis.” Can one know just from the trunk of that bright yellow car - no markings shown - whether it’s a taxi? Is that part of the test? Would a robot call it a taxi with too little evidence? Is the test expecting a human to infer its taxi-ness? It felt a bit like The Princess Bride poison scene.
But among the many ways I am privileged, the ability to sit at my computer on a weekday morning proving my status as a sentient being is one of them. I did it until I got through and made my first appointment in late March.
Safety is a funny thing, though. There’s a big difference between intellectually knowing that something is safe – or safe enough - and feeling it. The fact that I worked entirely from home over the past year is probably one of the reasons the transition back is harder for me. My husband has been seeing people all along, masked and distanced, but in three dimensions. His readiness and post-vaccination comfort with being back in the world will be part of what pulls me along.
For some students, the most difficult part of re-entry will be engaging with other people again. Much as they need interaction with others, some students will have found a comfort zone being holed up in their homes. For adolescents in particular, social interaction can be rewarding but it can also be punishing. Saying the right things, doing the right things, wearing the right things and all the other moves to belong and fit in are energy-intensive and potentially terrifying. Mustering up all that social energy may be daunting, especially for those who are feeling drained, lethargic, and in a funk to begin with, or worse, traumatized. (And let’s be real. Millions of children, adolescents, and adults alike are feeling at least one of those.)
For many other students, school didn’t feel safe before the pandemic. For those students it’s not just Covid-19 fears or social anxiety. It’s all of that and a whole lot more. Many of the “safety features” of schools – things like metal detectors and campus police officers – have long made some students, especially students of color, feel far less safe. In the same way that traumatic experiences add up, safety fears are cumulative. Returning to school may be cumulatively difficult.
As we venture into our new normal over the coming weeks and months, I’m trying to remember a few things:
1. Empathy. We all have different contexts, different life experiences, different nervous systems, and different anxiety set points, and that’s okay. Kids, teachers, and school staff are experiencing re-entry in many ways and with many different feelings. We need to lead with empathy, making space for one another and for all the different emotional states that may arrive.
2. Connection. Leading with empathy will help us connect again. As human beings we are social creatures. We need to help each other remember how good connecting with others can feel, so that connection feels worth the risk and worth all of that daunting effort. It’s connection and belonging that allow a child to be ready to learn.
3. Resilience. We can’t think of resilience as something a person intrinsically has or doesn’t have. We can all be resilient. Through calm, warm, co-regulated interactions, adults can help students be in a brain-space where they can access their resilience and their best coping strategies. Isolation and alienation are obstacles to resilient responses to stress. Connection and belonging support resilience and learning.
Feeling safe again won’t be an on-off switch. Despite our vaccination progress, Covid-19 is far from eradicated; the traumas of the past year, and those inflected since the founding of our nation, won’t be easily repaired. But it is possible that this moment has opened more hearts and minds to the understanding of how much work there is to do, how much empathy and equity have been missing, and how much better we should be to one another. 2020 was a crucible that can lead to the creation of something new.
This week, I’ll be traveling by plane to visit my parents and sisters, whom I haven’t seen in nearly two years. It seems almost unimaginable that I will be sitting next to people I don’t know in an enclosed space for more than two hours. But I’m looking forward to venturing out, talking to the stranger next to me, and remembering for myself how good it feels to connect.