Ages ago - in February - when I was sketching out some ideas for upcoming blogs, one of the ideas I had was to challenge myself to go someplace I’d never been or do something I’d never done at least one time every month, and to think about the types of learning the experiences provide. I’d been inspired last year by my colleague Sara’s New Year’s resolution that wasn’t about “improving” herself (she doesn’t need improving, by the way) but about enriching her life with a new challenge. So I’d started a list of of possibilities. Mass MOCA*, down in North Adams, is nearby-ish and I’ve never been despite having lived here for twenty years; the restaurant in Putney a friend told me about; a baking class at King Arthur Flour; a visit to Prospect Mountain to cross-country ski (there was snow when the list was made). It was a fun list, a privileged list.
In the past thirty days, I have left the house to grocery shop twice and other than that I have been outside only for dog walks around the neighborhood or in the woods. Suddenly, our spring of milestones – one high school and one college graduation – took a sharp turn. My son’s college has decided to hold a graduation for this year’s seniors in the spring of 2021. The high school hasn’t made final decisions about graduation, but all the other traditions and markers of senior year for both of my seniors have been called off.
Still, it hasn’t been all bad. I am teaching my sixth graders online and finding the experience both sad and sometimes exhilarating in unexpected ways. My students have been writing amazing poetry. For some kids, the sudden pause in their busy schedules seems to have opened up a new lane. And I’ve enjoyed being virtually introduced to all their pets. On my many walks around the neighborhood, I have been taking pictures of the rainbows that have been appearing in windows, in my small town and around the world. They add an element of color and cheer to my daily strolls.
But despite small, positive moments with my students and my family, it’s hard to put aside the endless news stories of suffering and hardship and the knowledge that Covid-19 has been an entirely different experience for millions of Americans.
The virus has hit many individuals and families hard, but some communities always suffer more. Covid-19 is running rampant in many homeless shelters and nursing homes. Workers in many “essential” (but often poorly compensated) jobs have been hit hard. And healthcare workers – doctors, nurses, techs, and everyone else – have paid an enormous price. The CDC reported that as of April 14, more than 9,000 healthcare workers have been infected.
And then there are the sobering studies from Michigan, Illinois, South Carolina, and North Carolina that show that African Americans are “74% more likely to contract coronavirus than their percentage of the state.” Worse, once contracted, African Americans are dying at much higher rates. Recent statistics from Chicago, show that African Americans represent 29% of the city’s population and 70% of the Covid-19 deaths.
The groundwork for these grim statistics was laid long before the virus. Who has access to great health care and healthy food throughout their lives, and who can only show up in emergency rooms for any kind of care? Who always has access to the cleanest air and water? And during a pandemic, who can stay home and have food and supplies delivered, and who is in the army of workers that must go out – to staff grocery stores, drive buses, deliver packages, work in warehouses, care for the elderly?
The pandemic is also shining a harsh light on inequities in our schools. According to one report, in schools across the country, fewer than half of the students are participating in distance learning. Students who do not have access to laptops or tablets or high-speed internet, or any internet for that matter, are left only with packets of worksheets and at best, limited ability to ask questions or get feedback. (And that’s assuming that hastily compiled packets of worksheets are worthy of effort and feedback.) Some students share a single device among many family members, and some students are spending long days alone while parents or caregivers continue working in their essential jobs. For many families, a daily priority is finding their way to the school lunch distribution site or waiting in long lines at food pantries.
One of the key indicators we look for in schools that are committed to what we call Radically Reimagined Relationships is a commitment to equity and justice. When we think about equity, we mean that each and every person has dignity and the right to find challenge, joy, and purpose in their lives. And, for us, justice implies the active pursuit of full equity by behaving according to what is morally right and fair.
So what is there to learn, and more, what is there to do after this collective pause has ended? Could our country finally come to see that people we deem essential in a crisis deserve to be paid a living wage when times are good? Will this pandemic make clear that a wealthy country that won’t guarantee health care to its citizens, cannot in fact, be called “great”? Can school systems and Departments of Ed, having shed standardized tests for a year, open up to the possibility that there might be better ways to teach and learn and evaluate teaching and learning? And when schools open up, will teachers be given a chance to connect with students - many of whom will have experienced trauma and isolation over many months - in a way that is humane and empathetic, or will the pressure be on to make up all the lost content and to prep ever harder for the next standardized exams?
It took the Great Depression to bring about the New Deal and an improved social safety net. If there is any rainbow at the end of this long ordeal, or any silver lining, it will be that the Great Pandemic of 2020 caused us to look at our society, to examine privilege, and to ask ourselves Who does America serve, and what has to change so that it serves us all?
*Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art