No place for good-byes: Mourning the end of the school year

Nora and Hazel with their wonderful principal, Dr. Clark Blair. Last day of school, 2018-19.

Today I visited my kids’ school to retrieve their stuff. As instructed, I went alone, carrying a handful of loaned books. The parking lot felt uncharacteristically desolate for a Tuesday afternoon–the empty, now-gated playground signifying the current crisis. I entered the building with no “buzzed” entry, nor security check at the door.

My eerie feelings temporarily waned when the principal, Dr. Blair, assistant principal, Mr. Roach, and security officer greeted me warmly. Wandering alone, the strangeness of the situation returned. I passed through the abandoned halls lined with labeled paper bags and stacks of books on tables.

After I deposited loaned books and gathered my children’s things (woefully noticing my daughter’s recorder peaking out of the bag), the finality of it all hit me. While we’ve known about the in-person school closing for some time and that the kids will continue online, this experience emotionally marked the point of no return for this year. Moreover, for my 5th grader, this was it for her time at McFadden School of Excellence.

She will be going to a fantastic middle school and she’s excited about new opportunities. And yet, I don’t want to downplay the difficulty of cutting short the end of an incredible six years (longer than I ever spent at any school), four of which she shared with her younger sister.

While the kids and their families are great, it is the teachers and staff that will be missed the most. They have brought new meaning to “above and beyond,” not only in providing interesting lessons, but in passion and care for their students. The Foss school at our house has been a poor substitution, a huge step-down that I am aware during each day of “class.”

Closing school was the right choice. At the same time, we should acknowledge the impact of this abrupt ending for all students, especially those transitioning to new schools without the formal farewell. Even if there’s eventually a socially-distant picnic, it won’t be the same.

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Don’t inject disinfectant: The danger of “sarcasm”/false messages in a position of power

Whatever the White House claims this was, it was irresponsible and a blatant disregard for the lives of the American public.

I won’t focus as much on what Trump does or says, as it’s clear that he doesn’t think, nor care, about his own words and contradictory statements. Instead, I use this example to shed light on the impact of authority figures on the people who trust and follow them.

No one in a position of power should be making jokes or unsubstantiated claims about anything related to COVID-19 right now. Every line to the public needs to be clear, direct, and factual, drawing directly from the recommendations of WHO, CDC, and infectious disease experts. No sarcasm. No quips. No unverified “what-ifs.” Nothing about the origin of disease, transmission, precautions, remedies, or cures. If your job is to lead people, then you need to do just that.

I’m not just talking about politicians. We have opinion leaders at various levels of society: clergy members, teachers, professors, military officers, health professionals, CEOs, and journalists, to name a few. If you have access to a group of people who rely on you for information and guidance, then you are an opinion leader. What you say and write has the potential to influence what others think and do.

At an interpersonal level, we can all be opinion leaders in our own networks of family and friends. Social media posts, tweets, and shares impact people who are linked to us online. Therefore, what you write, how you respond, and the messages that you choose to share can influence others.

Why does this especially matter now? We are in an incredibly vulnerable time, in which uncertainty, fear, and isolation have taken their toll on mental health. Individuals are much more susceptible to accepting misinformation/”jokes” as fact and to adopting behaviors that they might question in their regular, pre-pandemic reality.

I did not laugh at the absurdity of the “inject disinfectant” remark. Nor did I agree with tweets that suggest that those who believed it are “morons” and thus, should be dismissed (or worse, be given a Darwin Award). I appreciate that the makers of Lysol and a number of organizations issued statements warning people not to drink or inject disinfectant, taking the potential effects of Trump’s “idea” seriously. These groups recognized the potentially lethal consequences and addressed the misinformation directly.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make jokes or create parodies. Rather that we should be mindful of spreading misinformation, stigmatizing groups, or offering unfounded advice. A press briefing during a pandemic should never contain dangerous instruction, no matter what justification is given for such remarks (did I really have to say that?).

“Open everything!” or “Stay at Home:” The Partisan Divide in Perceptions of the Pandemic

When a contagious disease breaks out in a city, the most certain means of preventing it from becoming epidemic, or from spreading, is to prohibit all intercourse between the sound and the infected.
–Dr. William Currie, 1794

We are obviously in a unique time. No school, no sports, no conferences, at least for the foreseeable future. The Olympics have been postponed. All of this, of course, is to hopefully reduce the number exposed and flatten the curve.

Even with “shelter at home” and other social distancing measures, more than 2.7 million cases have been identified with over 191,231 deaths–49,963 in the United States. Last Sunday, The Boston Globe had 16 pages of obituaries. Similarly, the New York Times series “Those We’ve Lost,” is tragically demonstrating just how many people, across age, gender, race, and occupation, have died from COVID-19. Heroic health professionals tearfully describe exhausted efforts to keep patients alive and the devastating last moments with others. Earlier this month, a woman on ventilator gave birth. The stories of sorrow and loss, paired with hope and triumph, are abundant.

Or at least I thought so.

Last week’s protests and the continued push to lift restrictions indicate a rising vocal minority that seem to exist in another reality. Maura Judkis makes a solid comparison in this Washington Post article between the protesters and zombie images in pop culture. Hundreds of people gathered in multiple states demanding that businesses. More terrifying than this request (and the crowd itself) were the barrage of signs: “Fear is the real virus!” “#FakeCrisis,” “COVID-19 is a lie,” and “I want a haircut.”

These crowds of anti-science extremists were backed by Trump, through his tweets of “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” and produced results. The governors of Florida, Georgia, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and a few other states declared their intentions to lift of “stay-at-home” orders and, in varying degrees, allow businesses, parks, and churches to open.

Ensuing debates following these announcements have demonstrated the chasm between the two sides. Within a local Facebook group, a single thread erupted into dozens of comments both for and against reopening. Different online communities had similar polarized conversations, in which the remarks are not so much focused on restrictions. Rather, the central question that fundamentally drives these discussions is do you perceive the virus as a threat?

It’s not surprising that there are individuals who dismiss science or grossly distort it to support their own beliefs. This type of group predates vaccination, drawing from the arguments of staunch anti-inoculators James Franklin and Dr. William Douglass in 1721. However, it doesn’t seem to be the anti-vaxxers this time.

This is a different group, with the American “disease perception” division occurring along party lines–a phenomenon recognized early in the coronavirus pandemic (and well-known, as anyone reading this can attest). Our fragmented, numerous media options have further widened the gap between the two groups, as COVID-19 coverage has differed significantly by media outlet. Most individuals primarily seek out news sources and social media networks that fit with their partisan biases and beliefs. It is likely then that many people are not getting the full story.

So how can these two diverging groups come together for a unified perception of the pandemic? Truly unified is probably unrealistic so let’s take it up a level. How do you convince people that they are at risk? The answer, unfortunately, is that we can’t, unless we have a). more coverage across media outlets and platforms that humanize those who died from COVID-19 and b). an eruption of cases so prevalent that every person is personally and directly affected (as currently experienced in New York, New Jersey, and other areas with high numbers). If people continue to act as recklessly as last week’s protesters, it may not be long before everyone will heed Dr. Currie’s advice from 1794.

Applying Buffy’s “The Wish” Episode to the Pandemic

I just returned from Publix. My grocery trips used to be pleasantly mundane stops. At least when alone, my mind would happily wander as I meandered, occasionally chit-chatting with the helpful employees. But now the world has changed. I am so grateful for Publix and all grocery store workers who keep food in our community and on our plates and are smiling, still greeting, and still helping. This shift I’m feeling is not on them. It’s the entry point into our new “Contagion World,” a universe filled with blue tape arrows, yellow social-distancing boxes, and hidden faces.

As a super TV fan, our new reality reminds me of the “alternate universe” storylines of many fictional shows. Piggybacking off of It’s a Wonderful Life, these episodes demonstrate a butterfly effect, in which one detail of a character’s world dramatically alters reality. The result is always the same, as the hero finds a way to return life to “normal,” as no one else recalls that the parallel reality existed.

In “The Wish” (3.9, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Cordelia Chase wishes that Buffy (the vampire slayer) had never come to Sunnydale. The town is instantly transformed into a dark version of itself. Most of the students have disappeared from high school, as they were either eaten or turned into vampires after the Hellmouth was opened. The remaining ones face a bleak existence, with daily memorials and restrictions on clothing and venturing out at night.

After showing us all of the ways that hero Buffy changed Sunnydale for the better, the wish-granting amulet is destroyed, undoing the spell.

While we cannot smash the amulet or block the Hellmouth, this episode’s messages do hold new meaning in our pandemic state, offering a sci-fi view on peaking versus a flattened curve. In the regular Buffy reality, the Scooby gang prevents the evils of Sunnydale from rising by regularly combating bouts of malevolent entities before they become unstoppable. Buffy and her friends can thwart the attempts of a steady trickle. However, in the alternate Buffy-free universe, the Hellmouth opens, pouring vampires into Sunnydale on one tragic night. Much like an epidemic peak without adequate resources, the town becomes too far gone that even Buffy cannot reverse its course (when she finally arrives).

If you think this comparison is a stretch, consider it a lesson in available resources/personnel in handling sick people. As we’ve already seen, peaking areas have produced more cases than there is equipment or (amazing) health professionals). On the upside, social distancing measures are flattening the curve, curbing spikes in cases so that the ill can receive treatment.

I like the Buffy parallel though. In thinking of “The Wish” during my Publix bewilderment, I take comfort in its resolution. I can trust that the actions that make me feel distressed and well, distant, are also those that will help jump us back to our reality.

Your wise friend was wrong. Analyzing the viral post about influenza and Armistice celebrations.

This message has gone viral, warning people about the potential impact of easing up on social distancing restrictions too early:

Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, MN, from the Minnesota Historical Society

The post appeared without naming the location. Yet, I have yet to identify where this information would have been true. The timeline does not make sense. Summer was not the deadliest time for the “Spanish Flu.” Fall was, peaking in October in both Europe and the U.S. The 3rd wave returned the following Spring, not immediately after armistice celebrations.

Furthermore, many countries did not implement “social distancing” measures because of turmoil due to the war. No one called it that either. Selective quarantine did occur in some places, but it was reactive, not proactive. In other words, even cities and states praised for the best responses didn’t shut down until cases had already emerged. Plans for reopening were already in place when the war ended.

As far as the deaths from war versus disease, it actually depends on the country. More Americans died from disease than combat. However, in England, approximately 700,000 people died from war, whereas 228,000 from influenza/pneumonia.

Besides the misinformation conveyed here, we need to take any comparisons between past epidemics and our current crisis with a grain of salt. This is not 1918 (or 1957-58, 1968, or 2009). We can certainly learn from the past from credible sources, but our technology, resources, and world are not the same.

Thank you to the folks who helped me track down the photo and original post. Iric Nathanson’s article contextualizes this photo.

Together, but not really. Another Push for Asynchronous Teaching

Like many Saturday Night Live fans, I eagerly tuned in to the special at-home broadcast. It was well done, as they did their best with what they had, enhanced by having Tom Hanks host. At the same time, this make-do format sadly reminded me of what we have temporarily lost.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad to have the technology. To be able to see and talk to people, at least for a moment, can be a day brightener. It works great for giving a brief training with screen share for large groups, like a conference Zoom I participated in last week. The virtual meet-up is also nice for touching base with different family members. I’ve also appreciated the platforms (and the people involved) for enhancing home learning time with a poetry workshop, lesson on Helen Keller, and interview with polio survivors.

For regular online class, though, let’s not pretend that Zoom is the same as an in-person experience. So why are many institutions mandating that students “attend” class, sometimes for the full time slot? And for faculty who have choices, why are you requiring students to do this?

Pandemic at-home synchronous is problematic for a lot of reasons. Students signed up for an in-class experience to be held at a college, presumably close to where they reside. A required Zoom class significantly deviates and increases the demands and expectations of the original registration. We are assuming that students are in a safe, stable environment in which they have WiFi and a computer and are able to spend hours of consecutive time to sit in a virtual classroom. This assumption ignores shifted time zones, issues of access, and other newfound challenges that did not exist for the on-campus version — the one at registration.

We are in a new reality in which parents and other caregivers have been cut off from childcare and networks of support. For universities that are still requiring virtual office hours and live teaching, how are parents supposed to do these tasks without disruption? At the same time, how realistic is it to expect students who are parents to sit through hours of virtual lecture through virtual platforms.

Adding to this challenge, is the economic burden on students, many of whom are working entry-level jobs deemed essential (like grocery store employees or take-out restaurants). Others are suddenly unemployed and may have to take whatever work they can find. Time off for class may have been promised in January, but that doesn’t mean it still applies.

Hours and schedules have radically changed for everyone. It is unreasonable to carry over the Spring in-class schedule to the virtual one, pretending that nothing has changed. It’s far more doable to provide recorded videos and materials so that both sides can work around their other obligations.

Aside from the logistics of requiring live class meetings, the meet-up platforms just aren’t the same as sitting in a classroom. Technology issues impact some participants from having audio or video. It’s hard to call on people or to tell who would like to speak next. There’s also the awkward factor of seeing into others’ living quarters, paired with interruption from other family members or roommates. All of this is magnified when class is stretched out to an hour or two and mandatory so that people can’t opt out.

And, as I articulated in my blog post “Flexible Teaching in the Pandemic,” we also need to consider how illness has and will impact teaching and learning. Students and instructors are getting sick, some needing hospitalization. A synchronous model ignores the reason why our classes are online in the first place. If instructors can produce content ahead of time, then class can continue even if they become ill. Likewise, recorded content and flexible submissions can better accommodate students if they get sick or have to care for an ailing family member.

I’m not saying that we should do away with all Zoom interactions, just that we need to think about how we are using these types of platforms. While I do include the virtual meet-ups for my classes, mine are optional and under 20 minutes. Students can choose instead to do an online discussion post at their own convenience for the week. For those who opt for the Zoom, I know they made the choice, not me, so that they want to be there and that it works for them schedule-wise.

If the goal is for our students to learn the course material and ultimately succeed, then we need to consider obstacles and seek ways to overcome them. Virtual class is not the only pathway to success, nor is an equal substitution for an in-person experience. As with the SNL home show, it is a make-do time. If Saturday Night Live can be flexible in changing things up for the pandemic, then so can we.

Adapting “Little Women”

Read the classic Little Women or the contemporary graphic novel, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (an exceptionally good adaptation).

Now watch one of the film adaptations:

Compare the book or graphic novel to one of the film adaptations. How did the book characters come to life on-screen? What elements of the story were preserved? What was changed? How was the story modernized in the graphic novel? Which format did you like best?

The Polio Crusade: Exploring Diseases of the Past

Sometimes it’s hard to talk about COVID-19 because we are in the middle of the pandemic. It can be easier to discuss a disease of the past. Polio was a particularly interesting disease because it primarily affected children and was heavily featured in media as part of the March of Dimes campaign, run by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

Watch A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America or The Polio Crusade.

  1. Why were people so afraid of polio?
  2. What were some of the ways that the NFIP raised money through the March of Dimes campaigns?
  3. What were some obstacles that scientists faced in developing an effective vaccine?
  4. Why were most parents willing and eager to volunteer their children for the trials?

Talk to your older relatives and ask about their experiences with polio or with the vaccine. Did they have polio? What was their treatment like? Did they know kids or adults with polio? When did they receive the vaccine?

Why We Need Journalism More Than Ever

Until the number of U.S. cases and deaths recently skyrocketed, many people have been dismissive of encroaching pandemic. A Pew Research survey from the week of March 10-16 showed that 37% of the 8,914 adult participants believed that media greatly exaggerated the risks of coronavirus. Perceptions of media coverage have varied by the amount of news and the specific source primarily consumed. As the tides are tragically turning, with cases skyrocketing in the U.S., this is not a time to criticize or dismiss messages, nor clump all outlets and content into a faceless “Big Brother” media entity.

I’m not advocating that we heed all advice, especially the (mis)information spread by social media. What I mean is that we need to stop demonizing journalists and recognize that we have never needed them more. If we’re lucky enough to be stuck at home, professional and citizen journalists are our link to local, national, and international information. Without our own eyes and ears in the world, we must rely on others to tell us what is going on, especially when the stakes are so high.

To keep reporting and producing media content during an outbreak is an act of bravery. In 1793, Andrew Brown was the only printer to keep producing his daily newspaper throughout the yellow fever epidemic. In an era centuries before computers, the Federal Gazette became the only means of informing and connecting the people of Philadelphia.

While we certainly have an abundance of choices now, it doesn’t make the work less dangerous. Journalism is an essential service. As Chris Kieffer wrote in this letter of appreciation to the staff of the Daily Journal of Tupelo, Mississippi, “Great reporting and photography can’t be done from a safe ‘social distance.’” Reporters have already become sick on the job. And yet, our focus has largely been on criticizing this risky work.

Instead, we should be supporting journalists and producers of media content at this critical time. We need to recognize the value of all people who continue to work to make our society function. Without credible media sources to turn to, we won’t know how the pandemic is impacting lives outside of our own bubbles (which are quite small these days). We won’t know who needs help or ways to help from afar. We won’t know what to do if we have symptoms or where to go. And, without news, we won’t know when the crisis finally subsides and life can return to our new normal.

Social media is great for connecting with friends and family, but it is not a substitute for local, national, and international news content. Recognize the value of those producing content so that most of us can have the luxury of staying home and the benefit of learning through media channels when it is once again safe to experience life first-hand once more.

Learning Through Historical Fiction: Books for Kids and Teens About Epidemics

Reading historical fiction can teach you a lot about experiences people may have had during outbreaks of the past. In this genre, authors weave facts into their fictional stories and characters. I recommend reading these works of historical fiction and then conducting your own research on the epidemic and disease featured.

A notable example is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793, aimed at readers ages 10-14.

She uses documents from the real yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia to tell the story of 14 year-old Mattie Cook. This book is an exciting read and so well-done that it is often used as a teaching tool. Here are study guides that go along with the book.

Joyce Rockwood’s young adult novel To Spoil the Sun explores the devastating impact of smallpox on a Cherokee tribe in the 16th century. More of the story is fictionalized in that it isn’t set in a specific outbreak, but provides a perspective that has rarely appeared elsewhere.

Smallpox Strikes! by Norma Jean Lutz (ages 8-12) and describes the real-life inoculation controversy in the 1721 Boston epidemic. A boy must choose between following his family’s wishes and protecting the town against smallpox through the practice of inoculation (intentionally infecting yourself with disease in hopes that you’ll get a milder case).

For younger readers, book #26 Balto of the Blue Dawn of the Magic Treehouse series (very) loosely tells the story of the sled dogs that saved the children of Nome, Alaska from diphtheria in 1925. Compare Jack and Annie’s tale to the real story as told here.

Here are other historical fiction works about disease:

What makes for a good work of historical fiction? How do authors use facts to create interesting fictional narratives?

Think about the current pandemic. How could these experiences be told in what will someday be historical fiction? Where would you set your story? What factual details would be important to include?