What Polio Can Teach Us About This Pandemic

Most historical comparisons to our current crisis have been to the “Spanish Flu.” And while several of my essays challenge some of the parallels put forth, I understand why people have been so quick to return to 1918 for answers. Its global reach and profound impact on the U.S. and most of the world feel somewhat similar.

Yet in focusing on this comparison, we miss the series of epidemics that might in fact paint a closer image to our current reality. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, poliomyelitis emerged periodically in epidemic form, reaching its peak in the summer of 1952. Less than a year later, Jonas Salk’s vaccine was approved for a mass trial, which would prove effective.

What can these polio epidemics teach us about COVID-19? The diseases themselves are not similar. Polio is caused by a three types of a human enterovirus that spreads through contact or contaminated food and water. COVID-19 is a a novel coronavirus, transmitted by respiratory droplets.

What we can relate to is the mystery surrounding the disease. As with COVID-19, with polio, you never knew who would become ill or how bad it would be. Approximately 72% of polio cases were asymptomatic. Those who felt sick usually had mild symptoms. Only a small percentage developed the paralytic form, experiencing either temporary or permanent paralysis of a limb, limbs, the diaphragm, or multiple affected sites–its course unknown. And although it was characterized as a disease of children, adults also contracted polio, particularly in the later epidemics. [Note: I’m speaking in past tense here to refer to the mid-century outbreaks. Polio cases are still emerging in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan).

What we can take from the periodic polio epidemics in the first half of the century are ways of living that are accustomed to interruption, the importance of a unified public response, and a healthy respect for disease itself. No one knew when polio would come to town. But when it did, local spots quickly closed down to reduce the spread of disease. People were quarantined and isolated as needed, sometimes even at camps. Movie theaters, public pools, and other gathering places shut down, as parents were advised to avoid having children mingle in new groups. Polio also led to local school closings for short periods, which were opened back up when it was believed that the threat had passed.

No one proposed that polio was a hoax or questioned the severity of the threat. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his business partner, Basil O’Connor, united the nation in the fight against poliomyelitis. NFIP campaigns provided education and raised money for rehabilitation and research toward a vaccine. During outbreaks, the NFIP provided additional health professionals and resources, including rocking beds, iron lungs, and other equipment, through coordinated efforts between the local and national levels.

We know the work of the NFIP was successful, demonstrated in the number of people helped and the production of two effective vaccines. At the same time, the NFIP also modeled what can be accomplished in terms of care and research when a nonprofit organization receives long-term public and governmental support.

Polio reminds us of the enigma that is disease. Privilege has shielded developed countries from experience with contagion, causing people to forget its power. In the early to mid-20th century, most people wouldn’t openly resist public health efforts to curb outbreaks. Rather, they were grateful for scientific progress against disease and celebrated the diphtheria antitoxin, each new vaccine, and the introduction to antibiotics.

It is problematic to only look to the 1918 influenza pandemic for lessons. Its first wave was largely unknown, meaning that the experiences of the Spanish Flu were limited to just a few months. As I outlined in earlier essays, we can’t even compare today’s mask mandates to restrictions of that pandemic (and yes, I’ve heard of the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco). Since World War I very much dominated public agenda and therefore, the pandemic seemed to both appear and conclude quickly. Instead, we should learn from the polio experiences. We can remember that we have done this before and can do it again. But, as in the past, we need to support health professionals, public health experts, and those working to develop a vaccine.

Appeared in Vogue and other media outlets

How to Reopen the Schools: Buy-in Across Levels

I’m tired of seeing posts that either protest or promote reopening of schools (both k-12 and college) without trying to explore solutions. I won’t offer advice on when different schools should open. But the fact is, whenever they do open (now, in 3 months, in a year, or ???), every institution, K-12 and higher ed, will look much differently than last February. The key to this possibly working lies in multi-level protocol and support to reduce risk, remain open, and still provide enriching instruction. Obviously, these approaches need to be adapted to specific circumstances.

Mask mandates in school and in the community. We need to both require and enforce the wearing of masks in crowded public spaces. Mandates with enforcement mean that even those who (somehow) “don’t believe in the virus” will have to don a face covering in order to enter stores, schools, and other places. Mask-wearing in the schools is a no-brainer to making this work. But the mask requirement at places of learning will be much more effective if it is the community norm.

Actually rapid testing widely available and free. Cost, access, and time cannot prohibit testing procedures that could make reopening otherwise work. Especially for college students, we need free, on-campus results that can be processed quickly while they wait. With this type of access, professors could build in exposure and testing into the class policies. Combined with contract tracing, this testing could drastically limit both transmission while unknowingly infected and the amount of class and work missed.

Risk-reducing actions built into student codes of conduct. For K-12 students, parents should sign pledges confirming that they will not partake in risk-increasing trips or activities without a voluntary quarantine and testing (weddings and other gatherings, air travel, etc.). Similarly, college students who opt for face-to-face instruction must adhere to a code of contact, in which participation in parties, concerts, or other events could result in disciplinary actions. Tough to enforce, yes, but at least it gives faculty and administration some basis to assign consequences.

Prosocial campaigns on the new protocol. This is a very confusing and hard time for everyone. To get students to comply with our new reality, easy-to-understand messages should be distributed across social media and email, campuses, and the community. These campaigns can inform students, parents, teachers, administrators, other employees, and visitors of what is expected on school grounds and in the classroom before school is in session, including

  • How to enter and exit the building (or each building) and special protocol for entering and exiting (i.e. reminding students not to hold doors for others).
  • Where masks are required and what areas are designated spaces for removing masks.
  • Where to get a back-up disposable mask if something happens to yours.
  • How and where to eat and drink at school.
  • Classroom procedures, like cleaning one’s desk.
  • Other new rules of the year (i.e. no bringing in birthday treats or policies about visitors).
  • What to do if you are feeling sick and/or if you think you’ve been exposed.
  • Procedures for class exposure, including the message delivery, testing, and incubation period.

These campaign messages also set the tone for the school year, helping to convey what is allowed and encouraged.

The importance of community buy-in. Regardless of your party affiliation or even perception of Covid risk, we need to unify to make the reopening of schools work. Simply put, if folks want schools to open (now, 6 months from now, or even later) and stay open, mask-wearing and other protocol has to be implemented and followed. So how can people help and not hinder this success? Let’s look at the different levels.

Parents. After you decide on schooling for your kids, it’s time to look for the good in the situation. No teacher/professor-bashing on social media or to their kids. This has been and will be hard for every person involved. How can I help? should be the only response. Have kids pick out cool masks and practice wearing them. Talk about how the year will be different, highlighting the positives at the same time. Make sure to tell your children that there will likely be unexpected “breaks” and Covid testing. Parents of college students should also be supportive, gently prompting their kids to communicate with instructors if something seems unclear. At the same time, dissuade your college student from attending risky activities.

Students. This new protocol is not optional. By now, anyone over the age of 3 is old enough to understand that we wear masks in public and why. If kids and (especially) college students don’t perceive themselves at risk, the threat of a shutdown should be enough rationale to abide by the rules.

Administrators. I don’t think I have to say be proactive or have back-up plans. Obviously, we do and many are already being rolled out. What I will say is that for teachers and faculty to do their best during initial opening, administration needs to be both flexible and mindful of the strain on educators, especially for those who are also caring for others.

Everyone else. Alumni, store owners, and other members of the community, for schools, and, well, society to safely reopen, it’s time to follow the rules and put aside self-centered behaviors. Play your part in helping the world put this pandemic in the past.

Why We Can’t Compare the “Spanish Flu” Waves to This Pandemic

The 3 Waves of the “Spanish Flu”
Most people had no idea that the first wave was happening, thus a faulty comparison to now.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention / Public domain

We’ve heard the predictions of multiple COVID-19 waves for months. Our current stage is being disputed, with some people calling this the 2nd wave, while others argue that we’ve haven’t left the first. Regardless, the comparison between this pandemic and the “Spanish Flu” has been ongoing throughout this crisis. This focus on the waves of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic has particularly been used as a PSA of what not to do now. However, as I wrote in my post “Your Wise Friend Was Wrong” about a “Spanish Flu” meme that was circulating, this ahistorical comparison assumes too many similarities between then and now. Yes, we can and should learn from historical outbreaks, but we have to first understand what was known about disease at the time and what was communicated to the public.

Influenza (also called “la grippe”) was a familiar disease in 1918, predictably seasonal and usually mild. Doctors were not required to report deaths from influenza to the U.S. Public Health Service, even though it became epidemic in several years, including 1915-16. Influenza was not usually fatal, at least not for those outside of vulnerable populations.

The First Wave (from a contemporary understanding)

The H1N1 virus that attacked in 1918-19 was unique in its frequent complication of a deadly pneumonia and its high mortality among young adults. Outbreaks of this influenza/pneumonia likely first occurred in Kansas, at Camp Funston and the nearby Haskell Institute. Throughout the next two months, other military camps experienced high numbers of cases. These clusters of disease and death received almost no media coverage, other than a few stories that presented the outbreaks as isolated incidents, downplaying the severity of this new threat.

This article appeared at the bottom of page 2 of the Topeka State Journal on April 4, 1918. Coverage of (what we now identify as) the first wave was limited.

By the end of May, the outbreaks dwindled in the U.S.

Looking back, we now recognize these Spring outbreaks as the “first wave” of the influenza pandemic. However, in the moment, the lack of media coverage meant that most Americans had no knowledge of the rising cases. Most attention was directed to supporting the soldiers in World War I.

For the people of 1918, the influenza pandemic appeared to begin in June. Stories in The New York Times, Washington Post, and other U.S. papers reported on June outbreaks in China, Madrid, Morocco, India and Berlin and then throughout Europe in July. While cases appeared back in the U.S. at the end of the month, American media outlets only covered the epidemics elsewhere.

The Second Wave (but it seemed like the first)

It wasn’t until an eruption of U.S. cases in mid-September that the government and press publicly acknowledged that the epidemic had arrived. From September through November, the “Spanish Flu” raged throughout the United States. Quarantine was imposed at various degrees, as stores, public venues, and schools closed for 1-2 months. The people felt and lived this wave, as it affected the everyday lives of even the healthy.

The Third Wave

A third wave followed in the Spring, much of which was attributed to the mass transport of troops following the end of the war. Life didn’t shut down for this reemergence, however, at least not on a mass scale.

Why we can’t compare the pandemics

Outside of their available newspapers and magazines, the people of 1918 had very little media access. Information beyond what was in print simply wasn’t conveyed to the public, including the prevalence of influenza in Spring of 1918. To them, as presented in media, the first wave didn’t exist, the “Spanish Flu” began overseas, and even at the height of the epidemic, the war dominated all news.

With our abundant media outlets and individual-created content, we are in a different world than 102 years ago. We have known about COVID-19 since 2019, tracking its spread and watching its devastation. In other words, we cannot compare the notion of waves in 1918 as applying to this pandemic, at least not in the response of the public back then to now. What we can take away, however, is that the “Spanish Flu” eventually did subside, as will COVID-19.

Why the masks look the same in “Spanish Flu” pics: The rise of mask-wearing during the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic

Vintage photos of masked individuals and crowds during the 1918 influenza pandemic have been circulating in news stories and on social media. What I find particularly interesting is that they all seem to wearing very similar masks, consisting of a white, rectangle and two ties, like this one worn by barbers:

Open air barber shop during influenza epidemic. National Archives and Records Administration / Public domain

Or this mask, covering the face of an elevator operator:

 Elevator operator in New York City, N.Y., wearing mask.
National Archives and Records Administration / Public domain

Why are they all so alike, especially considering the diversity of homemade and store-bought masks in our current reality?

Two factors explained the uniformity in masks then (and lack thereof now). First, many of the masks were created and distributed by Red Cross volunteers. And when people had to make their own masks, they could follow the straightforward, Red Cross-issued instructions that encouraged the use of white gauze and ties. Sample masks to be used as demos were sent to local chapters. Before masks were required, people were encouraged to use handkerchiefs, but this doesn’t appear to be as common as the gauze coverings.

“New mask design” from the Red Cross.
Published in The Washington Times on September 27, 1918

The Red Cross was heavily involved in directly and indirectly caring for influenza patients. Newspapers encouraged people to do their part to help the sick, especially ill enlisted men. And they did. Volunteers donated chicken, rags, pajamas, canned jellies and fruits, and other items.

And when did wearing masks become required during the Spanish Flu? Not as quickly as some “Spanish Flu as a Lesson”-type stories may lead you to believe (messages that have been using as cautionary tales for the current pandemic. I debunk one here). In 1918, many folks were still getting used to the concept of sanitary practices in the hospital. This April 1918 gem explains why nurses sometimes wear face masks to care for contagious patients.

Printed in the Rock Island Argus on April 10, 1918.

It wasn’t common practice for the general public to wear masks then (or now, at non-pandemic times). Doctors and nurses masked up during the spring outbreaks in the military camps (downplayed and ignored by media). No evidence suggests that regular people wore masks during this time.

In the summer of 1918, news media reported on the deadly disease as it spread through Asia and then Europe. However, nothing suggests that the U.S. prepped for influenza to come home. Articles focused on a different type of protection — the gas mask — needed to protect soldiers from poison gas attacks in the trenches.

Warnings of the impending influenza appeared in July. At the end of the month, 5 cases were documented at Camp Eberts in Arkansas, but incidence remained low for the next month. August newspapers documented illness and deaths aboard ships headed for the U.S.

As ships were being quarantined at New York and other ports, September 13th, Public Health Reports published the Navy’s preparation plan for handling the epidemic, including “Methods for the control of the disease.” Quarantine and isolation, at least for the Navy, were deemed “impracticable” due to the prevalence of healthy carriers. The final section advised mask-wearing for patient attendants and discouraged gatherings:

Published in Public Health Reports, September 13, 1918.

Excerpts of this report were published in newspapers across the country, paired with stories of rising cases, for the next few months.

By mid-September, influenza had become epidemic in some of the army camps and continued to spread across the country. On September 18, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that the local Red Cross chapter had requested 4,000 face masks for caregivers the previous day. The next day, a Connecticut paper recommended masks made from gauze for those near influenza patients.

Over the next two weeks, reports of Red Cross volunteers producing masks for nurses and other influenza attendants in military camps increased, as did cases of influenza. Still, there was no indication that regular people had started wearing face masks, nor had quarantine (outside of ports) been implemented.

Approximately 23,000 cases had erupted at military camps before soldiers were advised to wear masks while training. Female volunteers made them for the Red Cross, producing an average of 1 every 5 minutes. Cases of influenza reached epidemic levels in 26 states before it became common for even enlisted men to wear masks.

Like we’ve experienced in the last three months, society shut down before masks became required. Similar to now, restrictions varied by city and state. Flu mask ordinances were implemented primarily in November and December, as barber shops, theaters, and other crowded places began to open. In some places, everyone was required to wear masks. More often, though, care attendants, those in recovery, barbers, and elevator operators were required to don masks, while others were simply encouraged, especially those riding on street cars.

Contrary to numerous social media posts and contemporary articles on “Spanish Flu,” mask-wearing did not occur immediately, nor was it universally required and accepted. That said, the wide distribution of masks by the Red Cross made them much more accessible, especially for those enlisted and/or caring for patients.

Note: In researching for this blog post, I examined newspaper coverage using the search terms “masks” and “influenza” from March through December 1918 (and beyond). I weeded through numerous articles about gas masks. Even at the height of the pandemic, war news dominated media outlets.

Published in several news outlets, including the Fulton County News,
September 26, 1918

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Children in the Pandemic: Why They Should be Included in the Conversation

Note: I wrote this piece a few weeks ago. Some of my thoughts have shifted since the reopening. That said, I still feel like kids are being left out, especially as running mundane errands continue to be stressful. I decided not to revise it to preserve my unsettled nerves of the moment.

“Stay back! Stay back!” An older man said sternly to my 11-year-old several weeks ago, as she calmly pushed the grocery cart about 8 feet away from a “t” in the store. Nora brushed off his comment, and I redirected focus to our list. Inside, though, his recoil startled and upset me. I know that he was just trying to safe. At the same time, when did children become the enemy?

Past epidemics restricted the activity of minors, primarily when they were the most susceptible. In the polio epidemic of 1916, New York restricted traveling for children. The fear of later outbreaks prompted the closing of pools, beaches, and other places that attracted groups of kids in the summer. But these responses matched the fear of children contracting disease, not harboring and transmitting it to older adults, which we have seen with the current pandemic. Media stories emphasize how children typically have only mild symptoms, but can still pass COVID-19 to the adults around them. This discourse may help assuage concerns about sick children. At the same time, it stigmatizes and dismisses them in our coronavirus discussions.

Omitted from public spaces and conversation, children have been left out of this new reality that divides between the essential and non-essential. Let’s face it, everything they do is non-essential. Childhood is about toys, frivolity, and spontaneity, not n95 masks, R0 factors, and restrictions. It’s hard to fit kids into this new grim reality, in which every move feels so predictable and deliberate. Don’t touch your face. Remove gloves inside out. Have you scrubbed your phone? Wash your hands. . .no, wait, longer. Follow the arrows in the store. Is this six feet of distance?

This pandemic is incredibly tough on children, many of whom are experiencing the impact of their parents’ unemployment or fear for their safety on the job. Not to mention kids in abusive homes, thosewithout enough to eat, or without a safe place to be.

Even in the best circumstances, children are still contending with stressed-out parents attempting to both homeschool and work at the same time, while voicing their own concerns about the illness and death, the economy, food shortages, canceled appointments, and distanced loved ones. Kids don’t fit within the melancholic cloud over our pandemic reality. Day-to-day, they cannot stay in crisis mode.

Children’s experiences in epidemics have been historically ignored. We know little of their actions or feelings during yellow fever of 1793 or in the Spanish Flu. Even in polio epidemics, in which children were at the center, their voices and experiences were seldom shared, except for a sound bite or a choreographed March of Dimes poster. Only decades later did oral history projects capture adults’ recollection of surviving polio as kids.

But children do matter in this pandemic. Like all of us, they feel lonely, isolated, agitation, aimless, unsatisfied, worried, sad, and afraid. Removed from grandparents and other relatives, favorite teachers, peers, coaches, and other special people,they are experiencing a true sense of loss. Much of what structures their lives and brings them joy has been removed. Social distancing is difficult to explain and justify, even to older children, who might understand the risk, but emotionally struggle with canceled sleepovers, field trips, and competitions. Kids need to be included in the conversation. We can’t ignore the impact of quarantine, their fears of disease, or frustrations. Instead, children’s roles in this pandemic need to be considered and shared, with their experiences recorded and preserved for future generations.

After the grocery store incident, I stopped bringing my children to the store just so they wouldn’t have to experience the anxiety-ridden climate of fear. Many don’t have the luxury of shopping alone. Single parents have been cut off from their social networks, therefore, may need to bring kids along to get food or pick up prescriptions. We shouldn’t be quick to judge or ridicule children just for existing in a public space. They are not incubators of disease, but people also living in this world of uncertainty.

Zoom Fatigue? More Like Life Fatigue

I’ve read the insightful article on why Zoom sessions tire us out. “Zoom fatigue,” explained here, refers to the exhaustion felt after virtual interactions and has become an issue in our shift to the online world. I would argue (and I think most would agree) that what we are currently experiencing goes beyond the impact of our interfacing platforms. Life itself is wearing us out.

For the last few months, I’ve been too consistently tired to reflect on why I’ve felt drained. However, a weekend break from our humdrum reality gave me some clarity. We took a trip to a mountain cabin (immediate family, brought food, and didn’t do extra touristy stuff) and spent two wonderful days hiking and hanging out–trying to temporarily escape from the weight of the world.

Our return prompted me to ponder why we are so generally tired, even on days that we seem to do little. We now have so many decisions to make, all shrouded in tension and uncertainty. As I wrote about in my blog post of questions, none of us really know how to approach this reopening stage. What we feel comfortable doing is constantly changing. At the same time, we, in effect, clouded by our own teeter-totter about the present contagion: Are we going to get the virus? Have we and didn’t know it? Are others the threat or am I (even though I haven’t had symptoms)? I can definitely relate to this post:

But it’s not just about the ever-present COVID-19. Minor decisions are hard now, partly because we have so many of them to make. With no school for the kids, suddenly we are deciding what to feed our herds numerous times per day. We are also deciding how to keep them entertained, engaged, and learning, while trying to navigate working from home, which comes with its own bundle of decisions.

Every big choice now leads to a hundred little choices, as we are all venturing into uncharted territory. It’s like we are living the least fun version of Choose Your Own Adventure, guided by a bombardment of conflicting media messages.

Adding to that, our support system outside of our own households has been reduced to only phone calls and social media. No FB Messenger post is a substitution for a face-to-face friend lunch at a local restaurant. It’s hard to make decisions. It’s even harder to make them alone, while your kids pop in and interrupt you (5 times in the writing of this post).

It’s not that we are tired from doing nothing, then. Our brains are fatigued from the endless decision-making. What was seemingly effortless must now be intentional and it is exhausting–especially without in-person friends or childcare.

“How do we do it?” or “Who’s Going to Ruin it for Everyone?”

Last night, a pensive version of myself only had questions for the blog. After thinking about my uncertainties, the professor in me feels that I should at least try to offer answers (or at least points of discussion). I will address each numbered question, one post at a time. Tonight, it’s about how we start to venture out in public.

When we inevitably reenter the public sphere (as I assume everyone is planning to do at some point), it will be like a public swimming pool at the beginning of a season.

A splash from August 2018

Some people will stay home until the weather warms up. Of those who decide to head to the pool, many will stay wrapped in towels on the deck. A few people will kick off their flip flops and cannonball in, not caring if they splash the dry onlookers.

But most people will proceed rather cautiously for that first dip, testing the temp by dangling toes in the water. Looking around, these individuals seek the comfort of others also venturing into the pool. “You go first!” One yells. “No, you!” A friend replies. The two agree to go on three and eventually jump in.

As with getting in the pool, we will (or already have) seek the confirmation that our friends and family are on the same page as we are in beginning to enter the public space of this new reality. If they are not, likely they won’t be invited or consulted about the next step in undoing isolation.

Where can we go and should we are two different questions. Because there are no clear right answers, I won’t offer false advice about what is “safe.” I do, however, find Dr. Erin Bromage’s explanation about risk particularly helpful. What I can say is that the decision of where to go and when is a personal one. It’s okay if you feel anxious and don’t know what to do. At the same time, we shouldn’t be rushing out to party like it’s Y2K or that COVID-19 has been eradicated.

Like the pool, folks clearly have different opinions of when and how to do this. Unfortunately, one lesson I learned from my lifeguarding days is that crowded water often leads to contamination, quickly shutting down the facility. In other words, if most people abandon social distancing measures and refuse to wear masks, stay at home orders will soon resume.

How. . . ? A Post of Questions

The Wallypug of Why, by G. E. Farrow, illustrations by Harry Furniss and Dorothy Furniss, 1895.

The farther that we get into this [what do we call it? And to what am I referring? Pandemic? Isolation? “Crisis-schooling?”], the more that my thoughts are filled with questions and not answers. Thus, I am launching into a cathartic list of my current uncertainties. Some of these questions (concerns, issues?] have answers, but are they the right ones? Other current mysteries will be resolved soon [by me? Others? No one?].

  1. If/when we do this reopening [or as?], how do we do it? Who should go? Where can we go? What is okay? What is not? How do we balance safety with a need to take care of certain things [and what are those things?]? If wearing a mask is for other people’s protection, why do other people get to decide the level at which I am protected?
  2. Why won’t my kids go to sleep so I can write my post?
  3. How do we keep doing the impossible balance of caring for children and working from home? Who gets the short end of the stick? Or is it a regular stick with so many branches that it is the tree that suffers? When can a sliver of uninterrupted time become a regular expectation and not a moment of luxury?
  4. At what point can we acknowledge that online learning at any stage is not the same as an in-person experience [or did I just do that?]?
  5. Is it okay to admit that this time of isolation is hard, even though we are safe and healthy?
  6. What does the future hold? For my kids? For my students? For everyday life? Will I get to enjoy my office in the Fall, especially the chocolates I left on my desk? Why did I leave them there when I need them here more?
  7. When will we reach a point in which we can stop contextualizing everything with [COVID-19, “this weird time,” “the current situation”]?
  8. As someone who has studied epidemics, should I have more answers?
  9. How will this pandemic end? When? In how many waves? With how many lost?
  10. When will we move beyond this crisis? Will we remember? How do we make sure that generations after us know about these experiences?

We Made It Through, but the Online Format is Not a Long-term Solution: Planning for the Future

With 2.5 more weeks of “crisis-schooling” for the kids, a summer class to prep, and numerous other tasks, it was necessary for me to push through and finish Spring 2020. I submitted final grades for all of my classes yesterday. The last gen. ed. assignment for the semester required students to briefly reflect and describe their experiences, including additional challenges they faced.

This short essay was very telling and I learned a great deal about my students’ feelings, activities, and obstacles since the midterm. Students expressed concerns over their parents and other family members — about the future of their family businesses, recent unemployment, and health. Three or four students had family members who had recovered from COVID-19 or had had it themselves. Other students worried about vulnerable parents or grandparents, fearing what would happen if they became sick. Many had become unemployed and struggled to buy food and other essentials. On the flip side, some students had significantly increased their hours, working 40-60 hours a week in addition to school.

Access to reliable technology was a significant hurdle for a large portion of the class. One student had left a laptop in the dorm and had to wait more than a week to get it back. Other students had no WiFi at home and had to drive elsewhere to use D2L or they had WiFi but connectivity was poor. Students also experienced multiple challenges at the same time — working on a farm, for example, with no internet at home.

Students faced other challenges as well, getting stuck far from home after visiting a friend on Spring break, dealing with canceled trips, performances, and training. Issues related to mental health were frequently brought up, in relation to isolation, a lack of purpose, and distancing from the world. Furthermore, many expressed their personal difficulties with online learning, explaining that they struggle with time management and understanding material in an online delivery.

What surprised me most was that I didn’t know about these hindrances until the day of the final. I had asked about challenges periodically throughout the semester, but few had piped up. In other words, students were not seeking excuses and exceptions in these reflections, just conveying their current realities.

Obviously we had to shift online this semester and for the summer. Beyond that, though, these reflections reinforced what I was already suspecting: the online format fundamentally does not work for many students. While my own university did an exceptional job with providing resources and support, our students do not have the widespread access and support to fully succeed. It is just not feasible for a student to juggle separating cattle and driving 40 minutes to complete school work or sharing a computer with multiple family members in the same household.

On April 30th, President McPhee announced that on-campus classes with resume next semester. Knowing our students’ challenges, I support this decision.

If we don’t at least try to have in-person classes, I wonder how many students would not return in Fall 2020. For those who did come back, how many would fail because of limitations outside of their control? Moreover, what classes cannot be taught effectively online?

For all colleges and universities that plan to resume in-person, the question is how do we do this? Obviously, cases may escalate and the in-person experience may not be feasible in a few months. However, we can still plan for the different possibilities and at some point, will reopen.

  • Increase the number of online courses by having faculty identify which ones can go online. It makes sense to offer more online courses for students that choose this format, knowing that they have the resources to make it work. Increasing online courses would also help vulnerable faculty members who cannot safely teach in-person at this time. There’s a difference between offering and mandating the online format.
  • Allow vulnerable faculty and staff to work from home.
  • Rethink class sizes, splitting up large lectures. Schedule classes in larger capacity rooms.
  • Hold faculty and student training sessions for online learning.
  • Encourage all instructors to create contingency plans for the semester and communicate them to students.
  • In preparation for another shutdown, identify students that are most likely to struggle and help them prepare for the shift to online learning.
  • Share guidelines across disciplines and universities for in-person and online classes in this new normal.

Today’s post is my reflection on my students’ experiences this semester. I felt for the ones struggling and those who stopping submitting assignments and taking exams. I did what I could to help my classes make it through the content, but it still did not feel like enough. Well, maybe for crisis mode/half term. However, it’s definitely not the default path for future semesters.

Creative Media Projects: Joy During the Teaching Crisis

Like other instructors, our mid-semester shift to online teaching forced me to quickly rethink assignments and assessment. For my intro course, 180 of 200 points remained of the group project. Obviously, it would have been unrealistic to expect students to work together to produce a paper and presentation, at least in the current crisis mode in a gen. ed. class. At the same time, I was reluctant to just do away with these points, shrinking the overall pool so that tests made up the majority of the grade.

My solution was to replace the majority of the group work with an individual creative project, in which students could either continue with their group’s historical topic or choose to create an original work that captured an aspect of our current situation. My only instruction was that they had to make something engaging that could be shared on D2L. Acceptable formats could include videos, songs, poems, posters, memes, and any other format approved by me. I also made the assignment a competition, allowing everyone to vote on their favorite projects.

This week, they turned in their projects. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened the folder, but I was immediately blown away by their creations, in thoughtfulness, innovation, and the overall quality. Students wrote poems, stories, and letters, created photo essays, pictures, and comic art. Several students produced songs that were so well done, I asked for verification that they had actually created them, like this song by David Moore on life as an introvert (shared with permission).

A song by David Moore

The diversity in the videos was also impressive. Some were pensive reflections on the challenges of working and finishing the semester. Others were humorous: one student filmed herself attempting a skateboard trick. Another student created a ’90s sitcom intro, starring, well, only herself. Students were also thoughtful in their evaluations of each other’s projects, noting the skill and emotion put into their peers’ work or commenting on how songs and videos gave them new perspectives on how other people are experiencing life right now.

The top project was this mixed art painting by Jernicya McCrackin:

“For my Creative Media project, I wanted to do a mixed media illustration relating to how fashion covers and social media has converted wearing face mask to a fashion statement. ” by Jernicya McCrackin (shared with permission).

A project that I had thought would be a collection of hastily-created memes turned out to be so much more. While I did receive a handful of “distracted boyfriend” meme templates (lesson learned on my part), the majority of the submissions were so much better than I could have imagined. Thanks to my students, their projects became a bright spot in a difficult semester.

“My Quarantine Life Vlog in Japan” by Yurika Misuna. She was studying as an exchange student in the U.S. when the university shut down. Fortunately, she made it back to Japan.