“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.

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.