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?

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?).

Nothing is normal. We’re in a pandemic. Shifting Expectations in the Midst of Crisis

In 1751, George Washington’s diary entries stopped for 24 days because he was ill with smallpox. Forty-two years later, the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia forced President Washington to relocate to Mount Vernon. Disruption due to disease was frequent and expected.

This pattern continued with other epidemic moments as well. When influenza hit in 1918, Kansas, like many states, canceled all group meetings and conferences, closed businesses and schools, and prohibited public loitering. The University of Kansas canceled all classes and mandated quarantine. Even though students were stuck on campus, they were not expected to continue their studies. Healthy male students practiced drills and smuggled cigarettes into the makeshift hospital for their ailing friends. Female students cared for the sick, but were also encouraged to go on hikes and roast hot dogs.

In the midst of an epidemic, historical precedent suggests that life dramatically shifts to revolve around the outbreak itself. We are in that moment. For months, we’ve seen it coming. Videos and images from other countries have been showing us what will happen, how bad it will become.

I’m not advocating that we completely shut down working from home, online learning, or virtual activities. However, we do need assume that everything we do, task we assign, and decision we make is shaped by the current and future reality of this global pandemic. Our expectations in our normal, pre-social distancing world do not directly carry over.

Even if we are fortunate to not be sick, the current situation dramatically influences all of our routines. A month ago, this was my typical Friday morning: Wake up, care for dogs, make breakfast, wake up kids, get kids and husband off to school, exercise dogs, do some writing or other work, drive to campus, hold office hours, teach, stop at the grocery store, eat lunch. Now my Friday morning consists of juggling parenting, attempted home-schooling, attempted online teaching, and attempted writing. Added to the mix are my worries and concerns unique to this time: Will the kids get to see their teachers or friends? Am I doing enough to help them through this? And then, the questions plaguing all of us: Will the stores have milk? What about people who are less fortunate than we are? How will local businesses survive? What will happen to the economy? Does it make sense to plan anything in the next 6-8 months?

At the same time, our face-to-face outlets for dealing with stress and working through situations have been cut-off. Without lunches with friends, gym workouts, or (gasp) in-person meetings, it’s hard to emotionally process it all. I’m glad that we can have online classes, connect over social media, and take virtual karate. But let’s not pretend it is the equivalent of the real experiences that we all crave right now.

My point is that we need to adopt a communal understanding about this time. Our standards and goals, even for daily productivity, should not be the same because our lives are not the same. What we do now will inevitably affect the future, but it doesn’t mean we are setting the bar (or lowering the bar) for next year and beyond. In other words, we need to asterisk * the things we think, decide, do, and communicate with the pandemic grain of salt.

This * is already happening for many people. If you are sick or care for someone who is, or if you work in healthcare, you are already there, where the details of a pandemic are all that concern you. A month into the yellow fever epidemic, every article in the Federal Gazette mentioned disease–even those that talked about a local fire. Every poem and parable printed focused on the epidemic. Ads only addressed “remedies” and other related goods and services. Even if we are lucky enough not to be in this place and can play with the kids, teach our online classes, and do “regular things,” we need to remember that not everyone shares our fortune.

This is a strange time full of uncertainties. Enjoy the moments that feel a bit normal, especially if they bring hope and optimism. But let’s also give ourselves permission to take a breath and just try for average, not exceptional, since every accomplishment is extraordinary right now. If Washington could ease up multiple times because of disease, then so can we.

Understanding Media Sources in the Pandemic

Why can’t we have sleepovers, play on the playground or go climbing? What have you heard about coronavirus (COVID-19)? How does it spread? Who can get it? What happens if you do get sick? At this point, I’m sure you’re heard a lot of different pieces of information, most of it probably from other people. Today, I want you to focus on doing your own research, gathering facts from credible sources.

What are credible sources? “Credible sources” refer to organizations and media outlets known for producing fact-based, trustworthy information that has undergone a gatekeeping process (meaning several tiers of people check and verify the information before it is released to the public).

We’ll start with health organizations. For health issues, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), national public health institute for the United States. Use the CDC’s resources on COVID-19 to answer the following questions:

1. How does the COVID-19 spread?
2. What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
3. How can your family prepare if someone gets sick? What should you do?

The World Health Organization (WHO) is a global public health agency and has produced wonderful resources about COVID-19. Look at WHO’s page of mythbusters. Identify 3 myths about what can kill the coronavirus.

We can also turn to news outlets for information. Like other news sources, The New York Times and The Washington Post have produced a plethora of stories on coronavirus, covering many angles on what it is, how the disease affects groups of people, and its profound impact on society. With news stories, it is important to look at the source and the date. Articles written about coronavirus in January had a very different purpose and tone compared to stories produced this week. Compare this January 29th story: “New York is Bracing for the Coronavirus” to this one from today, in which there are more than 15,000 cases: “New York Prepares for a Week at the Pandemic’s Center.” What was the purpose of each story? How has the tone shifted?

Compare local news to national news or look across media platforms. Broadcast news stories (television news) are packaged differently than ones created for print and online sources. For example, watch this Nashville News Channel 5 broadcast and discuss its focus.

What are not credible sources? We have what feels like unlimited media choices. It can be hard to tell what sources we should trust. How do you determine what are not credible sources? If “information” does not have to pass through a gatekeeping process (or doesn’t reference a source that does), it may not be credible. Social media posts, blogs, memes, email forwards, and personal websites are all examples of media content with no screening process. Anyone can create posts or memes and publish them, without others checking the information.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from these types of media products, but take them with a grain of salt (be a little skeptical about the information). This means that if you read something about coronavirus on social media or on a website, look up the information using a credible source (organization or news outlet-produced) before you believe it, or even worse, share it with others.

For example, a number of people shared this meme on social media about preventing coronavirus by gargling salt water [FALSE INFORMATION].

Why do you think people believe in such “remedies?” Even worse, why do people share “information” even though it has no factual basis?

News stories and factual resources are vital at this tough time. Knowing where to look for credible information will help us stay updated and not be misled by fake remedies or other myths of the coronavirus.

Stop Telling People to Wash Their Hands: The Myth of Responsibility in the Pandemic

Image may contain: one or more people, possible text that says 'Exhibit A...Coronavirus swab. Yes that is where the swab goes. So unless you'd like this done to you... u...stay home and wash your hands!!! Please. Facebook/MedicalMemes'
Meme going viral right now

This meme is going around social media. Along with these:

Plus parody songs that time washing hands, instructional videos on how to get that lather, and a shortage of anti-bacterial soap that demonstrates people are listening.

So I don’t seriously think you should stop washing your hands. It should have been standard practice. And yes, we could all use a little reminder to linger at the sink and up our thoroughness.

That said, I have several issues with this message as the dominant one we’re still reciting, meming, and sharing. Back in January, this “wash your hands” campaign was a good introduction to the escalation about to come. And yet we’ve spent more time repeating this phrase than sharing vital information from the CDC, World Health Organization, public health departments, and other sources.

We are past the initial stage of the crisis and should be focusing on identifying symptoms, where to go for testing, how to protect yourself from infecting others, and what to do for yourself if you don’t need hospitalization. This is the information we should be spreading online.

Using risk language (like in the meme above) simplifies disease transmission into a Magic Bullet Model. Under this falsely-conveyed causation, if you test positive for COVID-19, then you must have failed at washing your hands or not touching your face. This is not how disease works. Transmission, susceptibility, and immunity are complicated. We don’t know exactly how each person got infected so we need to stop assigning blame for those yet to be infected. And with that, stop blaming people from other countries too. It won’t protect you. Instead, treat everyone like they are Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, or Idris Elba.

Here’s the deal: We need regular people to feel comfortable coming forward and sharing their personal experiences so stop stigmatizing individuals who have tested positive (and the many who likely have the disease but aren’t being tested). It is helpful to hear about the varied unfolding of this disease and how it affects different people. We should be thinking about how we can best be prepared and help out, not accusing others of improper hand washing. The when is here. It’s time to shift our own messages accordingly.

(And, yes, we wash our hands).

We might get sick. Seriously. Flexible Teaching in the Pandemic

So far, our discussions on how to move online have focused on pedagogical questions and conferencing tools. I enjoyed reading one of the few essays to go against the grain–“Please do a bad job of putting your courses online.” Dr. Barrett-Fox’s reassuring narrative really gets at what most of us are feeling.

The other key point we need to center on is that many people will get sick. We are moving online because of disease. I’m not saying this to fuel the fire. It is a fact. We as faculty should prepare our courses in such a way that if (or when) we are too ill to teach, or too busy providing care, classes can still continue.

If we prep and release several weeks of material (video lectures, prepped assignments, quizzes, exams, discussion submission boxes), we also extend the same flexibility to our students, some of whom will also get sick. Even for the healthy ones, we don’t know their situations. They may not have computer access at home. Or slow internet. Or an older device that can’t download new apps.

Our students are across time zones right now and facing many unusual burdens that take away from learning. If we can create some material in advance, then we grant students the flexibility to work around their additional challenges. We can still connect by offering real-time conferencing, but only as a bonus, not for regular course delivery.

I know that many instructors are panicking about producing any materials and this task seems daunting. You will not be able to replicate your normal class or even its ideal online version. Boil down your regular lectures into short videos. Use technology that auto-grades quizzes and exams. Use the textbook’s additional resources and the free technology, provided that learning it doesn’t suck all of your time. Find Youtube videos that cover some of your course topics.

We as faculty also need to use each other as resources. If you create a video lecture with wider appeal, offer it to others. Senior faculty should reach out to junior faculty that teach the same course. Don’t let pride or fear hinder opportunities to make it through, especially as childcare options are falling through, forcing instructors and students to parent at the same time.

This is a weird time. We need to prep for the worst and hope for the best.