The pandemic has changed our lives forever. And I am glad about it.
I remember my last day of “normal.” We were having a faculty meeting in our building, which overlooks the quad where students, faculty, and staff are often seen meeting for a little sunlight, with lunch, frisbee throwing, and more. The sun shines over the football stadium and into the room. A cracked window in the spring and summer offers a light breeze and a good waft of pollen. If the walls could talk, they would tell tales of rich discourse on supplemental success initiatives, supporting our emerging scholars. They would share the moments when we agreed to simply disagree, and tell of so many poorly delivered jokes.
On this day, the director of our unit shared updates on the protocol for maintaining sanitary standards—a bit odd for a faculty meeting. However, the coronavirus had successfully taken over the headlines and made its way onto our agenda. Hand-sanitizer dispensers appeared at multiple points on every level of our building. A colleague emphasized the severity of the coronavirus disease—they’d been personally witnessing a family member’s battle.
We left the conference room having no idea what would occur over the weekend. We were mandated to quarantine in our homes under the assumption that restrictions would be temporary and we’d be back to “normal” by summer. However, after months of empty tissue aisles, rumors of Lysol re-stocks, hit-or-miss homemade meals, coaching students (and their parents) through remote learning, a civil insurrection, and more, the global pandemic persists.
I liken this experience to a sifting of humanity.
Now, as a baker (pre-pandemic, when flour was readily available and everyone wasn’t at home making sourdough), I sift my flour to remove lumps and catch unwanted debris (such as husks or seeds). The debris that remains in the sieve gets thrown out; it hinders the baking process and compromises the final product. Sifted flour helps me to get more accurate measurements so that I have consistent, tender cakes and biscuits.
As the pandemic sifts the nation, great things remain. Dedicated educators, passionate first responders, and brilliant scholars are just a few of those for whom we’ve developed a deeper appreciation. But systemic barriers remain as the debris in America is sifted and separated by this pandemic; barriers that have plagued educators for too many generations remain inhibitors of effective teaching.
Food insecurity, a major barrier for young learners in high-poverty areas, prompted the buses to continue running, with boxed lunches replacing the students in the seats. Inequalities in technology led major companies to offer low-cost internet service, while many students had to complete coursework in the parking lots of closed restaurants with free Wi-Fi. Students who are victims of abuse were suddenly required to spend more time in toxic homes. Standardized measures could not ethically capture any learning at any level.
For years, teachers have advocated for education reform. They witness the child who sleeps in class because they go along on the nightshift with a parent who can’t afford childcare. They witness children saving lunches to share with their siblings for dinner. During recess, they help students complete the online homework they can’t do at home due to a lack of internet access. They love on the quiet, battered child and get them to safety, security, stability. They tutor students for free to help them advance to the next grade. Teachers have first-hand knowledge of the challenges facing the children who will become the leaders of tomorrow.
Some parts of society have been stunned by these new revelations of the domestic and economic challenges that today’s youth face, but the educators’ experience has been validated.
Now, change can happen. Change must happen—or, I argue, we will have to acknowledge that we are complicit in allowing these systemic inequalities, and willfully extinguishing the spark that is the potential of underserved students of America.
When we can return to that conference room for the first post-pandemic, in-person faculty meeting, we will likely still be cautious and sit far apart. We’ll welcome the breeze from open windows for ventilation and scent of blooming flowers around the building that we missed. There will be post-pandemic jokes (and they may still be bad).
However, we will be forever changed, knowing what the sieves caught. But we can bring the debris to the table, identify it, and begin having real conversations about practical solutions.
We can go from societal sift to societal shift.