Corona-versary Reflections Part 3: The Bad

Not all COVID-era innovations were helpful. Some were completely necessary and served an essential function during the worst moments of the pandemic. We thank them for their service before tossing them in the trash, Marie Kondo-style.

)I’ve already written about my own experience in quarantine, and the COVID innovations I hope will stick around post-pandemic.)

1. Masks when not ill

For the past year, I’ve watched television shows and movies with a sense of forlorn jealousy because all the characters have been able to frolick about their regular lives, totally maskless. As an extrovert, there is little I miss more than being able to see people’s faces. I love watching faces, even the faces of complete strangers, and the interpretive dance of complex emotions that seeing a full face brings. I worry about the effect that a year’s worth of completely masked socialization will have on the babies born during quarantine. I worry about the effect of a year’s worth of masking will have on the backsliding of social and emotional skills and of emotional intelligence.

I miss being able to smile at babies on the street or people clearly feeling themselves in an outfit or aesthetic choice. I miss being smiled at. As someone with a slight hearing impairment, I never even realized how heavily I was relying on lip reading to understand people in casual conversations, and so I miss being able to more fully understand the people and world around me as well.

Don’t get me wrong, masks are a powerhouse when it comes to slowing and stopping the spread of infectious diseases. The flu was essentially eradicated this year thanks to mask mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19. I really do believe that people should wear masks when they aren’t feeling their best going forward, but not that everyone must all the time.

Let’s be honest, the way we were all living prior to the pandemic was kind of disgusting. It was considered almost heretical to take a day off from work unless strictly knocking on death’s door, and so people went about their lives spreading their snot and germs everywhere. We shouldn’t go back to that, but what does an enby have to do to get a smile around here?

2. Working from Home

This is going to be a controversial opinion, but I stand by it.

After more than a full year of working from home, I never want to work from home again. Don’t come after me, please.

I’m an extrovert. I draw energy and creativity by being in the presence of other people. I thrive in study groups, even just sitting next to a friend at a Starbucks will supercharge my productivity even more than the espresso beverage I purchase there. Hell, even being in a coffee shop or park alone with strangers nearby is enough to boost my mood and lift me from the stagnant isolation I have been relegated to by this crisis.

Working from home has had the effect in my life personally of intensifying stress and anxiety about work. The fact that I don’t have to get up as early to commute to work has cultivated in me a deep-seated fear of oversleeping and missing my first period class. The fact that I use the same computer at the same little workspace in my apartment for work, writing, online shopping, etc etc etc etc etc. There is something truly powerful about things having their place in one’s space, but there’s something equally powerful about allocating particular space for particular activities. Sitting at the same spot for work, leisure, and personal responsibility blurs the lines for my brain about what I need to do at any particular time. In effect, I try to do everything at once because all of the cognitive triggers are in my proximity at all times. I see the dishes on the counter when I refill my water bottle and want to load the dishwasher. I see my grade log notebook and want to tear into the essays I haven’t graded yet. I see selections of texts I was considering assigning, half-written manuscripts, novels I’m reading, and my partner during the entire workday, and my brain is terribly confused.

I don’t necessarily think we need to go back to work the way it was — office buildings and strict schedules are both things that maybe we can use less of. But working from my house? That’s too much. If I could teach from school (or the park if buildings remain closed for distancing purposes), do some writing at a coffee shop, run errands on the town, and do my academic work at the library, that would truly be a healthy breakdown for my own mental health. I always suspected this would be the case, but COVID really came in to prove my point on this one.

I’m interested in the future of organizations like WeWork and other co-working spaces. I think that for my personal work style, these types of environments may ultimately prove to be beneficial. The laid-back nature and lack of rigid schedule of work-from-home culture is really appealing, but I’d like to work from somewhere other than my dining room table, please.

3. Remote Learning

There have been small scale cold wars broiling all over the country since the late summer. No, I’m not talking about anti-maskers versus regulations… or science. I’m not talking about the protests against police brutality, either. I’m talking about the rumbling just beneath the surface of all-out war between America’s teacher’s unions and school districts, governments, and the public at large over school reopenings.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most people view schools through rose-colored glasses. The propaganda surrounding schools elicit images of idyllic ivory towers with heavy foci on citizenship, morality, and competence. Teachers are viewed as willing martyrs for the sake of “the children.” Schools have been imagined as a factory for well-rounded citizens imbued with common sense through the rigorous study of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

These images could not be further from the truth in most places. Do these schools exist? Probably, out in the suburbs. Are they the norm? No way.

When governmental officials and families of affluent students demand the reopening of schools, they are not thinking about the various realities of working and learning in public schools across America. The shortage of Masters-educated individuals willing to work for peanuts and constant funding crises have led class sizes to swell to untenable numbers. Even in the largest classrooms available, squeezing in thirty-five kids is a challenge meant for Tetris masters. Social distancing? What a joke. School buildings are old. In cities like New York, many schools cohabit buildings with other schools over which they have no authority to preserve safety protocols. Many classroom windows do not open or do not open sufficiently to ventilate classrooms and dissipate the spread. I don’t even want to know where all the dust comes from. I don’t want to say the “A” word, but I have my suspicions.

The only way to keep teachers, students, staff, and all of our families safe was to stay out of those buildings.

That being said, remote learning is not great for most students or teachers. Despite media portrayals depicting teachers as half-assing their work while laying on the beach somewhere avoiding work, teachers have had to work exponentially harder to make school work online. Online learning platforms proliferate like heads on a medusa and the expectations for teachers working in the same space where they live with their families (see my treatise against working from home, above) change daily. It’s stressful. It’s difficult to have to reinvent the wheel and figure out the right balance for students to get what they need from their classes in these troubling times.

It sucks. I hope never to work in remote learning again. It is painful to watch students fail to live up to their potential because they can’t scrounge the motivation when everything feels so pointless. It is impossible to live with the comments made out of a desperate sadness and depression that will take months to heal. We should have cancelled the school year entirely and allowed students to develop their resilience and survive this pandemic without adding the pressure of fake normalcy on us all.

4. Extreme Social Distancing:

I’m lonely. I know we all are. I miss being able to sit in bustling coffee shops, hang out in parks, eat in restaurants, go to concerts and plays and movies and lectures and the like. I’m ready to hang out. Let’s get back together!

5. Fear of the Virus:

I don’t mean this in a conservative “I don’t live in fear” way. I mean, I cannot wait until we don’t have to be frightened of contracting or watching our loved ones contract this disease. It’s a frightening illness. It is unpredictable. It effects individuals in different ways. I got COVID in the early days of the pandemic, when there was a refrigerated truck parked outside of every hospital in New York City. I lost my sense of smell and taste for about a week. I had symptoms so mild that I confused them for allergies. Around the same time, my coworker contracted the disease and was knocked on his ass for a few months. One of our students, fifteen at the time, was hospitalized for almost two months in a COVID ICU and continues to experience long-haul symptoms. Our disparate outcomes are a matter of seemingly random chance.

And that’s exactly what makes COVID-19 so frightening. It’s something that cannot be predicted or explained. There just isn’t enough data about how it spreads or how it could potentially be cured. I am now fully vaccinated, and with each day that passes post-vaccination, I feel vestiges of the weight of this fear lifting from me. I feel less anxious being indoors near other people. I feel a little less existential. And that can only be good.

6. Hate Violence:

Hate violence has little to do with COVID particularly. Hate violence is as American as baseball and apple pie. More, perhaps, since more Americans choose violence than would ever choose baseball or apple pie. The combination of Donald Trump’s overt racism and the fact that the disease was first discovered in China has created the perfect storm for people to vent their frustrations about COVID on Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) bodies. This is disturbing and incontrovertibly wrong.

I stand with the AAPI community to condemn this reactionary hate violence. It has no place in the United States despite being such an integral part off that society.