This is the final installment of a four-part series I’ve been writing as I reflect on the past year in pandemic times. I wrote about how my own life has changed over the course of the lockdowns. I wrote about the good innovations that were implemented during these generally terrible times and what parts of the pandemic I can’t wait to leave in the past. In this entry, I’ll be reviewing some things that the pandemic blew the lid off of and left open for us to reimagine for a better future.
The way that education has been administered in this country has long been problematic at best and malicious at worst. The purpose of traditional K-12 education has long been disconnected from the realities of the workforce or adult life in the twenty-first century.
Standardized testing reigns supreme within the field of education despite the fact that standardized tests are classist, racist, and heavily biased toward students who grew up in middle class homes. Teachers are forced to teach scripted curricula that teach directly toward the test without space in the curriculum for student exploration of themselves (their identities, goals, dreams, interests), their community and world they reside in, their joy, or their ability to navigate the world outside of school — something that often looks nothing like the world school allegedly prepares our students for.
Traditional curriculum does not teach students how to fill out forms, file taxes, assess the credibility of a piece of text, explicitly call out oppression and celebrate the great diversity of their city, country, and world. Traditional modes of pedagogy often leave behind students that do not learn best through lecture and text-heavy lessons — lessons that don’t have much in the way of real-world analogous experiences.
The pandemic really forced teachers to radically modify the way that they deliver instruction, both in terms of the rapid transition to remote learning and because standardized tests were cancelled around the country. Social emotional and mental health concerns have been front of mind for educators for perhaps the first time ever. The idea that our students should not be thought of as robots programmed for output and efficiency nor should they be seen as empty vessels waiting and willing to be filled with knowledge only took a worldwide pandemic to catch on.
We are at an inflection point with our schools, if we choose to take up the task. We obviously can go back to the way that things were, but if we do we risk our education statistics taking a turn for the significantly worse: graduation rates will continue to drop, literacy will continue to worsen, college attendance will fall. Our students will graduate into a world has been made and unmade through this pandemic with serious gaps in their academic, social/interpersonal, and executive functioning skills. It does’t have to be that way.
We have the power to rethink what our schools prize. Public schooling in the United States is only about a hundred years old and the minor reforms that have been implemented in that time have often focused on the wrong things in an undeniably ironic indictment of the system it meant to correct. Reforms of public schooling in America has focused on teacher professionalism (misogyny in sheep’s clothing), a standardized testing regime that enforces systemic racism and classism, and dueling school-to-prison and school-to-college pipelines that reinforces white supremacist capitalism.
We don’t have to be limited to our traditional school academic subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic. The careers public schools prepare kids for are disappearing. We can incorporate things that will be essential for kids to be successful in a changing economy: incorporating courses on coding, graphic design, and multi-modal communications. We can also use this unique opportunity to incorporate courses into our curriculum that should have been there to begin with, like empathy, interpersonal relationships, problem solving, and adult/independent living skills. We can reimagine what a school day looks like, the role of teachers in the classroom, and the role of the school building in our communities.
We just have to take the opportunity we’ve been provided and not let it go to waste.
2. Flexibility in the Workplace
If you’ve read the other stories in this series, you’ll likely remember that I went on an unpopular opinion screed against working from home. I stand by that. For myself, working within the same four walls that I live the rest of my life has done a whole lot of nothing for my productivity.
That being said, I also think that the work-from-home life many of us have been living over the past year offers up a particularly interesting opportunity to rethink the way we do work. Neuroscience is constantly learning new things about our productivity and the optimal work-life balance we’re all striving for. We know that some people work better at different times than others. We know that there are limits to the amount of time the human brain can stare out at a screen before it just stops working.
Maybe we can find ways around the standard 9–5 work day. Maybe work can be more flexible, more in line with the maximum productivity of the human brain — more in line with the holistic needs of a human being.
Work should never have been an obstacle for a well-rounded life. Work should never have stood so in the way of experiencing nature, spending time with friends and family, caring for our physical bodies, tending to our homes, or supporting our mental health. And it doesn’t have to. Many industries have found that the switch to work-from-home has actually increased productivity in their employees. If that’s the case, maybe happier workers are more productive.
We have the opportunity right now to rethink the rigidity with which we’ve approached work for so many decades. Work-life balance, once a punchline for the stressed, is attainable, but only if we rise to the challenge of this moment and rethink the way we work.
3. Partisanship and Truth in Information
The potential dangers of fake news and hyper-partisanship have long been noted. Never before has that danger been tested with stakes as high as the COVID-19 pandemic. Disagreement about the way that the world works are par for the course. No one says perfect agreement is the goal — that’s just fascism. Fundamental disagreement in the way things are or should be are why there are different faiths, different perspectives on morality, different perspectives on ethics and policy, differing views on the role of art, what have you.
What fundamental disagreements we can’t (at the very least shouldn’t) be having as a society at this point are about facts. History happened: the good stuff, the bad stuff, the ugly stuff, the beautiful and idealistic stuff. It is all part of our story. That people you believe to have been great made grave errors in judgement and pretended to be vastly superior to others does not negate the great work and idealistic promises on which this country was founded. One could argue that to ignore the stains of chattel slavery, genocide, exploitation of natural resources, classism, nativism, racism, heterosexism, misogyny, cissexism, eugenics, torture, and geopolitical manipulation is to forgive them. We cannot.
We cannot disagree on the way that science functions. We can’t cherry pick facts and figures to suit ideologies. That is rule number one of avoiding logical fallacies. Disagree about what the facts mean, not what the facts are.
We have seen in bright technicolor neon lights the fatal effects that this kind of willful misinformation and willful ignorance can have on our population. Almost 600,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, largely preventably, because there were “differences of opinion” about what could be done to stymie the spread of the disease. The insanity has to stop. I’m not naive enough to think that it will necessarily stop as we emerge from our COVID-cocoons and re-enter a new normal life, but it’s something we should be addressing and solving as a society to prevent more preventable deaths moving forward.
4. Health Care
Listen, you don’t need me to tell you how absolutely ridiculous the American health care system is. You likely know that first hand if you’ve spent any time at all in the United States. COVID did a lot to reveal the pre-existing cracks, but those cracks have always been there.
Healthcare coverage is not transferable across state lines, often. Finding out what a particular healthcare plan covers is almost never straightforward and can vary from provider to provider in the same practice! Health insurance provided through employers often lacks choice and providers are sometimes allowed to meddle with what procedures are covered or not covered (looking at you reproductive rights and gender affirming healthcare).
We’ve been trying to figure out healthcare for decades. The Affordable Care Act improved things substantially, but falls so far short. We should use this opportunity to truly heal our healthcare system, our society, and ourselves.
5. Mental Health and Social Services
COVID isolation has been rough for everyone. Coming out of the lockdowns and distancing protocols will reveal a secondary pandemic of poor mental health outcomes, everything from depression and social anxiety to psychosis and agoraphobia. We have not even begun to scratch the surface of the full repercussions of the pandemic on the mental health of the country. As a teacher, I have seen a sharp increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety. I can’t imagine how difficult being at home all the time has been on our youngest minds.
Access to mental health care in the United States has always been fraught. So many health insurance plans flat out don’t cover things like talk therapy that some manage their symptoms with pharmaceuticals alone, but most just deal without any care at all. Readjusting to post-pandemic life will be just as traumatic as the adjustment to the pandemic. People will die if we don’t think about access to mental health care differently. Swaths of people we thought were safe from COVID will be stripped away from us all when the world changes again, unable to withstand the cognitive whiplash that is inherent with this period.
We need to make mental health care easier to get. The way that the Affordable Care Act mandated insurance plans cover birth control, the same tactic should be taken with mental health care. Anyone who is struggling should be able to access a therapist and a psychiatrist as needed to manage their symptoms and heal any underlying trauma or condition. Schools must radically shift their hiring priorities to ensure that their halls are staffed with sufficient guidance and crisis counselors as well as psychologists and social workers to provide care and guidance to students and staff alike.
Every single person should be able to access a therapist if they desire one without undue burdens of cost or stigma. More psychologists and psychiatrists should be on staff in urgent care clinics and primary care doctors offices. Exposure to these professionals outisde of an acute situation is essential to build the necessary trust for such care relationships to be fully functional.
We have the opportunity to radically redesign the way mental health care is distributed in this country. It should no longer be acceptable that therapists are something reserved for the rich and neurotic when there is so much trauma and so much pain everywhere in this world that cannot be healed on its own by magic.
6. Public Health and Conceptions of Freedom
Allow me to explain this one through the use of a Star Trek reference: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
This is a concept that most Americans not only fail to understand but also refuse to consider. There is something about the American frame of mind that rejects community concerns in favor of individual ones. Hyperindividualism, like rugged masculinity and white supremacy, is one of the great lies of American culture. Human beings don’t exist in a vacuum. We come into this world wholly dependent on others for survival and so we remain until our dying breaths. To pretend otherwise is to insult everyone who kept you alive through your whole life.
Why, then, did people choose the hill of hyperindividualism and “personal freedom” on which to die during the COVID-19 pandemic? Why did people refuse to wear masks and socially distance as if they could avoid being culled by SARs-COVI-2 by sheer force of will? Why did people continue to gather in huge groups and pretend like ther was nothing out of the ordinary happening around them? Could anyone be that ignorant and oblivious to the realities of a global pandemic? Yes. They’ve proven as much. However, it is not by ignorance alone that man falls. It’s the fallacy of individualism.
The Greeks called it hubris, but I prefer a more direct term: narcissism. That any one person could really believe that their individual comfort and the freedom they believe themselves to have in regard to their own action actually supercedes the safety and comfort of the wider society around them must be the victims of their own self-obsession. These same people refusing to wear masks or socially distance in the middle of a pandemic certainly approve of seatbelt laws, else we would have had them all repealed already for infringing on individual freedoms. Perhaps they support the legalization of all mind-altering substances? The right of one person to get high should have no bearing on anyone else, by this logic. It is an established legal fact that individual freedoms can and should sometimes be curttailed in the interest of the safety of the community, and yet they really decided to behave like little kids.
I am hopeful, albeit not naive enough to believe it will happen any time soon, that the mass destruction of this time might help people to think about someone but themselves. I won’t hold my breath, but an enby can dream.