COMMENTARY: Lessons from a pandemic: What will we learn from this?

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Sue Bruns

With the COVID-19 shutdown, educators have had to shift gears; schools have closed; students are adjusting to distance learning; parents are expected to monitor the progress their children are making. People are going off to work as “essential” service providers, working at home, or trying to find their way through the unemployment filing process and figuring out which bills to pay first with money that isn’t coming in. Education as we know it has been disrupted; life as we know it has been disrupted.

Having retired 10 years ago, I can’t help but wonder what my life would be like today if I were distance teaching or if my own children were still living at home. The challenges of distance teaching are far different from the classroom challenges of my own experience. How do you motivate students distantly -- particularly if it was already difficult to motivate them daily, face to face? How do you provide meaningful structure from afar? How do you assess students’ learning in meaningful ways? How do you determine what they are learning?

Retired from teaching, I don’t have to figure out how to assess students; but as a life-long educator, I cannot help but wonder -- what are we, collectively, learning from this unusual and uncertain experience?

Are we learning to slow our lives down a bit, to make do with less? To improvise, to be creative, to value “down time,” to manage our finances better, to take up a new hobby, to read more? Are we learning to ask for help when we need it, or to reach out to others who need help in whatever ways we can? To appreciate people who are working to keep us healthy, fed, informed, connected? Are we learning that, although our work ethic might have been our strength, we are not “essential”? That all of those days when we forced ourselves to go to work in spite of our coughing or sneezing or running noses -- because we thought we were irreplaceable – we probably should have stayed home? Are managers and bosses recognizing that everyone needs the “luxury” of staying home when they’re sick without losing out on wages? Are we learning that when sick people go to work and interact with students, customers, clients, co-workers – more people get sick? Has COVID-19 taught us that sometimes we pass on dangerous germs even when we’re not sick ourselves? If we haven’t at least learned to wash our hands thoroughly, we really haven’t been paying attention.

Often we push ourselves through a cold or flu bug because we have a notion that things can’t go on without us. It only takes retirement to realize that, as important as I may have thought I was, the world moved right along without me. Someone filled my office, my classroom, my job -- and the world moved on. So why did I hesitate to use my sick days when I was sick?


Now most of us are staying home – not because we are sick, but because we are afraid of getting sick or making someone else sick. What are we learning?

Are we learning that much of the work we do can be done from home at less cost to the worker and to the employer? Are we learning that fewer people on the roads means fewer accidents, less gas used, lower emissions, less pollution? Are we learning that there are other ways of doing the things we’ve done for many years -- simply because that’s the way we’ve always done them?

Have we learned how to use social media solely for positive interactions with people we care about and miss? Are we spending more time on positive communications rather than criticizing, name calling, shaming and blaming, forwarding messages we wouldn’t say ourselves -- messages that would be better deleted?

Are we learning to appreciate our homes -- and to notice how many people don’t have homes to shelter in?

Are we learning to value the time we have with the people we love and the friends we can still communicate with from a distance? Are we complaining about things we’re missing out on rather than learning about ways we can help people in need? Are we staying home, wearing masks, sewing masks, making visors, delivering groceries to people who cannot get out? Are we spreading encouragement and concern rather than rumors, misinformation, and fear?

Are we learning that life should not go back to the old normal? That we can do things better than we did before? That we can contribute more through our time, talents, resources? That we can show our appreciation daily to people who care for us when we are ill or injured, people who deliver our mail, drive trucks that bring supplies, serve us food at restaurants, stock our groceries, cut our hair, examine our eyes, teach our children?

Are we learning things that it shouldn’t take a pandemic to teach us? No one is assessing us, but we can assess ourselves. With the continuing message of “we’re all in this together,” have we begun to realize that we are always in this together -- pandemic or no pandemic? “This” is life, and no matter how long it takes to get back to a more normal routine, will we have learned better ways to remain in “this” together?

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