Thoughts on Technology and Mental Health in “Remote” Paradigm of Learning.

I normally use this blog to share data and analysis about taxes and public funding, but this is a more personal post. We are nearly a month into isolating at home and I wanted to share some reflections on education in this current moment. I have 2 kids in Jersey City Public Schools and I teach undergraduate courses full-time at Saint Peter’s University, so I’m seeing this play out from two perspectives.

Two themes of concern are jumping out at me at in this current moment: Technology and Mental Health.

Technology. 

There is a lot of focus on how we are now “remote” or “distant” learning. I question if we are being careful enough with our language.

For instance, I took a distance learning course years ago after graduate school. It was branded a “distance learning” course and I took it knowing I’d be “distance learning.”  I needed 3 more credits to sit for the CPA exam, so I took a cost accounting course while working full-time.  I knew I had the means, time, space, and resources to engage that learning paradigm. It was a sufficient means to an end for me at the time, as a young, independent adult who could type 60 words a minute.

So now I’m seeing this current moment referred to in newspaper articles, op-eds, and social media as “distant learning” and “remote learning” and it doesn’t feel like what I did years ago. This current paradigm is very different. This op-ed from two University of Georgia professors, published last week – “Opinion: This is not home schooling, distance learning or online schooling” – helped me put language to that feeling: no…this is not “remote learning,” it’s “Covid-19 learning.”

The jump to call this “distant learning” concerns me because we can unwittingly redefine – and misdefine – our current state. For instance: I am increasingly concerned that this current moment not be used as an excuse to pivot towards more technology at the expense of invaluable hands-on and face-to-face learning, small group teaming, and socially and emotionally enriching experiences in the classroom.

Yes, Google Meet and Zoom are great (barring the privacy concerns). But they don’t replace the community ecosystem of a school and we should lift up that fact.  And…don’t get me wrong: if teachers can adjust with online tools and make the most of this current situation, I view that as herculean.  And, I think administrators should be doing everything in their power to support the teachers and students connecting, including actively assessing who has what connectivity access at home. What is happening right now – for me personally as a college instructor and what I see unfolding with my kids’ public school – is an array of individuals doing their best to react to an unprecedented crisis.

What I also see happening right now is a further unmasking of inequity that many of us already knew was there. Our degree of access to the outside world is accentuated by our privilege. Some have multiple devices at home, some have one device due to a parent’s work, some have no device at all.  Some have a device but lack internet. Some have a device, and internet, but lack the space at home to focus and concentrate…for a wide number of reasons. Some do not even have a home.

All of these issues existed pre-pandemic, and now it’s made worse by the pandemic.

For instance, now, post-pandemic, some are able to work-from-home while others must watch parents go to work because the job is essential.  Some are part of a larger family unit that is now squeezing most, if not all, of the day into the same living space.  Some are experiencing job losses or, profoundly worse, the loss of loved ones to Covid-19.

What’s worse, we are all experiencing these pressures in isolation.  As a college professor, I am deeply concerned for my students. I imagine many if not all teachers feel the same. But we cannot be near our students, so our care, too, is remote.

Ensuring every student has a device is one way to help mitigate the inequity; but it will not remove it completely. Education is not just about a single outcome, like a test score or a grade; it is about the whole person. At Saint Peter’s, and every Jesuit institution, we name that value: cura personalis, or care for the whole person.

Mental Health.

We will eventually come out of this health crisis, but it will be extremely difficult for many of us. Students included.

This can serve as an invitation for us to think outwardly, compassionately. We can do that by listening and learning in community. By relating to the pain of others, and growing in empathy for them, and with them.

For instance: we are now learning that the pandemic is having a disproportionately devastating impact on the black community and working class immigrant communities.  We are learning that the pandemic is exposing, and deepening, the chasms of need and inequity that already existed.

This will inevitably impact our kids, the students. Focus, concentration, and the ability to learn can be hampered by anxiety and stress. Just as patients with Coronavirus may need a medical doctor, a child who has lost a parent or loved one to Coronavirus may need a therapist. They may need adjustments to their learning plan. Many children needed these supports before the pandemic; for instance, kids in high risk neighborhoods plagued with gun violence have always needed support for trauma.  In Jersey City, those kids have often been denied that support due to school funding cuts, resulting in staffing cuts to counselors, therapist, and psychologists.

Just as this pandemic is exposing the need for technology equity, it should also serve to expose the need for social and emotional wellness equity too. Just like technology: kids in our schools have needed these resources for years, they have not gotten it, but this pandemic will shine a brighter light on the need for it.

Finally, a few words on trauma, and healing.

Naming trauma, and its roots, is part of healing. Like many of us, I experienced shock and fear, and a terrible sense of dread, after 9/11 while in graduate school. I was in Washington DC at the time, and had family members near the WTC when it was struck and the towers later fell; thank God, my family and I escaped that day physically unscathed. I imagine those of us old enough to remember it can recall where we were, what we felt, and so on. Trauma sears into you; it weaves into the fabric of who you are.

About a year after 9/11, while still in graduate school, I lost a close friend to a violent murder. I experienced shock, fear, and dread all over again, though on a much more personal and painful level.  It was a long, multi-year process to emerge from the fog of that trauma. I had access to support, including professional therapy.  For me, therapy was essential to my healing, which is why I personally attest to its relevance, and its importance.

Each of us may be experiencing varying degrees of stress, and perhaps even trauma, related to Covid-19. My hope is that we can recognize our own stress and trauma as real, painful, and as a common connection with others – including our city’s youth.

We cannot allow the pre-pandemic paradigm to persist, where kids in our schools – especially our highest needs schools – are denied mental health support.  They will need their schools, and the schools will need their mental health professionals.

Listening & Learning … Now

We are currently in the middle of the “Before” and “After” shock of the Coronavirus pandemic.  How we respond in community, in this current moment and in the weeks ahead, will help define the “After.”

My hope is that our response is defined by compassion, by listening to each other, by learning about the array of needs that exist, and by discerning what we as a community can do to meet those needs, together.

    Posted in Advocacy.