The Wake of COVID-19

In the wake of the COVID-19 quarantine, educators are scrambling to find ways to continue the learning online. Unless you have lived in an area that was devastated by a natural disaster, you probably have not had experience with a disruption of education. Natural disasters wipe out physical resources as well as electronic ones, at least for a period of time. With a quarantine, we have an advantage in that an electronic means of teaching and learning is still intact. Still, we are scratching our heads and asking, “How can I effectively teach online with little notice? I’m not prepared for this!”

Two days before the start of my senior year of high school, an F5 tornado destroyed my school and much of my hometown and surrounding area. Twenty-nine people died and hundreds were injured. I would have been at the school’s tennis courts that day except the first match of the season was at a neighboring town. Less than an hour after the tornado, my teammates and I arrived back at the school to a massive pile of rubble and wondered if anyone was still alive. When we got off the bus, the sound of silence was deafening – no people out and about yet, no power lines buzzing, no cars moving, no birds singing, nothing. Crying mothers soon arrived… screaming, pointing at the school, and wondering where their practicing football players were. I can still see their faces.

I have been reflecting on this event much during the past couple of weeks. Although it happened nearly 30 years ago, the experience is still clear in my mind. More specifically, though, I have been examining this perspective: How did our teachers manage to get us learning less than three weeks after a tornado leveled the school?

Luckily, we were able to relocate to a vacated school about 10 miles away. In 1990, teachers taught with books and chalkboards and curriculum filed in three-ring binders, all stored in heavy metal cabinets and most of that was gone. We didn’t use the Internet. We did not have email or text messages and we certainly did not have apps like Zoom. Call waiting was still a coveted luxury.

I’m certain that no curriculum-based learning was accomplished during the first month. We were all just trying to keep our heads above the water. After all, many students and teachers lost their homes. Some narrowly escaped death. One teacher was killed in his classroom as he was preparing for the start of the school year. I find myself thinking of the strength the teachers must have had to return to the classroom just a couple of weeks after suffering tremendous personal and professional losses.

But as a student, what do I remember? I remember teachers who smiled and tried their best to make sure we were OK – whatever that was supposed to look like. I am sure lesson plans changed drastically, both in what was going to be taught and how. Donations of supplies poured in and some of it was usable and some was not. Teachers made do with what they had. We weren’t learning curriculum; we were learning life. We were learning resourcefulness and collaboration. We were learning problem solving and critical thinking. We were learning resilience and compassion. Our teachers did not teach these things to us. They modeled them.

This is not unlike what we are experiencing with COVID-19, except we do not have a visual reminder of rubble to signify what has been temporarily taken away from us: the physical aspect of teaching. Our schools are still there; we just aren’t in them. Teachers are scrambling to figure out how to teach their classes with new tools (technology) whether or not they possess the skill to do so. “Donations” are pouring in from companies offering free access to their online tools, often overwhelming teachers because there are so many options. Many can relate to their lecturing-was-the-only-option educator ancestors who, when handed a book fresh off Gutenberg’s press, thought, “What in the heck do I do with this?”

Here’s what I do know: you will not be able to teach what you intended to teach and you certainly won’t be able to teach it the way you intended. This kind of disruption forces creativity and innovation. It forces us to think outside the box. If our teaching doesn’t change as a result of this experience, we will fail to grow as educators.

We will also fail if we do not check on the well-being of our students throughout the rest of the semester. And I mean, throughout. Some of them will not be OK even after they have gotten used to the quarantine life. Some will be affected by COVID-19 directly but every single one of them is being affected indirectly. Some of my classmates are still not “fine” after the tornado. Giving students a worthwhile experience in your online class may be the only sense of normalcy they have right now. You know it’s not the best you can do for them, but it’s all you can do right now. Your students appreciate your effort.

Tell them you are trying. Tell them you are in unchartered waters. Tell them you are all in it together and that you are going to give them the best experience you can possibly give them, with whatever means you have. But above all, be brave. They will notice. We noticed. And almost 30 years later, I still remember.