The last thing the world needs right now is another article on COVID-19, or perhaps this is exactly what we need? The United States watched from afar as numbers climbed in China, and then when our own case numbers began climbing, we were at a loss with what to do. States responded in an asymmetrical ripping effect: Washington was one of the first to shut down public schools, while some states are just now instigating social distancing rules or starting to open up public areas. The need to flatten the curve is real and for many of us we have gone from interacting with dozens or sometimes hundreds of people a day to next to none.
Our living situations differ but we are finding ourselves isolated within the four walls of our homes, some of us alone, some with roommates, some with partners and some with families.
In my studio apartment my roommate’s and my sense of privacy is defined by how far apart we could put our beds. Many of my classmates have been sent home, to families that they love, but do not want to live with full time.
The first summer that I returned home from college, the physical presence of my house and family made me feel like I was in high school again. While I had more privacy than in my shared dorm room, it felt like I had less as my parents and I ran up against old rules or boundaries that felt stifling against my newfound freedom. I am lucky that I could talk about why being home was wonderful and weird openly, a relationship not everyone has. While school is a reflection of the systems that exist around us and it needs to do better at providing safety, shelter and equitable prospects, it also provides many students opportunities for privacy, identify affirmation, and exploration not possible in their hometowns or family dynamics. The virus has exacerbated our daily lives, and now we are redefining what it looks like to love our families, and to re-learn how to live with them.
As a young person in America, the act of moving out of your parent’s home is seen as one of the final steps to be measured as a “real” adult. Moving home for the summer or for unforeseen reasons often creates a strain that is difficult to identify. A sense of independence has grown with the distance of college, even if your home is right around the block. The walls in the classroom provide a safe space, even with the laundry list of issues academia needs to solve in order to better care for its students.
Aside from preventing someone from walking into your room when you might be on a Zoom call, there are other concerns at stake. Notes on the door work great when your family dynamic respects those boundaries, but how do you gain a sense of normalcy and independence when that isn’t the case? How can we support students whose families are inherently stressful, or even dangerous in some cases, for them to be around? Families and students are struggling with job loss and already 45% of college students across the country struggle with food insecurity. Balancing responsibilities can be overwhelming even in pre-COVID times. So how can we, as student colleagues, friends, professors and educational institutions as a whole help them to succeed among new stresses and family responsibilities? These are questions I am not entirely sure how to answer, and problems that need more than a sign of support or a few words of encouragement.
This is an opportunity for universities, and primary education institutions to be asking the difficult questions about how their curriculum responds to the needs of their students. We need to go to school, and yet how can a student explain to a professor, likely also at their wits end, that they can’t attend class today at its normal time because it conflicts with the hours at the job they had to take on. For some students, the bathroom or backyards may be their only real places of privacy, while others the internet is slow enough that they may need to rent a hotspot. Many students may be in homes that don’t respect their gender identity or pronouns, many might be quarantined in potentially abusive situations.
These disparities existed before, and they will continue to exist after the virus until we create real economic and social justice reforms to solve them. In the meantime, we all need to practice the compassion we reserve for those closest to us towards everyone. Now is not the time for a productivity contest, or to double up on the amount of work students normally would be doing. Professors need to realize that the stresses they have in their own lives are likely the same or worse in their student’s, many for whom a sense of choice and adulthood autonomy has been snatched from them. Students need to remember that their teachers are humans too, adapting their classes to an online format as best they can with the resources and time they have. When school returns, as it will, the hard questions need to be asked. Re-structuring of higher education needs to occur, and the accommodations that always existed must continue in the post-COVID classroom. If you are an educator you need to ask yourself how you can minimize disparities in your classroom, how you can create equity rather than equality for learning. Students need to work together to demand the education they deserve, and universities, universities need to listen.
How can we support students who may be facing extra stress at home from the variety of reasons Curtis describes?
At the end of her piece, Curtis says, “If you are an educator you need to ask yourself how you can minimize disparities in your classroom, how you can create equity rather than equality for learning.” What does equity in a virtual classroom look like? Create a list of 4-5 ideas that could be used to foster equity.
Kelly Curtis is a third year student at Seattle University majoring in Political Science with minors in Women & Gender Studies, and Non-Profit and Public Administration. In her spare time she likes to write and bake. Kelly currently works as a student affiliate at the Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs at STM, Seattle University.