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Returning to Pandemic U

An open letter to parents.

Michael Marsh/ Unsplash
Source: Michael Marsh/ Unsplash

Dear Parents,

I see you as you prepare to send your young adult kids off to college, excited for their experience and wanting to be sure you get your money’s worth. You’re worrying about how the stacked boxes and bags in your mudroom and basement are all going to fit in the trunk of the car, and you’re asking about S hooks and tracking down more of those blue Ikea bags, ordering cash cards your kids can use for meals on- and off-campus and packing that extra emergency duffel in case a move to a quarantine dorm becomes necessary.

For that, you’re gathering all your kid’s shelf-stable favorites and plenty of over-the-counter medication so that when you can’t be there for your child, they’ll have some creature comforts and TLC from you. You’re reminded of that moment 18 years ago when you packed a hospital bag and left it beside the door so you would have it ready at a moment’s notice to take for the birth of this child, who now seems to have grown up in a flash.

Maybe your whole family has been vaccinated, and your child has been wearing a mask (as far as you know). Or maybe your kid already had COVID when it ravaged your whole household and thankfully no one wound up hospitalized or worse. Or maybe you figure everyone will get the virus anyway and your kids are healthy and strong and should be fine. Or perhaps you did not get vaccinated for whatever reason and neither have your kids, and you think these masks are muzzles and that the whole thing is overblown.

You still want your kid to have the experience you have been thinking about and planning for their whole lives. You want your kid to have the best four years of their lives just as your parents wanted for you.

I want this for your kids, too. I see you. I hear you.

Now, I invite you to see and hear me for a moment.

I loved college, and that’s a big part of the reason I wanted to become a professor. For 26 years, I've done everything in my power to turn students on to the magic and meaning of the college experience. When students are away from home, they often look to adults like me for guidance, care, consolation, and advice. I have spent countless hours in my office talking to children who are lonely, who can’t stand their roommates, who are involved in self-harm, who have been assaulted, who have struggled with suicidal thoughts, who are grieving a breakup or the death of a loved one, who are trying to turn around poor grades from a previous semester, and who are worried that you’ll be angry with them for any number of decisions they have made or want to make.

I’m concerned about an attitude toward educators that existed long before the pandemic but that the pandemic has certainly exacerbated. There's burgeoning hostility toward professors when parents find out from their students that a class modality change has occurred or might occur.

I get it: You don’t want to feel duped.

My experience provides me with an angle of vision I'm compelled to share with you.

I understand and am compassionate about your expectations, anger, and disappointment. But maybe directing it at professors is misguided. Perhaps the people to whom you should squarely direct these demands would be the governors of states who are making it impossible for school leaders to do the right thing. Maybe you should take issue with administrators who could employ stronger safety measures but choose not to. Taking out all of those frustrations and placing all the blame on professors isn’t right for a number of reasons:

  1. Professors have family obligations too. Many have young children at home who are not yet able to be vaccinated or who may be sick with COVID, or they are caregivers for elderly parents or others who are immune-compromised. Or, maybe they have their own health issues for which accommodations are necessary.
  2. You may not realize this — and trust me it’s shocking for most of us in this profession — but we have to submit teaching schedules six-to-eight months in advance. We make decisions with the knowledge and experience we have to date and with the best information we have at that moment. This means many of us agreed to something — in this case, face-to-face teaching — that may not apply now. We feel blindsided too.
  3. Some of us intuited that things wouldn't improve in time and requested other modalities only to have those requests turned down. Instead, we got assignments that did not seem practical for the size of our classes or the room capacity. We’re really not trying to be difficult or to change things willy-nilly. Many of us have wanted contingency plans and have pushed for students and families to be better notified. We have also pushed for improved and safer conditions in which to teach and learn.
  4. Online teaching doesn’t necessarily mean subpar. I readily admit that for years I thought it did and was a scathing critic of it. I was required to do it as part of my teaching load long before the pandemic but doing it exclusively for over a year has reminded me of something valuable: Good teaching is not dependent on the methods and modality used but rather on the educator, the learning community they are able to cultivate, and the relationships they nurture with their students. I have a large number of students whom I have never met in person and we share a warm and close rapport. We’ve had phone calls, and they have even texted me to see how I am doing this summer.
  5. People seem to want it all ways. In states like South Carolina, where I work, there is a very low vaccination rate; public schools cannot require vaccination or masks, there is no enforced distancing, hospitals are filling up, and the anti-vaccination, anti-mask sentiment is ruthlessly prevalent. And the data show that the age group least likely to be fully vaccinated are those between 18 and 24. Remember, these are the people who sneeze into their elbows and wash their sweatshirts three weeks later, if at all. Schools are notorious for feeling like petri dishes, pandemic or not. How can the community be asked to go along with no mandates, no restrictions, and no safeguards? If it were me, I would pack lightly.
  6. We have grown numb to the lack of decency and respect afforded to educators. How have we reached a point where preparing for fraternity and sorority rush seems a more important ritual to preserve than educating students? Our priorities seem a little skewed. We have come to accept that a majority of educators at the college level are contingent workers, with no job security and no health insurance. Malignant normality means that we have grown numb to things that are cruel and perverse.
  7. As a sociologist, one thing I try to impart to students many times throughout a semester is the importance—the necessity—of thinking about the world beyond ourselves. So, as you help your children get ready for college, remember that it’s someone else’s workplace and someone else’s community — and while their college experience is one that should be full, rich, and fun, college is also about developing mindful regard and an ethic of care for what it means to inhabit a larger community. This year, that means vaccinations and masks, and it always means supporting an educated citizenry.


A Professor Who Really Wants Your Kid to Love College