While vaccines have brought light to the end of a long, dark tunnel, COVID-19 has changed our lives, perhaps forever. In many ways, we’re at the start of a new era. Apart from newly acquired bread-baking skills, what have we learned? How will a year of living with the coronavirus shape our future? As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, U of R experts provide their perspectives on where we go from here.
Mobilizing mental health care
In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the two main characters spend the whole play waiting for the action to begin.
“I feel like that’s where we are right now,” says Matt Gragg, director of the University of Redlands Counseling Center. “We’re sitting around, trying to make the best of the situation we’re in, but we’re just waiting.”
While the reopening of post-pandemic America may seem to be occurring at a glacial pace, perhaps because we are watching for it with so much anticipation, there is movement. January brought some College of Arts and Sciences students back to the residence halls on the Redlands campus, and thanks in part to vaccinations, including the Redlands campus clinic’s program, March saw many California counties begin climbing the State’s tier system to gradual loosening of local restrictions for dining, entertainment, and socializing with friends.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Gragg and his team pivoted to offer their free, confidential services for students remotely.
During the fall semester, therapists dropped into virtual first-year seminars to ensure that students were aware of their resources. Five group therapy options were introduced this spring: managing college during the pandemic, LGBTQIA+ support, transgender and gender-questioning support, drug and alcohol support, and grief support.
“Once you’ve experienced telehealth, it’s hard to go away from it.”
—Matt Gragg, director of the University of Redlands Counseling Center
Gragg sees telehealth sessions, which so far seem to be as effective as in-person therapy, as one of the adaptations that will outlast the pandemic. “It’s now so convenient. Students don’t have to drive to campus, and some students don’t want to be seen coming out of the Counseling Center because people might judge them. Once you’ve experienced telehealth, it’s hard to go away from it. We’ll likely continue to offer it, even after we return to in-person care.”
Unfortunately, Gragg also sees the long-term effects of what he refers to as “chronic trauma”—caused by personal and economic losses during the pandemic—driving a continuing need for mental health care. Still, he looks to the future with hope.
“The main thing about therapy is the relationship,” says Gragg. “The medium isn’t as crucial. Therapists have empathy for you and are supporting you through whatever you’re going through. That’s the key.”
Lessons for K-12
Since March 2020, COVID-19 has disrupted the education of more than 150 million students worldwide. In the United States, vulnerable and disadvantaged communities have been hit especially hard.
“It’s alarming that the first reaction when schools close is, ‘How are children going to eat?’” says School of Education Professor Ann Blankenship Knox. In a way, she says, that has been the pandemic’s silver lining: “Everyone now sees that our educational system is responsible not just for educating children, but for ensuring food security and safe child care as well. Now we have a far better picture of the inequities that exist and can try to address them.”
Vulnerable communities experienced disproportionate losses, including learning losses, with significant long-term implications. According to the Brookings Institution, the pandemic-related learning losses will cause students around the world to cumulatively lose $10 trillion in labor earnings over their work lives—for context, that’s about half of the annual economic output of the United States.
“As hard as the teachers worked across the state of California this year, many students were not able to learn the quality or quantity of information that they would have in a normal year,” confirms Redlands Unified School District Superintendent Mauricio Arellano, who teaches personnel management at the School of Education. “School districts will have to relax graduation requirements for students who may have failed a class this year, but in a normal setting, these students would’ve done just fine.”
Arellano notes school districts will need to get creative with additional measures to help bridge the learning gap. These might include lengthening the school day or school year and making summer school more robust.
Despite the challenges, the lessons from the pandemic could offer an opportunity to create a more equitable and resilient educational system. Investments in remote learning—via multimedia content, remote training, and learning assessments—can provide a more personalized education. For example, school district staff and administrators realized during the pandemic that some students thrive in a virtual environment.
“We already have an award-winning virtual school program called eAcademy,” Arellano says. “We’re looking to expand that program because many kids operate more successfully in a virtual space, with a more individualized approach to learning.”
According to Knox, educators have also expanded their pedagogical skills and become more agile: “The pandemic forced us to work through change, and I think some of that—using technology in face-to-face classes for example—is going to stick. And, we’ll have more online options for students, faculty, and staff in terms of employment flexibility.”
For now, Arellano says the school district is making sure students transition back to school in a positive way. “Their experience was pretty traumatic, so we are reviewing routines, making sure everyone knows safety protocols. We’re trying to return back to normalcy one step at a time.”
“Everyone now sees that our educational system is responsible not just for educating children, but for ensuring food security and safe child care as well.”
—School of Education Professor Ann Blankenship Knox
The collision of the personal and professional
The pandemic’s imperative to shelter in place has sometimes put the personal and professional spheres on a collision course. Following the closure of schools across the country, parents—especially women—were called on to take on additional responsibilities for family care.
Professor of Business Administration and Management Jill Jensen notes in September 2020, the job market saw a large portion of women leave the workforce just as children were expected to log into virtual classrooms. Both gender and cultural dynamics were at play in this socioeconomic shift, she says.
Jensen has been considering the “gap year”—time that some young women take to leave the workforce to have and care for children—and its consequences in the context of the pandemic.
“If women do take a year off, there are estimates that, when they return, their pay is 30 percent lower,” she says. “Individual cases may vary, but the toll of the pandemic is predicted to have more long-term consequences for working mothers than for working fathers.”
The shift to a virtual work environment is another factor heightening tensions between the personal and the professional, according to School of Business Professor Shindale Seale, who also works as an independent cultural equity and diversity strategist.
“The online space is now the new office,” says Seale, “and not only are we seeing stress from constant meetings, but we’re also seeing people stressed from having their homes virtually invaded by their coworkers and having to deal with family and work all at once.”
“The toll of the pandemic is predicted to have more long-term consequences for working mothers than for working fathers.”
—Professor of Business Administration and Management Jill Jensen
Additionally, virtual work introduces new concerns about equity and inclusion. Workers who might have less traditional living situations might feel vulnerable, and those without a reliable internet connection are unable to fully participate. “Inclusion and equity are no longer ‘just diversity’ issues that only focus on marginalized groups,” says Seale. “Inclusion requires that all voices are valued, and they feel psychologically safe to contribute.”
In all cases, Seale emphasizes the importance of balance and intention when organizations approach their teams. Being aware and sympathetic to the myriad challenges people are facing is paramount for business success.
Kelly Dries, executive director of the Office of Career and Professional Development, points out the potential upsides of virtual work, training, and recruiting—especially the increased flexibility offered. Along with her team, Dries has seized the opportunity presented by the pandemic to host virtual job fairs exposing Redlands students to open positions across the country.
“Before the pandemic, employers were dipping their toes into virtual recruiting,” Dries says. “But now, employers are being forced to go virtual. This will likely continue because it’s helping employers—they can recruit from anywhere.”
A different kind of recession
Many people, however, have not been fortunate enough to land a job during the pandemic. In 2008, students in Jensen’s courses were submitting assignments about layoffs during The Great Recession. This past year, the focus has been unemployment brought on by COVID-19.
Professor of Economics Nathaniel Cline notes that the economic implications of the recent pandemic-induced recession are unique. Requiring businesses relying on face-to-face interaction to shut down has resulted in the first service-based recession.
“One of the hard parts of the recession has been figuring out how to characterize somebody who has been furloughed from their job and it’s unclear when they will be able to go back,” he says. “Many of our normal definitions and categories don’t fit.”
In addition, Cline says, policymakers’ goals differed from the typical recession—instead of stimulating the economy as a whole, they sought ways to help people pay their bills while limiting physical interaction. “One of the core questions of these policies is: How do we pause an economy without fundamentally changing it? That’s a very different objective than how we usually kickstart the economy.”
Despite continuing challenges, Cline sees a balance on the horizon. “Supply chain issues are still among the most cited problems in our manufacturers’ surveys, and they certainly account for some of the price increases we’ve seen,” he says. “The expectation is that, as vaccine distribution increases, we will see these supply chain issues resolved and prices moderate.”
Despite the recession’s unique qualities, Jensen suggests it is also exacerbating long-term structural shifts. “Some of the decade’s biggest challenges are superimposed on top of transitions that were already going to take place,” she says. “The people I’m worried about are those who were fired right away in industries that had to shut down. There are going to be long-term structural consequences if those populations are not able to find work or recoup their losses.”
Johannes Moenius, the William R. and S. Sue Johnson Endowed Chair of Spatial Economic Analysis and Regional Planning in the School of Business, agrees. As the economy heads out of the recession, he observes a split recovery.
“Jobs in the highest income categories, where employees are able to work from home, are more plentiful now than they were before the pandemic hit,” says Moenius. “But for groups within the lowest income category—25 percent of wage earners—there are now about 30 percent fewer jobs. Some of those job losses within the service industry or small businesses, are permanently gone, even after vaccinations set us on a path to ‘normal.’”
“Shopping, commuting, traveling, and the way we work all will change permanently and transform our economy.”
—Johannes Moenius, the William R. and S. Sue Johnson Endowed Chair of Spatial Economic Analysis and Regional Planning
Consumption patterns changed during the pandemic as groups refrained from large gatherings and high-touch connections. People consumed more goods (5 percent more in 2020 than previous years) and fewer services. “Shopping, commuting, traveling, and the way we work all will change permanently,” he says, “and transform our economy.”
In addition to noting changes in consumer behavior, Moenius—a frequent commentator in media outlets from The Washington Post to ABC News—highlights how fast automation, which was already altering the economic landscape, accelerated in the face of COVID-19.
“Employers are now actively pursuing automation to a degree we expected to happen in five years or so,” he says. “[The use of increasingly capable machines means] the easiest way to fortify one’s supply chain against pandemics is to exclude humans from it as much as possible. The next thing will be a fridge that recognizes you need milk and automatically orders it from the store, which delivers automatically. People will be taken completely out of that process.”
A matter of life and death
Much has been written on the mortality rates from the pandemic. Early in 2021, the United States officially met a grim milestone of 500,000 deaths from the coronavirus.
Some communities have been hit harder than others. Professor of Race and Ethnic Studies Jen Tilton notes, “COVID-19 has laid bare the fact that we have such deep radical inequalities in access to not just health care, which may save our lives if we get sick, but also housing, so that we can isolate from each other. We have radically unequal access to jobs that let us shelter in place to not risk exposure. Many people in our community don’t get a paycheck if they stay home, so they can’t make that choice.”
According to a Feb. 16 Vox article, people of color died at about double the rate of whites. People of color also died young: More than 40 percent of patients under age 45 who died of COVID-19 were Hispanic, and about a quarter were Black.
“There’s a growing awareness and a rise in conversations saying the status quo is not OK, that we all have a moral responsibility to do better,” Tilton says.
Alongside the immediate realities of the grim pandemic death toll is a harsh longer-term trend, which Professor Greg Thorson, who holds the Ken and Lynn Hall Endowed Chair of Public Policy at the U of R, and undergraduate Edison Forman ’21 discussed during a Hall Network for Innovation and Policy virtual Brown Bag Speaker Series lecture in March.
Thorson explained the research he conducted with Forman: “Even before the pandemic, we saw a marked increase in mortality rates among non-Hispanic, [high-school educated] white men. We’re seeing a lot of drug and alcohol poisoning, opioid addiction, record levels of suicide, and high levels of chronic illness.”
These afflictions, Thorson noted, are the telltale signs of what have become known as deaths of despair. Many causal factors are at play in this trend, including a worsening labor market from a disintegration of manufacturing jobs due to automation and global trade; tensions between social privilege and economic disadvantage; and other aspects of gender, race, and age. Those experiencing problems have few places to turn—as Thorson observed, “The social safety net in the U.S. is more holes than net.”
And health issues aren’t the only result. “For those who survive and live, it also affects their political behavior, party identifications, and issue positions,” said Thorson. “Part of that was expressed with support for Trump in 2016—that type of anger and those issue positions will impact politics and policy for years to come.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked global havoc, it also heralded various inflection points for American democracy—Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor; protests against mask mandates and vaccines; and the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Professor James Krueger, the director of the Health, Medicine, and Society program in the College of Arts and Sciences, notes it is no surprise that the pandemic fanned the flames of conflict in the United States.
“Historically, public health has always been politicized,” Krueger says. “The tensions between social-level interventions aimed at prevention—like social distancing and mask-wearing—and the way that comes into conflict with medicine and political structures that are deeply individualized is the nature of public health.”
“Historically, public health has always been politicized.”
—Professor James Krueger, the director of the Health, Medicine, and Society program
Yet this conflict dovetails with other deep currents in American society, also with historic roots. While some people say the United States has never been so divided before, College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean and Professor of History Kathy Feeley reminds us, “In 1861, the crisis of the U.S. Civil War tore the nation apart. Our responsibility is to understand how slavery and racial discrimination have shaped the world that we live in today. Looking to the past will help us understand what we can do and not feel powerless.”
Nevertheless, the stakes today feel unusually high.
According to Professor of Political Science Althea Sircar, this is no accident. “During 2020, we saw opposite sides framing the [political] conflict as existential,” she says. She notes that, to the right, left-wing politics represented a threat to “America as a nation of white people and white masculinity in general.” People on the left used similar language, saying right-wing policies threatened people of color, LGBTQ+, immigrants, and those of different religious identities.
“What causes people to take politics seriously is a sense that their personal existence is implicated in some way,” she says. “The pandemic was already an existential threat to all human beings because it is so deadly, so there was a sense of heightened urgency.”
A key question, says Sircar, is how seriously people will take the consequences of the pandemic: Once vaccines are widely available, many underlying issues—economic and racial inequality, structural change in the economy, health disparities, access to education—remain.
“The pandemic offers this moment to ask, ‘What have we learned that we want to build on?’ How do we use what we’ve learned during this pandemic to be more inclusive, to come together and support one another with compassion? It would be really sad if this experience, which is something that we all hold in common, ended up driving us farther apart.”
“How do we use what we’ve learned during this pandemic to be more inclusive, to come together and support one another with compassion?”
—Professor of Political Science Althea Sircar
The way forward
Krueger, for one, hopes reassessments from the pandemic lead to public-health innovations. “There is room for hope,” he says. “A large reason the U of R Health, Medicine, and Society program has been successful is that there’s a greater general awareness of the way many factors work together to contribute to health. It isn’t just a question of the individual. That recognition can have some pretty profound effects if it translates into action for communities.”
Interim College of Arts and Sciences Dean Steve Wuhs, a professor of political science, addresses the divides in our society: “Do we need to heal? Yes. But healing isn’t a passive process; it is about rebuilding trust and confidence in one another so that we have a common set of assumptions and understandings about democracy, about science and expertise, about how elections work, and about civil rights.”
While acknowledging many economic challenges, Jensen hopes that this year has resulted in moments of personal and professional reflection and inspiration. She notes periods of disruption can encourage people to try new things, whether that is switching careers, going back to school, reprioritizing how to spend time, or finding new ways to approach old problems.
“Things have changed in the past,” she says. “The country doesn’t always stay the same—politics shift, policy shifts. We can always do something different. We can reimagine ourselves.”
Explore the Summer 2021 issue of Och Tamale magazine.