Chapter 8: Post-Pandemic: It’s Not All About Technology

by Georgia Nugent, Ph.D.

Posted on February 23, 2022

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The COVID-19 pandemic presented difficult new questions for so many sectors of our society.   

For K-12 schools: Could children safely attend in-person classes? How might virtual learning affect their personal and emotional—as well as intellectual—growth? How would asymptomatic infection affect young people? How could teachers be kept safe?    

For restaurants: Could individuals safely gather indoors—and if so, how many people, with what degree of distancing? Initially, there was also concern about virus transmission via surfaces—although, we later learned COVID is unlikely to be transmitted via touch.    

Residential facilities, such as senior living complexes, in which many unrelated persons live in close proximity, presented particularly difficult situations, sometimes with tragic consequences.   

Recreational facilities, like health clubs or gyms, needed to balance the positive effects of exercise and activity with the risk of having persons in proximity or contact. 

Those of us with responsibility for residential colleges and universities faced every one of these challenges simultaneously. Working with continually shifting conditions, information, and guidance, we tried to determine the most effective and feasible learning environment—as well as, in many cases, feeding and housing thousands of young adults who also depend on the institution for their recreation, entertainment, and social life. 

The vast majority of higher ed institutions—like my own university—rose to the occasion and met these multiple challenges remarkably well, with faculty, students, and staff all contributing. The most extraordinary and heralded adaptation was the shift to digital instruction by faculty and students who had no previous experience in the online learning environment. Within the space of two weeks or less, colleges that prize above all person-to-person interaction around the seminar table suddenly migrated to the screen. This extraordinary metamorphosis will likely be studied for years to come. And it will undoubtedly alter teaching and learning permanently, as both faculty and students bring newfound skills and preferences to the instructional environment, even after the strictures of the pandemic wane. 

The wholesale adoption of online learning is perhaps the most conspicuous effect of the pandemic experience in higher education. But in what other ways have we changed and what other lessons have we learned from this extraordinary, worldwide event? I suggest there are at least three. We have learned a great deal about how we are connected to—and disconnected from—one another. We have new understandings of resilience, as well as fragility. And we have had an opportunity to reflect anew on “the two cultures” of the sciences and the humanities. 

Connection and Disconnection 

In retrospect, it seems a strange twist of fate that the widespread recognition of the COVID virus in the United States and the death of George Floyd—spreading viral recognition of another disease infecting the American body politic—occurred a mere six weeks apart. These two events were destined to intertwine in ways that revealed each to be an epidemic of immense proportions. 

On the one hand, COVID-19 made clear how interconnected we are, globally. Spreading worldwide, coronavirus cases exceeded 183 million, causing more than four million deaths. But the pandemic also made clear ways in which we are quite disconnected from one another. The toll of the disease was by no means distributed evenly. In our own country, COVID-19 starkly revealed disparities in access to health care and in medical outcomes. Hospitalization rates for Black and Hispanic COVID patients were almost three times those for whites, and the death rate was approximately double. 

With the development of effective vaccines came additional dimensions of inequity. At the point when the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany all had vaccination rates over 50%, only 1% of those in low-income countries had received a vaccine. In the U.S., when 61% of the white population had been vaccinated, that was true of only 17% of Hispanic Americans and 12% of the Black population. 

While all the world was connected, theoretically, in potential vulnerability to the novel coronavirus, in fact pre-existing conditions—not only medical but economic and socio-cultural—meant that some were much more vulnerable than others. The threat of the pandemic and the exposure of inequalities intertwined. 

The very tool that enabled students to continue their studies also brought into sharp relief the substantial differences in their circumstances and privileges.  

Higher education experienced another linkage between COVID and inequality, as the very tool that enabled students to continue their studies also brought into sharp relief the substantial differences in their circumstances and privileges. On a residential campus, wealth differentials are not invisible—some students need employment, others don’t; some have cars, others don’t; for some, vacations may bring exotic travel, for others: a seasonal job. But the nature of residence hall life, communal dining, and other shared facilities and experiences can tend to disguise social distinctions. 

COVID ripped that mask away. First, the digital divide became very tangible. The “pivot” to online learning presented little technical difficulty to those with up-to-date devices and robust connectivity. But, with distance learning, the number of students without those advantages now became clear. And colleges struggled to meet their needs. The shift to online instruction also shone a bright light on other divides, as many students were logging into Zoom or other video platforms from their home environments. The distinction between the student helping out at her family’s food truck and the student in a posh vacation home was literally “on the screen.” 

For many of us in colleges and universities—students, faculty, and administrators—the pandemic served as a kind of x-ray, revealing fissures and pathologies in social structures and practices, as well as omissions or erasures in our institutional histories, that may not have been so evident before. We learned many lessons during the pandemic, not only new ways of teaching. Many of our campuses came together as a community to protect one another’s health. But we also came up against the many divisions that weaken our communities and belie our missions. Going forward, we will not and cannot forget any of these lessons. 

On a survey of 6,000 students and parents in four countries, two thirds of college students indicated they were more aware of social issues, such as healthcare needs and racial equity.  

There is evidence that our students will not forget. On a survey of 6,000 students and parents in four countries, two thirds of college students indicated they were more aware of social issues, such as healthcare needs and racial equity. Nearly three out of four agreed that the pandemic caused individuals to be more caring and understanding toward one another. And almost 60% of students believe they will change their career paths because of their experience of the pandemic, with 45% inspired to consider healthcare professions. 

Across the higher education sector, institutions are recommitting to new—and different—initiatives with regard to diversity, equity, and inclusion. As our nation and higher education have confronted racial issues over many years, eras have exhibited varying strategies. Early efforts, inspired by the civil rights movement, tended to focus on inclusion simply in the sense of representation on campus, providing greater access to previously under-served students. Assimilation was often implicitly assumed. As the flaws in that approach became evident, a second wave of diversity work often emphasized multiculturalism. The differing cultural heritages brought by students, in particular, were acknowledged and to some extent celebrated, but still somewhat exoticized or marginalized. Current analyses, practices, and aspirations are highly focused on equity or the lack thereof, in part by bringing to the fore structural aspects of exclusion, inequity, and racism in American institutions, including higher education. This analytical understanding is having a profound effect on our campuses and will continue to do so. 

Resilience and Fragility 

The rise in mental health issues among adolescents and college students could itself be termed an epidemic. The rates of depression, particularly in adolescent females, have been rising dramatically since 2011. The percentage of college students who reported on a survey by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health that they have a psychological disorder such as anxiety or depression grew between 2012 and 2016, 126% for males and 150% for females. 

The pandemic increased students’ mental health concerns. The American College Health Association reported that two-thirds of students found their financial situation more stressful and almost 65% were very concerned that people they care about might contract COVID. Fear of the virus, isolation caused by mitigation protocols, and the stress of adjusting to online learning meant that 70% of college students reported increased stress, depression, and anxiety. Counselling appointments at my university increased by 30%, a level of increase seen in many universities. 

Fear of the virus, isolation caused by mitigation protocols, and the stress of adjusting to online learning meant that 70% of college students reported increased stress, depression, and anxiety.  

While increases in mental health issues are undoubtedly cause for concern, there is also evidence that students actually developed greater personal resources of resiliency during the pandemic. The 2021 Pearson Global Learner Survey found that 70% of college students indicated they were more flexible, more self-motivated, and more emotionally resilient as a result of the pandemic experience. What might this mean for the future? 

The 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, makes the claim that recent developments in American society have resulted in what they call “safetyism,” by which well-meaning adults excessively “protect” children and young people from a number of experiences—and, yes, stressors—that are actually needed to contribute to growth, self-sufficiency, resilience, and mental health. We know that students come to college today with the least amount of time unsupervised by an adult and the least employment experience of any previous generation. As one researcher puts it, “Teens are physically safer than ever, yet they are more mentally vulnerable.” 

Haidt’s work is controversial, but invites reflection. Certainly, the pandemic has been an experience that no one would desire. But for three-quarters of college students (and parents) to report that students’ resiliency increased under these trying circumstances is arresting. In her best-selling book Grit, MacArthur award-winner Angela Duckworth cites a research study of 10,000 adolescents which found that teens in a warm, respectful, but demanding environment “earned higher grades in school, were more self-reliant, [and] suffered less from anxiety and depression.” If the necessity of facing the many challenges of the pandemic and developing stronger coping mechanisms strengthened our students’ self-reliance and sense of agency, should we re-calibrate the environment of “safety” we provide on our campuses? 

The Two Cultures: Sciences and Humanities 

Ever since C.P. Snow’s publication of The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution in 1959, the dichotomy of the sciences and the humanities has been a persistent heuristic concept. In today’s universities, humanities, sciences, and professional studies often seem to vie for primacy. For the future of our universities, such division and competition are counter-productive. The world’s “wicked problems” are inherently interdisciplinary, and much of the intellectual and research excitement in recent decades has been at the intersection of traditional disciplines. Our experiences during the pandemic offer an opportunity to recognize how greatly we benefit from and need multiple modes of understanding. 

Science clearly came to the fore. The breakneck speed of vaccine development was truly impressive. It relied on 15 years of previous research into messenger RNA as a “bio-platform” that could be adapted for multiple purposes. Experience with SARS, MERS, and Ebola contributed to the extraordinary feat of developing the vaccine in a month’s time. On January 11, 2020, Chinese scientists published the genetic sequence of the coronavirus, and on February 24, the first doses of the Moderna vaccine were delivered to the NIH. Project Warp Speed had succeeded phenomenally in development. But it did not succeed in distribution. And that distribution depended not only on scientific discovery and supply chain logistics, but on social, cultural, and psychological factors such as trust. Our science was amazing. But other modes of thought are needed. 

As we isolated in our homes, we turned to the arts and humanities as means of connecting to the human experience.  

The pandemic has reinforced this truth. As we isolated in our homes, we turned to the arts and humanities as means of connecting to the human experience. Reading and book sales soared. Many of us also realized how many classic works of literature are actually narratives of plague: Homer’s Iliad, Sophocles’ Oedipus and Philoctetes, Thucydides’ iconic treatment of plague in the Histories, as well as modern works like Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Camus’ The Plague, and the recent best-seller, Hamnet

Even those of us who don’t typically watch television found that Netflix became essential. Theatres were dark, but artists developed new and exciting ways to perform online. The Royal Shakespeare Company offered a futuristic rendition of Midsummer Night’s Dream, incorporating motion capture and gaming technology that enabled the audience to shape the production. The Public Theater’s deeply moving The Line was based on the experiences of first responders and healthcare workers, with renowned actors working from their homes. Theatre of War also presented Sophocles’ Oedipus and other works in this distributed format. 

In short, we recognized that we truly need what philosopher Martha Nussbaum has called “the narrative imagination”—to connect us to others, whether next door or across centuries; to enter into empathetic understanding of others’ lives; and to make sense of our own lives. In responding to the extraordinary challenges of the pandemic, science was essential. But so, too, were art and the humanities. As we emerge from the pandemic, universities need to hold fast to this truth.