If a genie granted you the opportunity to visit the past or see into the future, which would you choose? For those that long for a time when we could walk around a shopping mall or go to a haunted house where only the performers wear masks without any fear of coming into contact with COVID-19, choosing a visit to the past makes sense. For those interested in seeing what the world will look like on the other side of the pandemic, choosing a glance into the future might ease feelings of alarm or apprehension. Genies don’t exist though, at the very least I have certainly never met one. We cannot wait for a deus ex machina to save us from this mess wholesale. As nice as it is to dream of a miracle solution for a moment, we need to address our reality as it currently exists to create a better world for us all to live in.
As we leave the holiday season behind and the world watches as students and educators head back to their school buildings, people are trying to discern what the immediate effects and long term consequences of COVID-19 will be. Capitalists have already determined that society will not function without students in schools and essential workers on the front-lines in places like hospitals, grocery stores, and public transportation. Therefore, we leave the safety of our homes, masks on, prayers up, and take things one moment at a time. Doctors and scientists that are studying COVID-19 are trying to improve morale by reminding the general population of the wonders of social distancing, contact tracing, and mask wearing (KN95 masks at this point). We try to worry about what we can control right now and hope we evade COVID-19’s snarl and claws. It often feels like we actually are leaving the future up to the genies, as neither the politicians making decisions nor the experts explaining the science know what the world will look like when we descend from the summit of this hellish mountain.
Regular people like me whisper about the very little we know about post-COVID conditions as if talking about it loudly might make it come true. We don’t want to incite long-term COVID in the same way we avoid awakening Candyman. According to the CDC, long-term COVID or post-COVID conditions are an extensive array of new, returning, or ongoing health issues people can experience four or more weeks after having COVID-19. Very little information is known about the potential scale of post-COVID conditions because, quite frankly, we are still climbing the mountain and the summit can barely be seen. Still, we know there are people still in pain long after they have tested negative on a PCR test.
Hopefully for the majority of the world’s population, long-term COVID will be avoided. With the protective measures mentioned before, many of us continue to hope we can evade the global pandemic physically unscathed. We must wonder though: what about the long-term effects one can’t see with the eye? Has anyone thought about the mental and emotional effects this mountain will create? Some of us may make it to the other side of this mountain without ever catching COVID-19 if we are diligent and the world works together before any more lethal variants pop up. None of us will make it to the bottom of this mountain without having experienced intense levels of stress or anxiety. Are the scientists and doctors studying and preparing for the aftermath of this? And have we even begun to reckon with the fact that this disease has killed over 800,000 people in this country and the impact that has on the loved ones they left behind?
I am a teacher. I teach 9th grade in the South Bronx in a building with approximately 1,300 students. Although I get exhausted hearing myself say “pull up your mask please” 100 times per 45 minute class period, I can manage the annoyance of this repetition. What has been harder to manage are the behaviors we see that are manifestations of the stress held within our students’ bodies. The mountain has caused an avalanche and the giant boulders of grief, depression, and anxiety continue to fall and crush traditional schooling. In October of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association stated that the pandemic-related deterioration of the mental health of children and adolescents has become a national emergency. Social isolation and instability during the pandemic has wreaked havoc on young people. As it stands, educators have been tasked with addressing the social-emotional concerns we are seeing multiply at rates faster than the spread of the virus in schools, and yet, these same educators haven’t figured out how to manage the manifestations of their own pandemic-related trauma. We don’t know what shape our own spirits will be in on the other side of this era. Educators are tasked with creating miracles in a system that was historically built to colonize the mind and spirit and regurgitate submissive workers who serve for 8 hours a day without questioning or challenging systems of power and oppression. Because of our commitment to children, we still leave the safety of our homes, masks on, prayers still up, and take things one moment at a time.
This pandemic has revealed that the system of education is the pedestal of capitalism. Money can’t be made if schools aren’t functioning in person. The decision makers in education care more about children having a physical place to spend time while their parents go to work and pour money back into the system. Public schools all over the nation struggle to find money for paper to put in their printers or books to place in the hands of their students. They don’t have a surplus of money to spend on measures that would ensure students are physically, mentally, and emotionally safe in schools. Teachers battle between using the very little time they have in class to deliver content that will ensure state test passage rates and overhauling curriculum in a meaningful way that prioritizes social emotional learning and social justice education. Policies and structures in urban education remain punitive in ways that prepare students for environments that match an assembly line or prison.
The current state of schooling isn’t built to support students through an earth shattering, life changing pandemic. Teachers aren’t equipped to lean in and support students in a meaningful or genuine way. Teachers aren’t supported in a meaningful or genuine way. The mountain we scale has proven to be a mirror for our nation. Both the healthcare system and the education system require a massive overhaul. Without one, our lives will continue to be thrown off course and the stress and anxiety we all feel will continue to tax us. It will ask of us a fee we weren’t prepared to pay.
Even after society decides enough is enough and comes together to change the trajectory of this pandemic through vaccination, strict mask wearing, and following social distancing protocols, the structure of our brains will be different from the stress and anxiety we have experienced. The consequences of this stress and anxiety might be felt by our bodies and minds for years after we hang up our masks. The truths this pandemic will have revealed about the state of our nation will be impossible to ignore.
I think if genies were real we might all wish for this pandemic to be over; I know, for the sake of my family and my students, I would. I hope that when we have conquered this pandemic, the stress and anxiety we all have experienced won’t have robbed our children of their innocence – the youthful belief that all things will turn out fine and that the story will almost always have a happy ending. I hope they will still possess enough imagination to believe fantastical creatures roam the earth looking to spread good fortune. I hope as they recover from the mental and emotional turmoil of this era, they still will have retained enough innocence to believe genies are real.