Have we reached the stage in this COVID-19 pandemic where we can see rays of hope on the horizon? And are there features of a locked-down world that have come to please some of us?
Locally, we feel stirrings here and there as Long Island strives to meet Albany’s criteria for reopening. We learn more as well of families and individuals suffering health issues and financial setbacks. Our hearts go out to all those who have lost loved ones, or who have no business operations left, no jobs to resume, no paychecks anymore. And we are as ever grateful for the sacrifices that cannot be measured of our first responders.
After hearing so much from experts, politicians and news reporters and pundits, let’s consider how the people themselves feel. Fortunately or unfortunately, that turns our attention to recently published polls. In delving into some of them, it helps to see each poll at the same time as a story in itself, and as a part of a sprawling puzzle. Every point these polls raise seems to have two sides And the only numbers with which we’ll concern ourselves will be the percentages.
With the deepening cries to reopen our world, a recent Pew Poll found that more than two-thirds polled harbor a fear of reopening too quickly. This serves as a backdrop to some interesting reactions to the changes many have surprisingly grown to prefer.
Whenever Long Island’s East End finally reopens, some have grown comfortable with this pandemic’s new lifestyle of hunkering down.
Business owners, such as in the Baldwin Chamber of Commerce in Nassau County, and several chambers of commerce on the North Fork, openly worry that residents might have grown too accustomed to shopping online. Consider as well the office labor force, now isolated and working remotely for all these weeks – many of them seem to have found their niche in working from home. Meanwhile, virtually all school-aged children are being homeschooled, a first-ever test drive for home education for thousands of families.
This invites a broader question: Will all the changes ahead, in a post-pandemic world, go far beyond social distancing and face masks? Are there lifestyle changes on the way – profound changes – that the shutdown not only introduced, but also might have actually made attractive?
A recent OnePoll/GOTO survey asked thousands of office workers from the world over how they felt about working from home. Forty-eight percent have grown to like it, so much so that they would be willing to take a pay cut to continue. They commented that ending their average commute of five hours weekly would not only give them more time to be productive in their jobs, but also would offer a big plus for the environment. This survey of workers, from the US, India, Germany, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand, included workers’ favorable comments on being close to their kitchen and wearing what they wanted.
This calls to mind the wisdom of a true lover of isolation, Henry David Thoreau: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”
Not so fast, social scientists warn. Continuing this isolation and remote working from home threatens to intensify loneliness. Former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murphy, among others, describes loneliness in America as an “epidemic,” and that social isolation from work “leads [employees] to be socially isolated in other aspects of their lives.”
This builds upon a 2018 study of working remotely, from California State-Sacramento and the Wharton School, which found, from their jointly sponsored surveys, that lonely employees, separated from shared workplace routines with fellow workers, such as group lunches, even chats at the water cooler, added to loneliness and hurt business. Does it occur to anyone that our journey through life with smart phones and other electronics has already placed many of us on the path to social isolation?
And consider another survey by Alcohol.org, of 13,000 work-at-home employees, finding that 42% fessed up to their drinking on the job. This, they connect at least in part, to the enforced isolation and the constant, unexpected distractions that go with it.
Consider as well yet another, widespread impact of our COVID-19 lockdown: parents, grandparents, and extended families from all backgrounds who have plunged into homeschooling their school-aged children.
Fifty-five million K-12 students in the United States wait for their schools to reopen, and learn at home in the meantime. And so it is in every school district on Long Island. In a matter of days, homeschoolers went from just 3% of the school-aged to virtually 100%was .
But a recent article in Harvard Magazine strongly warns against homeschooling, as concerns rise in educational circles that some families may continue with it in numbers far greater than before COVID-19. Whenever our schools do reopen, a haunting statistic won’t go away, and it applies to the North Fork as well as the rest of the United States: about two-thirds of public school students are not proficient in reading. This factors into a Time Magazine report that 15% of parents say they will still homeschool their children when schools reopen.
A recent EdChoice/MorningConsult poll came up with 52% of parents who have been actively homeschooling their kids who now view it favorably. This overlooks, however, at least significant anecdotal evidence of the great number of parents who are overwhelmed with learning about apps, video meetings with teachers and daily deadlines.
Add to this the polling by Associated Press/NORC at the University of Chicago showing that 72% of parents in lower-income (under $50,000/year) families are at least somewhat concerned that their child is falling behind academically with homeschooling, compared with 56% of parents in high income households — both troubling figures.
So with pre-pandemic school attendance in America at 55 million, if only a small percentage opt to continue with this novelty (to them) of homeschooling, public schools would suffer serious losses. Perhaps this explains a Harvard University-sponsored conference, opening next month, whose agenda is strongly anti-homeschooling, with speakers and panels diligently urging a ban on home education altogether.
No data are to be found as yet to show the number of students in lockdown who have no one to homeschool them. Consider as well that a large segment of the student body of many schools, including the Riverhead and Greenport school districts among several on Long Island, depends on school for nutrition. And for many in the labor force, work is possible only if school is open, as it provides the equivalent of child care during their working hours.
But aside from these arguments, aside from these new preferences about lifestyle, there are far more compelling questions: How are the downtowns and school districts of the North Fork, or the rest of Long Island, going to stay in lockdown much longer? Can we really wait for a vaccine, or a tried-and-true virus treatment? How do we address the small but alarming number (more than 180 statewide as of now) of children hit with an unexpected, mysterious COVID-related illness? Three children have died, including one teenager in Suffolk.)
It’s as if every tentative step we take to reopen is an experiment in a laboratory. Every option is fraught with equally sensible, contrasting arguments. Edward Bennett Williams often spoke of “the old mountaineer, who said about his pancakes, no matter how thin I make them, there’s always two sides.”
We choose wisely as we take greater safeguards, and more stringent disciplines in how we interact with each other. We have already pulled through some grim times. Consider, for instance, the jolting cycles through life of those born in the year 1900. We’ll pull through these worst of times as well. But we have to decide and to believe in our inner strength to do it.
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