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My (very personal) experience during the Covid-19 pandemic…

and how it made me rethink climate communication

mom comic pandemic
Comic, written by moms Lulu McManus and illustrated by Ellie
Zitsman (source: https://www.workingmother.com/comic-sums-up-being-mom-in-covid-era-momics)

We are on our final week of classes before exams (thank goodness), and I am finally able to sit down, breathe, and write my first blog post. Why do I have time write now? Frankly, only because my students are busy writing final papers in my classes, so I am currently in a holding pattern until they turn them in. Also, we just let the grandparents “back in” to help out some. Why? Because they have been social distancing, the virus is not going away anytime soon, and I could not see holding my children hostage from them until it did. But it was a mutual decision, it had to be.

Denial

But let’s back up because over the last month there have been a whirlwind of events. I do not even remember when I first learned about the Covid-19 disease spreading rapidly from Wuhan, China. I did not tune into it until the news stories came out about Italy shutting down as the disease ripped through their communities. As our Spring Break began on March 2nd, the cases in the U.S. started trickling in but nothing in our area. My husband even warned me that things were going to get bad, that everything was going to shut down. He had the foresight, something that I regrettably did not, even with my scientific training. I was in denial. I went about my Spring Break as if nothing was wrong in the world. We celebrated my son’s first birthday. We had family and friends over for a BBQ, we took him to the trampoline park, we took both of the boys to gymnastics, and we even ended the weekend at the Children’s Museum, a breeding ground for every little germ there is.

Even as I started back at school, I was in denial. It did not help that we received an email welcoming us back from Spring Break from our Provost stating “Although current conditions do not indicate a need to alter the regular program of instruction…”. Yes, that sentence ended with be prepared just in case, but I think my eyes skimmed over that part after reading the first part of the sentence. Thus, I only casually spoke about it with my students on that Monday and Tuesday, not realizing that it would be the last time I would see them in class. Then on Wednesday, as I sat in lab with my upper level Sedimentation and Stratigraphy students, the news came in that Universities around Virginia were going on-line – some for a few weeks, some for the remainder of the semester. It was not long after that that UMW followed suit.

Transitioning my classes to on-line

The University canceled classes that Thursday and Friday to allow faculty time to transition their classes on-line. Two days. That was it. Did we do it? Yes! But it takes an entire year to train and plan for teaching an on-line course. Was it pretty? No. I felt (and still do) like I was operating in survival mode. I decided to not teach synchronously, mostly, because the disparities in students’ access to reliable technologies. I have a student who went home to Nigeria and has to deal with constant power outages (and time change). I have another student who lives in a remote location where the only internet she can get is off her phone outside of her house. Another student is sharing one laptop with three other housemates. Other students are taking care of sick family members. And sadly, some students have lost family members during this time.

So, there I found myself lecturing to a computer screen and posting the terrible and somewhat embarrassing narration on Canvas for students to access and go over on their own time. This is not why I became a teacher. I miss the personal interaction that I have with students in class. I truly miss it. Quizzes were easy to transition on-line. Students probably liked this even better as they were open-book and open-notes and the grades were on average over 10-points higher. This was the least I could do for them, though, to ease their own anxiety. I mean, I could barely focus, so, how could they?

The biggest question I received, though, was what did I do about my science labs. I teach both an introduction Oceanography lab and upper-level Sedimentation Stratigraphy lab. Luckily, the Oceanography lab was easy to warp up as they used materials either available on-line or I could easily provide them on Canvas. Then I wrapped it up with Chasing Coral and called it a semester with 10 labs. To put it in perspective, they missed a field trip on UMW’s research boat and a final lab that analyzed the data they would have collected. I did not find it in my or their best interest to create make-up labs as nothing could replace that experience.

Sadly though, my Sedimentation and Stratigraphy lab was another story. We were just wrapping up a project before classes went on-line and so they had remaining their last major project that required collecting a 4.5-meter marsh core, and analyzing it to determine the sedimentation history in the Chesapeake Bay region. Since we could not collect the core, or perform any of the lab work, the only option I had without redesigning the entire end of the class was to provide the students the data from last year to interpret and write up as their final report for this writing intensive class. This was the best I could do. Did they lose out a lot? Yes. Did they gain as much from it? No. Maybe with less distractions they still could have. I reminded them that science works this way sometimes and that my masters research was completed entirely off of data already collected. The problem was focus and motivation – without collecting the data, they were not motivated, especially as Covid-19 caused an unwelcome distraction.

My students

This brings me to my students. Students can be fragile, too. Many of my students were already facing emotional problems before this. Many of those same students I had to reach out to personally because they were MIA since the on-line transition. This pandemic has affected all of us but I found it extremely important to realize we are not all in the same boat. Some students could not go home for safety reasons. Some students’ parents lost their jobs. Some students lost family members because of Covid-19. Some students lost family members unrelated to Covid-19. Some students’ depression got so bad they could not function. This is the reality and I know I am not the only educator facing this. I extended deadlines. I personally called the students who were not responding on Canvas or to email. I offered incomplete grades to allow students to finish their work over the summer. The University offered alternative grading as well, which I whole-heartedly support for any student who wants to take it.

But is there more I could be doing to help with student anxiety and depression during this time? Part of me just wants to wave the remainder of the assignments, but I know that would not be fair. For some, the business of school has been a welcomed distraction. I wish I had time to talk individually with every single one of them. I wish I could tell them that everything will be OK, but I know this may be a lie. So, I made them a short cheesy video, which was quickly thrown together, opening up my family and home, to encourage and motivate them to get through this last week. Most seemed to appreciate it – the least I could do was put a smile on their face.

How my family is fairing

This brings me to my family’s and my own well-being. I will not sugar coat it, we are stressed. It was not long before the aching tightness in my chest took over as I suddenly was facing full-time child care, full-time job, concerns of my students, concerns of my children, and anxiety over my husband’s job. The first week, we had help from the grandparents. But as the local cases rose, and as sickness in our house took over, we decided that we could not have them over any more for everyone’s safety. Just to note, we probably only had bad colds, most likely originating from the Children’s museum, but without testing, we will never know. So, when we said goodbye to our childcare, we were faced with the impossible – work our full-time jobs and parent a 1-year old and 3-year old. This added a mountain of stress and anxiety to us both – not only the task of working full time with the kids, but with the isolation as well.

My husband and I were splitting day time hours 50/50 and then making up work where we could in the evenings and on the weekends. I was lucky his job was being flexible (that did all change last week – another reason we let grandparents back in). However, this meant that all my research came to a screeching halt as I struggled to keep up with teaching and service. Those not familiar with a teaching university, as an assistant professor my teaching load is about 60% (12 credits and 12 contact hours per semester), and service and research are 20% each. I quickly began to have anxiety about tenure, knowing that my productivity was spiraling down the drain. I had already taken 10-months off for my second child and pushed tenure back a year and now the reduced productivity would possibly force me to push it back yet another year, adding another year of uncertainty and another year of less pay. I had even more anxiety knowing the extra burden this put on me as an academic mom, thinking about how junior colleagues without kids have the opportunity to be creative during this time, developing new projects, writing up old projects, or improving their courses, when I am struggling to just stay afloat.

Then my husband discovered his company furloughed the majority of their workforce as their sales dropped. He was spared, for now, but there is no guarantee he will keep his job if things progress and business does not get better.

And then there is my three-year old son, who’s world was just flipped upside down and he cannot process why. His preschool ended abruptly. His grandparents stopped coming over. We are wearing masks. He cannot go anywhere. His groceries are being delivered. When we finally told him grandma was coming back over, he asked “Is the sickness gone?”. In just a couple of weeks, he went from talking fluently to developing a severe stutter, to the point that we can barely understand him. Would the stutter have shown up at some point? Perhaps. But we can only assume the stress of the situation, something he is aware of but can’t process, was a trigger.

But in the end, I always try to put it in perspective. We both still have our jobs (for now), we both get to spend more time at home with the kids, and we are taking a breather from the hustle and bustle of life. How have I coped? When I am with my kids, I am with my kids. They are too little to take care of themselves and it is not fair to be there but not, so they get 100% of my attention when I am not working. Additionally, we make sure to take time for ourselves. My alone time is running, that is my outlet.

How it put communicating climate change into perspective

I want to circle back now to the beginning, my denial. I am embarrassed to admit that, but the fact is, how could something be so bad that I would be told that my family and I need to stay home for an indefinite amount of time? It took some time for me to come around, trusting what I heard, and sorting through the mass amount of information, from the news and Twitter to local and national governments. Suddenly, I realized that I was my audience when I communicate climate change – an educated citizen struggling to take in the surreal situation of the crisis, soaking up all the information, assessing the credibility, and determining the outcomes with and without action. This gives me a new perspective for the next time I communicate climate change to a broader audience. As a non-expert in viruses, I was able to put myself in the shoes of my audiences, reflecting on what and how information about Covid-19 was presented that was most effective. Here is a summary of my main thoughts:

  1. Trust the experts. But who are the experts? Luckily, the Twitter community is really good about this and I found excellent information from reliable scientists who study this kind of thing first-hand. This illustrates how important it is for scientists studying climate to speak out about the climate crisis – people want to hear what we have to say!
  2. I needed to put the alternatives into perspective. When I was able to see the modeling studies that illustrated the different curves, it made sense. When I could visualize the severity of deaths without all the measures in place, it made sense. But for me, it took primary sources from the real scientists. I think this is done quite a bit for climate communication, illustrating the outcomes based on different emission scenarios and the resulting consequences from such (for example, 2°C versus 1.5°C warming). Nevertheless, it reassured me that this approach is beneficial to connect the reality to the public.
  3. I needed to hear it over and over as if the more I heard it, the more it stuck. This really resonated with me because sometimes when I talk about climate change, I feel like I am beating the dead horse – most people know it is happening so why do I continue to say it over and over? But it needs to be said over and over. It takes time for people to process information and the more they hear it, the more it will stick, hopefully leading to action.
  4. There is strength in numbers. We all watch what our friends, family, and community members are doing. If we model staying home, if we model wearing masks, then it will make others feel more comfortable doing so. If we model behavior that reduces our carbon footprint, if we model activism to commit our leaders to enact strict carbon reduction policies, it will be noticed and others will jump on board.
  5. And maybe most importantly is having empathy for the situation. Like I said earlier, I really like the saying that we are all in this together but we are not all in the same boat. It is so true whether we are talking about Covid-19 or climate change. The disparities are large, and in both situations low social-economic communities are disproportionately affected. Reflecting on this before we communicate about a crisis in general will earn a magnitude of more trust from the audience.

Now that I have come to these realities and have adjusted to the new norm, I am looking forward to 1) using my science background to provide trusted information regarding the Covid-19 situation and 2) communicating more on climate change and even tying in connections between the two crises. If you made it to the bottom of this post, I appreciate you taking the time to read my very personal experiences and thoughts as my family, students and I go through these challenging times.

I wish everyone well.

Pamela Grothe