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  • Last modified 136 days ago (May 6, 2020)

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Learning hard-taught lessons of COVID-19

Tuesday was the last day of class for 26 college students, mainly graduating seniors. Attendance was optional — a time for getting answers to lingering questions about a final project due a week and a half later.

Student Meghan Rest had no questions. But she showed up for class anyway. It wasn’t a particular burden. Instead of having to dress, trek across campus, and plop down in an uncomfortable chair in a cramped seminar room, she was able to rear-up from her bed two minutes before class, grab her laptop, and teleconference with a professor relocated to Marion, Kansas, two states removed from her hometown near Peoria.

“It just felt strange not going to my last class ever,” she explained.

Whether in high school or college, students are ending a decade or two of learning this month not with a typical celebration but with a very atypical final click on a computer keyboard.

It’s a sad time for students, who instead of being infected with senioritis have been sheltered in place to avoid being infected with COVID-19.

The challenges students like Meghan have faced this semester are numerous.

How are they able to concentrate when homework can’t be done in a quiet dorm room, a computer lab, or a study hall but needs to be done instead in an overcrowded home, with children from college age down to preschoolers competing for the same computer, scant bandwidth, and the peace and quiet to use them?

How can they focus on school when Mom and Dad have lost their jobs, Grandma is in a nursing home where COVID-19 also has set up residence, and aunts and uncles are hospitalized with the disease?

The biggest challenge, however, may not be for graduating students but for those continuing in school.

During this, National Teachers Week, few if any educators would claim that what they covered in the second half of the spring semester — despite valiant, often herculean efforts — in any way resembled what they normally would have covered in the same period.

Rote memorization may be possible via websites and course packs, but true education involves a lot more than the ability to regurgitate information on multiple-choice tests.

What’s going to happen next semester or in semesters beyond? Students will be thrust into subsequent classes that seek to build on foundations established this spring — foundations on shaky sand, hastily assembled in an attempt to somehow keep students busy and maybe learning a few things in the process.

As a society, we rightfully worry about the impact of COVID-19 on our economy. Less thought often is given to its long-term impact on our economy’s seed corn — the young people studying to become the next generation of entrepreneurial workers who will keep our city, county, state, and nation competitive in a cutthroat global economy.

Watching how colleges and universities have responded reveals much about their true nature.

Some schools, like the University of Kansas, have announced pay cuts for top administrators and highly paid coaches, all to fund efforts to help disadvantaged students.

Others have rather unscrupulously vowed to operate classes precisely as normal this fall — hoping to lure some of the 16 to 25% of prospective students who have said in surveys that they would rather take a “gap” year or change their choice of college if remote education from this spring continues into the fall.

Nationwide, nearly a dozen universities are being sued by students demanding refunds for the inferior education they have received this spring. A quick look at how some classes have operated indicates the lawsuits may be justified.

Caught in the middle of this are thousands of compassionate, dedicated educators at all levels and at all schools, from kindergarten through graduate programs, who have largely on their own struggled to continue education as best they can.

On this, National Teachers Week, we celebrate them and urge their administrators, school districts, colleges, and universities not to dishonor their service by insisting that they and their students are wrong in noting that the quality of education has, despite their best efforts, suffered.

In no way should the hard work of educators and others be glossed over by phrases like “the new normal” and “new excellence.” All isn’t well. And it won’t be for some time. It may be satisfying to say it’s the best we can do under difficult circumstances — and it may in fact be. But it’s not the same excellence or normalcy we long have aspired to. While it may be necessary to temporarily lower our expectations, we must never lose track of the higher expectations we eventually will hope to return to.

— ERIC MEYER

Taking a pop at our chained-up economy

Wanted: Caffeine-Free Diet Dr Pepper. Single cans, 12-packs, 24-packs, 2-liter bottles — any way, shape, form or (within reason) price accepted.

Whatever the opiate of the masses might be, Caffeine-Free Diet Dr Pepper is the opiate of this particular editorial writer. Good stores usually have it in one form of another. Big-box stores rarely do. It’s just too specialized of a product for them to carry, even in bigger communities in Illinois.

Relocating to Kansas during university breaks or COVID-19 shutdowns has never been a problem. In a typical week, four 12-packs of this particular elixir of the gods typically arrive every Wednesday at Carlsons’ Grocery and a promptly scanned through checkout and securely, albeit temporarily, placed in the trunk of a certain little car from Illinois.

Then, as if in a reoccurring nightmare of old-style Arab oil embargos, the cartons stopped coming. A week went by and they still hadn’t appeared, so a plaintive plea went out to one of the store’s proprietors.

The very next day, upon entry into the store, came a summons to Greg Carlson’s office. Not only hadn’t he received any of the preferred potable. He had called the bottling plant to find out why.

COVID-19 apparently has created supply-chain problems for the bottler, who cannot obtain the cans necessary to package such an obscure soft drink — or, in fact, many other low-volume sales items like other flavors of caffeine-free diet pop. Greg verified this by taking several minutes to personally survey his store racks in detail.

It’s an understandable problem, and one we’ll have to live with. The problem we hope we never have to deal with is a time when there won’t be people like Greg looking out for us.

Imagine walking into Wal-Mart or Dillon’s and trying to make a similar request. It might be a few cents cheaper there — a price break erased by the miles driven to get there, even at today’s ultra-low gasoline prices.

But it isn’t just food deserts we have to guard against by trading with local stores. It’s service deserts, as well. Now more than ever, as we emerge from COVID-19, it’s important to continue shopping as close to home as possible. Local merchants whom we see and interact with during routine daily life are the same people who will make sure we’re taken care of when disasters like COVID-19 strike.

Big stores and Internet merchants may air wonderful commercials that make you feel as if they’re doing their part. But I’d much rather put my trust in a Greg Carlson than in Jeff Bezos, whatever heirs of Sam Walton might be counting the money he assembled for them, and the unknown stockholders of assorted chain stores.

They don’t live here. To them, we’re just demographics in a handful of not-too-important ZIP codes.

Trust the people who are part of our community and understand their mission to serve it. When disaster comes to call, they’re the ones you can rely on to produce more than just slick TV commercials.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified May 6, 2020

 

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