Posts Tagged ‘COVID-19

hidden externalities: when failed states prioritize business over education

Much has been discussed in the media about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic; for example, to compensate for the absence of coordinated support, working mothers are carrying more caregiving responsibilities. However, the full range of externalities resulting from governmental and organizational decisions (or in the case of some governments, “non”-decisions which are decisions in practice) often are less visible during the pandemic.  Some of these externalities – impacts on health and well-being, careers and earnings, educational attainment, etc. – won’t be apparent until much later.  The most disadvantaged populations will likely bear the brunt of these; organizations charged with addressing equity issues, such as schools and universities, will grapple over how to respond to these in the years ahead.

In this blog post, I’ll discuss one under-discussed implication of what’s happening in NYC as an example, and how other organizations have had to adjust as a result.  Mayor DeBlasio has discussed how NYC public schools will close if NYC’s positivity rate averages 3% over 7 days.   At the same time, indoor dining, bars, and gyms have remained open, albeit in reduced capacity.  People, especially parents and experts, including medical professionals, are questioning this prioritization of business establishments over schools across the US.

Since the start of the 2020 school year, NYC public schools has offered limited in-person instruction.  A few informal conversations I’ve had with parents at NYC public schools revealed that they found the blended option an unviable one.  Due to capacity and staffing issues, a public school’s blended learning schedules could vary over the weeks.  For example, with a 1:2:2 schedule, a student has 1 day of in person school the first week, followed by 2 days in person the following week, then another 2 days in person the third week.  Moreover, which days a student can attend in-person school may not be the same across the weeks. This might partially explain why only a quarter of families have elected these.  Overall, both “options” of blended learning and online learning assume that families have flexibility and/or financial resources to pay for help.

What’s the cost of such arrangements?  People have already acknowledged that parents, and in particular, mothers, bear the brunt of managing at-home schooling while working from home.  But there is another hidden externality that several of my CUNY freshmen students who live with their families have shared with me.  While their parents work to pay rent and other expenses, some undergraduates must support their younger siblings’ online learning.  Other students are caregiving for relatives, such as a disabled parent, sometimes while recovering from illnesses themselves.  Undergraduates must coordinate other household responsibilities in between managing their own online college classes and additional paid work.  Without a physical university campus that they can go to for in-person classes (excluding labs and studio classes that are socially distanced) or as study spaces, students don’t have physical buffers that can insulate them against these unanticipated responsibilities and allow them to focus on their learning, interests, and connections. 

Drawing on the financial resources available to them and shaping plans around “stabilizing gambits,” several elite universities and small liberal arts colleges have sustained quality education for their students with their in-person classes, frequent testing, and sharing of information among dorm-dwellers.  But in the absence of any effective, coordinated federal response to the pandemic in the US, what can public university instructors do to ensure that their undergraduate students have a shot at quality learning experiences?  So far, I’ve assigned newly published texts that guide readers through how to more critically analyze systems. I’ve turned to having students documenting their experiences, in the hopes of applying what they have learned to re-design systems that work for more diverse populations.  I’ve tried to use synchronous classes as community-building sessions, coupled with feedback opportunities on how to channel our courses to meet their needs and interests.  I’ve devoted parts of class sessions to explaining how to navigate the university, including how to select majors and classes and connect with instructors.  I’ve connected research skills to interpreting the firehose of statistics and studies about pandemic, to help people ascertain risks so that they can make more informed decisions that protect themselves and their communities and educate others.  I’ve attempted to shift expectations for what learning can look like in the absence of face-to-face contact.  Since many of the relational dimensions that we took for granted in conventional face-to-face classes are now missing (i.e., visual cues, physical co-presence), I’ve encouraged people to be mutually supportive in other ways, like using the chat / comments function. In between grading and class prep, I’ve written letters of recommendation, usually on very short notice, so that CUNY students can tap needed emergency scholarships or pursue tenure-track jobs.  In the meantime, our CUNY programs have tried to enhance outreach as households experience illness and job loss, with emergency funds and campus food pantries mapping where students reside and sending mobile vans to deliver groceries, in an effort to mitigate food insecurity.  

Like other scholars, I’ve also revealed, in the virtual classroom, meetings, and conferences, how the gulf between work/family policies is an everyday, shared reality – something that should be acknowledged, rather than hidden away for performative reasons.  Eagle-eyed viewers are likely to periodically spot my child sitting by my side in a zoom meeting, assisting me by taking class attendance, or even typing on documents in the background.  My capacities to support undergraduate and graduate learning, as well as contribute to the academic commons by reviewing manuscripts and co-organizing academic conferences, have depended on my daughter attending her school in-person.  Faculty and staff at her school have implemented herculean practices to make face-to-face learning happen, and families have followed agreements about reducing risks outside of school to maintain in-person learning. That said, given current policy decisions, it’s just a matter of time when I will join other working parents and my CUNY undergraduates making a daily, hour-by-hour complex calculus of what can be done when all-age learners are at home.

All of these adjustments and experimental practices are just baby steps circumnavigating collective issues.  These liminal times can offer opportunities to rethink how we enact our supposed values in systems and institutions.  For instance, do we allow certain organizations and unresponsive elected leaders to continue to transfer externalities to those who are least prepared to bear them?  Do we charge individual organizations and dedicated members, with their disparate access to resources, to struggle with how to serve their populations’ needs?  Or, do we more closely examine how can we redesign systems to recognize and support more persons?


Written by katherinechen

November 18, 2020 at 5:42 pm

the prisoner’s dilemma in 2020

This is a post whose content I have been meditating on, for a long time, since I last wrote about my concerns about responses to SARS-CoV-2 in March.  For years, I’ve taught about the classic prisoner’s dilemma in the context of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons book.  Ostrom’s book draws on collectives to explain how such groups collectively self-manage and regulate common resource pools like fisheries and grazing grounds; her work offers some insights into how to tackle shared, contemporary issues.  For example, many of us have concerns about how to combat environmental degradation, where the longterm outlook is often hard to forecast against shortterm gains and externalities generated by corporations. 

With SARS-CoV-2’s worldwide spread, the prisoner’s dilemma is now evident in everyday decisions on the part of individual people, organizations, and governments. These decisions, in aggregate, have both immediate and longterm consequences for all:

Scenario 1Both parties defect: Most or all persons fail to wear masks properly, socially distance to the fullest extent possible, and/or live and work with conditions that promote safer interpersonal contact (i.e. gets tested with short turn-around results, cooperates with contact tracing, spends time outdoors or indoors with open windows, enhanced air circulation, etc.).  The outcome of not reducing risky activities manifests in collectively worse outcomes for everyone – societies experience more illnesses, more need for hospitalizations at the same time (which hospitals cannot handle given staffing and equipment capacity), more deaths, more not-yet-know longterm effects, more uncertainty, etc. 

Scenario 2One party defects while the other party cooperates: One party refuses to do social distancing, mask usage, etc. while the other does.  The outcome is still worse for everyone, but less so compared with when both parties defect.  

Scenario 3Both parties cooperate: Everyone engages in proper mask wearing, social distancing, regular, rapid testing, etc.  These actions hopefully push transmission down to few or no cases.  This is the most ideal outcome from a collective health standpoint.

In NYC, my students and their communities have learned the hard way about the consequences of the prisoner’s dilemma, especially given the failures of various elected leaders and organizations to properly conceptualize and communicate risk.  I tried my best, from the beginning of the spring semester, to prepare my undergrad and grad students, my household, and those around me for what I thought was likely to happen, based on what I had read about China and recommendations from qualified experts.  For example, I told students to start identifying neighborhood businesses and organizations that they might have to patronize, should they no longer be able to travel.  If they lived in the dorms, I encouraged them to think through plans for returning home.  I asked students to test working online with their devices.  I intensified my teaching of decentralized organizing techniques, including mutual aid.  I spent time in multiple meetings, explaining to administrators my preparatory steps for moving online, and drafting and sending emails asking decision-makers at various organizations to take steps to protect communities.  I contemplated what to do if I got incapacitated.

Here’s what we experienced, healthwise, in the spring 2020:

  • a death of the senior-most colleague in my department
  • a student, who had been ill himself, learned of a death in his extended family, during groupwork in my class
  • students and their family members hospitalized
  • students and CUNY colleagues suspected they had COVID-19 symptoms (headaches, fevers, cough) but couldn’t get tested for COVID-19
  • one student’s entire family got sick, possibly from their child’s school which had teachers who had been hospitalized. This student almost died due to an nearly too late diagnosed complication of COVID-19.
  • death of a parent at my child’s school

My CUNY colleagues reported similar or worse experiences; for example, one undergraduate lost both parents to COVID-19.  Everyday during our lockdown, every passing siren was an auditory reminder of how failed states can deplete collective capacity to coordinate effective action.

When I talk with academic colleagues and my research communities across NYC and the US, they have reported voluntarily following the recommendations of experts who have researched public health, indoor air quality, and aerosol diseases.  Most are at organizations that have allowed them to work from home or outdoors.  They have chosen to reduce exposure and transmission risks, for example, by wearing masks and replacing riskier activities, such as dining and socializing indoors with those outside of their households, with other kinds of activities like virtual meetings, walking together outdoors while masked, etc.  Some do it out of concerns for their own health; others are concerned for those around them.    

When we talk about how life has changed and will continue to change, we acknowledge that we have the means and privilege to do this, and that we do this in order to collectively reduce risks for those who cannot.  Accepting such changes has not always been easy, especially when we are unsure when we can next gather with loved ones safely, across long physical distances.  Each day feels like the 1990s movie Groundhog Day, but with deaths, illness, and grief.  The temptation to individually defect, in an attempt to return to the 2019 “normal,” is high.  That said, mutual cooperation is much easier if we think of our interdependent futures, as well as our connections with prior and upcoming generations.

In the absence of coordinated state action, informal and formal organizations can step in. Organizations like schools and universities can offer decision-making guides to their members about the impact of participating in get-togethers and similar “individual decisions” upon surrounding communities. Organizations can support people in collecting data that might not otherwise be deemed by gatekeepers as worthy of inclusion. With these steps, people can learn about possible risks to their community, and take actions that might eventually generate a collective best, rather than worst, outcome for all.

Written by katherinechen

October 7, 2020 at 6:35 pm

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