In-person event is a sign of returning normalcy

Back when street lamps were powered by gas, someone went by foot at day’s end and lit them one by one. Last week, it felt as though each of Akron’s trees had been similarly visited when leaves erupted seemingly overnight on branches long bare. 

It’s hard not to feel renewed by each spring, but especially this one. Not only because it marks the end of one of the hardest winters in years, but also because the worst of the two-year COVID pandemic may finally have receded with this year’s snow piles. 

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen repeated announcements of various events being held in person for the first time in three years. Dances, fundraisers, fish dinners, pancake breakfasts and, next Saturday, May 21, the annual Race for Case. 

Ten years ago, Craig Sampsell, one of Case Elementary’s interventionists, along with two other faculty members, Sarah Core and Jen Victor, organized the first Race for Case to raise money to create a computer lab, purchase iPads and a smart board for the building. 

In the years since, the Race for Case has funded inclusive equipment (read: accessible for kids with physical disabilities) and a rubberized surface for the school’s playground, as well as a greenhouse slated to be built at the end of this year. 

According to Sampsell, the proceeds from this year’s race will fund “school assemblies focused on social emotional learning as well as science, math and reading. We want to create the fun and joy of going to school again and increase the opportunities for our students to interact with outside resources. We will also see if we can fund a school-wide field trip.”  

According to a recent New York Times piece by David Leonhardt, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the United States increased both accountability and funding for public schools. “Typically, the funding increases were larger for low-income schools than for high-income schools. That may help explain why racial gaps in reading and math skills declined.” 

In the decades since, the data on funding increases for low-income public schools indicates that greater funding does, in fact, result in better outcomes, and not just while kids are in school, but long after they’ve graduated. 

The primary metric businesses look at when locating in a community is the quality of the workforce. This alone should cause all legislators, regardless of party, to prioritize maximum funding for public K-12 schools. 

Unfortunately, that has not happened in many states, including Ohio. As a popular bumper sticker reads: “It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and our air force has to have a bake sale to buy a bomber.” 

Until schools have all the funding they need, supporting them with fundraisers, like the Race for Case, remains important, if not vital. 

This year’s race is the first of 10 in Akron Promise’s City Series Neighborhood Races. People who participate in four of the series’ races will be awarded medals. Rest assured, you don’t have to be a competitive athlete to take part. Participants ranging from those in baby buggies to elders using canes can run, walk or stroll the course. 

Unlike in years past, when the race started and ended at Hardesty Park, this year it will be held at the school (1420 Garman Road). There’s a 1-mile race that starts at 9:30 a.m., followed by the 5K at 10. Registration is online at bit.ly/race4case5k and will also be available onsite that morning. 

Perhaps best of all, at least from the perspective of the kids, after the races, there will be a carnival with inflatables and games for all ages. 

In 2018, my third child (who identifies as “they/their”) was at the time a junior in high school and came in second at the Race for Case. We were excited for their last year on Firestone’s cross country team that upcoming fall, believing they had a strong chance of making it to the state championships. 

Jules Christensen hugging their older brother Claude after the 2018 Race for Case

But that summer, they developed mononucleosis, which dragged on for many months. Eventually a rheumatologist diagnosed my tall, fit 18-year-old with chronic fatigue syndrome. That 2018 Race for Case was the last 5K they will likely ever compete in, making the event especially poignant for us. 

In the past two years, all of humanity learned how that which is taken for granted can suddenly end, or at least go on hiatus. As much of community life finally resumes, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate this spring than by coming together to have fun raising money as an investment in some of our youngest citizens.  


Generational effects of COVID coming into view

As we get to what everyone hopes and prays is the tail end of the first global pandemic in a century, history expects at least some of us to describe the experience for those who come along after all survivors have passed.

Over the past two years, I have described not only my family’s experience, which is similar to what many families across the planet have experienced, but also what has been happening in communities. From schools to restaurants to travel to masks and vaccines, I’ve written about an array of pandemic topics as the novel coronavirus evolved in wave after wave.  

If anyone feels that life at this moment is like the movie Groundhog Day with spring portending the end of masks and (knock on wood) COVID as we’ve known it, much as it did last spring — you’re not alone. But there are some key differences, particularly in schools. 

This time last year, it had only been a little over a month that Akron Public Schools had reopened buildings for in-person instruction. And the University of Akron was ending a third semester taught largely in hybrid or fully remote sessions.  

This school year, because of prudent measures taken last fall, both APS and UA have had buildings open, the majority of students in classrooms and, for the past few months, optional masking.  

As a parent of a child in APS and a faculty member at UA, I could not be more relieved to finally be at this point. And yet I’m at a loss for where far too many of our students are. 

I teach both freshman composition courses for UA’s English department and a seminar on thesis writing for graduate students in arts administration. The difference between the two groups is striking.  

I assumed a fair number of freshmen would not be COVID vaccinated as the university did not mandate the vaccine until after the fall semester had ended. Which is why, two weeks before classes began, I got my booster shot. 

Boy, was that the right call. While all of my graduate students were vaccinated, more than half of my freshmen were not. 

Given that younger people are more likely to experience milder cases of COVID, my undergraduates’ low vaccination rate was, while concerning, not alarming. I cannot say the same about their academic performance.  

I have in the past described my despair that so few undergraduates at my city university seldom (if ever) watch movies or TV programs. As for volitionally reading magazines, newspapers or — queue up an angelic choir—books? Fuhgettaboutit. 

And yet, with a lot of exposure, prodding and encouragement to dive deeply on topics that most interest them, I have for years been able to engage the majority of my freshmen.  

That is until this spring, which was the first semester we resumed normal requirements and deadlines.  

While my graduate students continue to produce work that is always passable and at times truly impressive, my current undergraduates remind me of people in a land where they don’t speak the language and I’m their only interpreter and there’s not enough of me for each of them. 

Weirdly most freshmen attended all classes and seemed truly engaged. And then the majority of them didn’t do the work. Multiple times in class I’ve sung the refrain from U2’s song “One”: Did I ask too much? More than a lot? You gave me nothin’ now it’s all I’ve got. 

At first I thought it was me, for it is the responsibility of leaders, which teachers are, to inspire. 

But in the past few months, I’ve heard the same concerns not only from other English professors, but across UA’s departments and from friends teaching throughout the country. 

APS teachers tell me they are seeing the same.  

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when regular school attendance in New Orleans Public Schools was not possible for the better part of a year, data soon revealed significant negative consequences including increased dropout rates and an average drop in performance of two grades. 

Today we must ask how many students have been negatively affected by all the measures we had to take in order to mitigate COVID? And what should we be doing as a community, a society and a nation to forestall a lost generation? 

The pandemic and all it wrought has been hard on everyone, but not uniformly. For those under the age of 20, the past two years comprise a significant portion of their lives. 

Now that the virulence of COVID is waning, the lasting repercussions are becoming visible. A top priority needs to be finding solutions to aid students who have gotten out of sync with what they need to succeed in school, and perhaps more. 

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, May 1, 2022.