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.

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