Sociology of Education Midterm
The COVID-19 pandemic has restructured virtually all aspects of American life. Social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders have reduced working hours for millions and many have no work at all. This month, 6 million Americans missed their mortgage or rent payment and 40 million are at risk of eviction. Although unemployment numbers have decreased fairly steadily since the April 2020 spike, the Bureau of Labor Statistic shows unemployment rates are nearly double of October 2019. For those who are working, almost half are about to enter their 8th straight month of working from home.
Working from home, for many, makes it difficult to stay organized, manage time, and communicate effectively, in addition to minimizing the amount of time they socialize outside of their home. This reality has created poor mental health for the majority of American adults. According to a Center for Disease Control study, adults in the US have “considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19”, which is notably worse for people with marginalized identites.
Whether in-person or online, schooling during the pandemic has been difficult for most parents, teachers, and students. Students aren’t able to socialize like they should; teachers have increased their workloads and are having to learn and implement new technology on the fly; and parents are having to find ways to simultaneously work from home and care for their kids or send them back to school so they can earn an income. Additionally, many Americans have been deemed “essential workers”, meaning they have to physically show up to work, despite potential health risks — and increasing the exploitation of their life and labor.
Health care workers, obviously essential during a pandemic, make up only 30% of the “essential workers.” The reminder are primarily low-wage and unskilled workers. Unskilled laborers comprise the majority of workers in America — 69% have no college degree, and low-wage workers comprise 44% of the American workforce. Prior to the pandemic, low-wage workers were twice as likely to become unemployed.
Low-wage and unskilled workers have first hand experience with the ills of our economic system, which, by nature, is exploitative for all who sell our labor for income. As we work, however, the owners of production and controllers of resources accrue wealth. For example, the 644 American billionaries have increased their wealth by almost $1 trillion.
In order to understand the specific ways schooling during the pandemic is impacting Americans, I interviewed a middle aged mother in Salt Lake City, a first year high school teacher at a private school near Philadelphia, and a 5th grade student in North Philadelphia. Two interviews were conducted digitally — over the phone or through a video conference. One interview was conducted in person, which allowed for a more robust dialogue. However, I cannot be sure if this was not specific factors, such as the personality of the interviewee or comfortability with myself. Each interview took between 30–60 minutes.
Rather than attempting to use these interviews to mine the participants for data, I was more interested in exploring participants’ narratives with them. Because of this, interviews were semi-structured. I attempted to allow interviewees to direct the conversation as much as possible to allow them to talk about the experiences and values that were most significant to them, rather than to simply uncover what was of interest to myself.
All quotes and paraphrases are based off my my hand written notes. As such, all interpretations are just that: interpretations. My own worldview, experience, as well as countlesss factors stemming from my personal identities (queer, white, cis-gender, working class, American, college student, brother, son, etc.) influence my interpretations of the interviewee’s words. That said, I followed up with each interviewee to ensure I represented their experience in a satisfactory manner. Each participant affirmed this article represents their overall sentiments. Additionally, the identities of all participant has been changed to maintain anonymity.
Results and Discussion
In an attempt to more easily reopen schools, teachers have been federally classified as “essential workers.” Many schools and school districts are strictly conducting classes online, this is not the case for Blake — a new teacher at the Haverford School, a private school for upper-middle class boys on the Main Line (a historically wealthy and prestigous suburb of Philadelphia). A recent Ph.D. graduate, Blake began teaching at Haverford School this semester. His instruction is primarily face-to-face, while a few students attend remotely.
Teaching at a high school during that pandemic has been different than at a university, for Blake. One reason is that school administration, in an attempt to keep students safer in class, extended the length of each class period. This has caused consternation for Blake because “high school students simply have a shorter attention span”, and has increased his workload to an unnecessary level.
The school’s administration made many changes in order to bring students back to campus for in-person learning. Blake does appreciate the amount of work done to reopen Haverford School. The school has a large amount of resources and is able to provide the necessary personal protective equipment and technology needed to operate properly and safely. Blake and his collegues, however, are frustrated by the school’s administration. “The conditions of teaching (long hours, required extra curriculars, grading papers every night and weekend, and having to go above and beyond to please upper-middle class parents) is what frustrates me.” He believes the logistics of the reopening plan were implemented “well enough” but believes teachers “are the ones doing to heavy lifting.”
“Administration makes adjustments to please all of these wealthy parents. Meanwhile, we are doing all of the extra labor.”
Beyond the additional free labor he provides, Blake feels “insulted” by the ceaseless patronizing and “unappreciative” emails. Blake wants the school’s administration to “show”, rather than “tell”, the teachers they are valued. This lack of appreciation and over-exploitation has negatively impacted Blake’s overall mental health. Mental health decline has become a widespread issue during the pandemic — over 50% of American adults reported coronavirus-related worry and stress has negatively impacted their mental health.
Jenn is also an essential worker and has experienced a decline in mental health throughout the pandemic. She is a middle-aged and pregnant mother of 6 in Salt Lake City, and all of her children are attending school in person (with the exception of her step son with an immune disorder). Her mental health was first impacted by the nature of social isolation. Now that her kids are back in school, she endlessly stresses about the Virus being brought into her home. Everyday she feels “worried and frightened” about how the coronavirus could harm her family. Regardless, her children are “far too young” to be comfortably staying home without parental supervision, so they must go in-person.
“Things are calmed down a bit, but I still don’t want to send my kids to school. I am diabetic and at a higher risk of dying from COVID but have no other option besides going to work.”
Jenn doesn’t expect anything bad to happen necessarily, but she fears for the worst. “I don’t come from a rich family. My dad delivers pizza, what would my kids do if I died?” Fear of death, however, seems to take a backseat to the fear of losing her job and how that would impact her family.
A lack of resources was the largest factor influencing her decision to send kids back to school. “My husband is the breadwinner but my job has health insurance for the 8 of us.” Her family cannot afford the insurance plan provided by her husband’s job.
“I’m a working mom. I have to feed my kids. If I don’t work, I lose my job… [sending kids to school] is an easy decision to make because I have no diploma. I don’t have skills to go get a job other than cleaning toilets or fast food, and I don’t want to become homeless…”
Jenn’s children are also experiencing a decline in mental health. One of her daughters has ongoing social anxiety and only has a few friends in her class. Stef said, “at recess [she] cannot play with her friends in other classes. I know it makes her really sad and depressed… she’s more depressed than ever.” Additionally, Jenn’s two daughter’s have become somewhat “hostile” to each other. She believes they are “acting out” due to the lack of time they have with their friends inside and outside of school.
Remote schooling can also negatively impact mental health. Jamal, an 11 year old student in North Philadelphia, is attending school fully online. He confidently affirmed feeling stressed from online school, although he did not have the words to describe how that felt. He also mentioned a difficulty staying focused or caring what the teacher says. Jamal “always pays attention in class.” However, because of the nature of online schooling, this school year has been “the most boring thing ever.” Jamal mentioned that his boredom comes from sitting in one place all day and not seeing his friends as much as before the Pandemic struck.
Jamal is allowed to see his friends in the neighborhood on occasion, but is typically stuck inside “playing video games or watching TV.” He and his friends “go to the park and play… or make music.” Jamal did not state whether or not they wear masks and socially distance when interacting, however, he expressed frustration about his mom telling him to wear a mask time and time again. Although not explicitly stated, is seems as though he may not be adequately informed about the reasoning for COVID-19 guidelines and how masks help to prevent the spread of the Virus. Regardless, the unwillingness to practice social distancing is not specific to Jamal.
Blake mention that students in his school don’t comply with social distancing guidelines. In class he is able to ensure his students are wearing masks and maintain distance. Nevertheless, when students are outside of the classroom (in the hall or courtyards) he sees them break the rules quite often but has such little time to get to his next class — during the pandemic, the teachers move classrooms, rather than the students. Blake’s students do not want to attend school remotely, yet they have a difficult time following these rules.
Although Blake wants to help keep students safe, he doesn’t typically have time to approach students in violation of the school’s policy. When he sees students breaking the rules, it is often during one of the few short breaks between classes where he rarely has enough time to make copies and go to the bathroom. In sum, Blake believes that his students are at fault for not following social distancing guidelines but the school should do more to keep students safe. “They are young and want to socialize but leadership should be hiring more staff or something… to enforce the guidelines better.”
Blake believes the school did a great job about “informing [students] about the dangers” of not conforming to school policies. Be that as it may, Blake believes many of his students suffer from “some level of straight, white, middle-class, cis male invisibility that is everywhere in America”, which he suggested may be as a result of their “privileged” socio-economic background and the political leanings of their parents.
“If I would say there is an overall theme for my first semster at Haverford, its exploitation. Every time they do something to help students or please parents, during the pandemic, it falls on us… In many ways, it is a function of income.”
Conclusion and Further Research
All things considered, the coronavirus-related adjustments to life, and schooling more specifically, negatively impacts the social, economic, and mental well being of students, teachers, and parents. For workers across the board, the coronavirus pandemic has increased their workload and level of exploitation. Many are forced to enter environments that increase their risk of contrating COVID-19.
Based on conversations with Blake’s coworkers, every teacher at his school are doing more work than ever before. This is the case for everyone, except the owners, at Jenn’s job too. She spends hours each week doing the work of others because almost 10% of her office has been laid off during the Pandemic. However, if she did not have to worry about her healthcare, she would not be going to work nor would she send her kids to school.
Economic redistribution would help address the issues. Many people aren’t working and a different division of labor would help to create a more equitable division of labor and allocation of resources. While some are not working, others are doing much more than they are getting paid for. Additionally, having more people at the table when making decisions to restrucutre work and school. Jenn and Blake both felt fully excluded from the making of plans to reopen schools. Both said they would have raised a lot of concerns about the plans and would have objected to the plan their school implemented.
Finally, more efforts need to be taken to ensure people are meeting COVID-19 guidelines. Some people may need more education about why the guidelines are important (even if they attend school remotely), and others may just need more discipline or direction. Research should be done to understand why individuals do or do not adhere to saftey guidelines.
The data above also highlights that more research needs to be done in order to better understand the impact of social distancing on the lives of students, parents and teachers. A robust study would also include support staff and administrators. Including these categories would allow for researchers to better grasp the extend to which COVID-19 is impacting schooling. Additionally, a more robust study would also have more participants in all categories and geographic areas of the country, which would make it much more comprehensive. A future study may use the following questions to guide their research:
- What effects does socio-economic background have on the willingness to comply with social distancing guidelines?
- Is there a relationship between “essential workers” and historical practices of workers exploitation — specifically for low-wage workers and those who hold marginalized identities?
- How do state and local COVID-19 guidelines inform the practices inside of individual schools?