Between a Rock and the Pandemic: How Our Personal Hardships Should Shape Our Public Education Endeavors in the Future

When speaking about the pandemic and discussing its effects on everyday life in the past year, most of the time, that discussion can get a bit overwhelming. When one looks at the situations people were placed in to keep society running—and running safely—it begs the questions, “Was it worth it?” and “Was it worth keeping everything going?” I still don’t know the answer to this, but I can look at what I have accomplished during such a crisis. 

The one thing that did keep me from spiraling into a dark abyss of anxiety was making sure my schedule was full and I always had something to do. My internship application, and then subsequent acceptance into the Program Evaluation and Education Research (PEER) Group spearheaded by Dr. Callie Edwards, kept me on my feet and reminded me that elements of my life could still keep going despite the standstill of the pandemic. Knowing that I had tasks to complete that weren’t just my coursework, I felt I was needed outside of my normal sphere. I felt I was making an impact on factors that I deemed important. And then I got COVID-19.

From the start of the program for me in January 2021, Dr. Edwards made it clear that she understood the type of year that had been transpiring. With this being the first year of the internship, she understood that collaboration and partnership was key to the success of the program—not just collaboration with her peers or her supervisors but with us, the interns. She made us feel we were creating this program together and that we were experts in our field alongside her. From when I announced that I had COVID-19, Dr. Edwards modeled what an exemplary leader looked like and embodied the ideal support system. She made sure I had all the materials I needed to succeed in the internship, not just the sources for completing projects. She was concerned for our social-emotional and mental well-being. It was easy to set a time to just have a meeting with her, and it was even easier to pick up the phone and have a conversation. During my time battling COVID-19 and the stress and anxiety that came along with it, Dr. Edwards halted my duties as an intern and made it easy for me to prioritize my health and safety. She modeled empathy. I will always admire her as a mentor, a leader and someone I can aspire to be in my future endeavors.

To practice empathy in that capacity is essentially human nature. Dr. Edwards, as a supervisor, modeled what it meant to put a person first over any material gain. During my internship, I worked on a project called the At-Home Learning Initiative (AHLI) that strived to accomplish those same goals of empathy and support for students in the public education system during the pandemic. Early in the pandemic, PBS North Carolina (PBS NC, previously UNC-TV) began coordinating with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) to offer educational programming targeted to serve children in North Carolina without broadband access. The program began in March 2020 and continues to air educational programming for students. We are currently working in Phase II, which includes the on-air educational program Classroom Connection. Classroom Connection airs literacy lessons Tuesdays and Fridays, 8-10 a.m., on PBS NC and math lessons on Mondays and Thursdays, 8-10 a.m., on PBS NC. Not only would PBS NC’s traditional educational programming be offered, but it would be enhanced with original lessons from North Carolina teachers in literacy and math. The on-air educational programming is augmented by livestreaming, lessons and materials available to teachers and families online through DPI’s YouTube Channel and will eventually be shared on DPI’s GoOpenNC platform. In Phase II of the AHLI, outreach and marketing includes support to educators, caregivers and the community and also includes the curating and developing of relationships with these partners. We are seeking to improve connections and collaboration between the home, the school and the community in support of learners’ interests and needs. The goal of the initiative is to narrow the opportunity gap between economically and socially disadvantaged students and their peers.

My personal experiences from this last year has made me understand and has emphasized the importance of an initiative like this one. I was very excited to be a part of the At-Home Learning Initiative in my role as a data collector/analyzer. The two most important outcomes that enabled me to dive into the program was 1) increasing the access to more informal learning material to learners and 2) supporting educators in early learning in both remote and in-person learning environments. The prioritization of digital learning and literacy encompasses the amount of support that is needed in a time such as this. I appreciate the work being done for the AHLI and moving into a new-age way of learning. The prioritization of partnerships with the community also shows an effort to strive toward a community-culture-based accumulation of specific needs for the schools and their learners. This allows the program to observe the effects of the pandemic and other societal issues that a specific community or neighborhood would have endured to aid in the effectiveness of the AHLI and who can benefit from it. I am thankful for the support and sense of community (belonging) I have received from my supervisor, Dr. Edwards, and I am glad I can see these elements reflected in the work I’m doing. I will aim to use them in my future endeavors in my career path and in life.

Author’s Note: Kita Adams was an intern during the spring 2021 semester and a graduate assistant for summer 2021.