By Alice Denson
In the wake of the devastating COVID-19 crisis, we’ve all had to adapt to a new normal, both at home and at work. Those of us who are fortunate enough to work remotely find ourselves confined to our homes — at least temporarily — and can identify in a more profound way with our students at Orange Literacy. On a daily basis, they are limited by their current circumstances and thus effectively cut off from opportunities to fully participate in our community.
It’s not news that COVID-19 disproportionately affects our most vulnerable populations. If their jobs still exist at this point, they often require a physical presence, unlike many of us who have jobs that allow us to work remotely, where it’s easier to socially isolate ourselves and control who we come into contact with. Like the rest of us, their lives are at risk each time they leave the house.
The difference is choice. While we may venture out every week or so to go to the grocery store, they have to leave their homes every day.
But they’re not just vulnerable outside. They’re increasingly vulnerable at home as well.
Literacy was critical before the pandemic, but this crisis has made our mission at Orange Literacy even more important. In our county, one of wealthiest in the state, an estimated 14 percent of the population is functionally illiterate.
We help adults reach their education, employment and life goals by providing free, flexible instruction in reading, writing and basic math; English and computer skills; and GED preparation.
Even the most privileged of families are struggling to home school their children right now. After all, it’s almost impossible for a parent to work and serve as their child’s sole educator. And the short notice and sudden transition didn’t make any of it any easier.
Now imagine trying to make that quick transition in a language you don’t know. Think of the family of immigrants now straining to keep up with worksheets, assignments and emails from teachers so that their child doesn’t fall behind.
Or imagine living in an area of the county where broadband lags in meeting the rapidly increased demands for streaming and downloading capacity. Take a moment and ponder the very real challenge of safely heeding the advice of federal agencies and state officials when you cannot read. The best way to be informed is to access, understand and fully interpret the news you’re watching or the government website you’re scrolling.
But for many, it’s not so simple.
A number of weeks ago, when we first heard of coronavirus, Orange Literacy began to pivot to an online learning model. Our adult basic education, GED, ESOL, family literacy and citizenship classes have been running online for weeks now. We communicate regularly with our students and tutors. They are excited, curious and highly engaged as they tackle this new approach.
We can’t change their situation overnight. But we can going forward. We can learn from our students’ adaptability and eagerness to learn in any situation. We can expand hybrid classes, where they get the individual one-on-one attention they need while also working in a format that adapts to their logistical needs. And we can help them access the technology and build the technology skills required to participate in those classes and in a more digitally dependent world.
While we didn’t expect it to happen amid a global pandemic, this move is preparing us for a future that is increasingly driven by technology. It’s what we should be doing.
While our current class offerings are full, hopefully in the not-too-distant future we’ll be able to bring students onboard who wouldn’t be able to join us if their physical presence were required. Two of the biggest challenges for our students are transportation and childcare, and online learning circumvents both.
Once COVID-19 is completely behind us, we will take time to grieve, and then, as a community, we will figure out a new normal. Just as air travel was forever altered by the events of Sept. 11, COVID-19 will leave an indelible mark on our society. May it teach us that the best disaster preparedness involves empowering our most vulnerable populations in better times — as we, collectively, are only as strong as those who find themselves in the weakest of circumstances.
Alice Denson is the executive director of Carrboro-based nonprofit Orange Literacy. Learn more at orangeliteracy.org.