My COVID Scare, Why I Quit Social Media and Blogging for a Year, and What it Taught Me

Teaching During The Pandemic

When the COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic hit America, I was teaching in a local community college. We didn’t know much at the time but, as a precaution, we all switched to remote learning. The school went dark for a month to allow teachers to transition courses online. When we turned back on, it was in a whole new world.

No one expected it to last long. We were midway into the Spring semester and still making plans for a normal graduation celebration. We resumed classes as online only but planned to have fully in-person classes available by July. That didn’t happen.

I was more prepared than most for transitioning to online teaching; I already had a lot of the systems in place in my classes. My students were prepared to maintain their workload online, so I didn’t experience the drop in attendance as bad as my peers. What did change, however, was the hours when we worked. Because many of my students were parents working in the service industries, they were working more and sharing their internet (with their kids also doing school from home) more. My students didn’t have time for their own education till late at night, so I adjusted my time to match them. When their peak work hours were midnight to 3am, mine were too. I found myself stretched. On one end, I had to be alert and active during the day for work Zoom meetings. On the other end, I had to be present for my students to interact and answer questions when they were available to work.

I was exhausted, but I didn’t tell my supervisors. If I had, they would have advised me to keep normal office hours and tell students I would respond to them within 24 hours. I tried that, but I didn’t feel like it was the right response for me or my students. We were all scared. We were all searching for some semblance of normal pre-pandemic life. Keeping a rapid connection–even though it was just responding to emails and questions on the learning management system–made us feel like we were still connected…still human.

Fear of Human Connection

I stayed online with my students for a year. My students and I supported each other through race riots, pandemic, and economic losses, but I still couldn’t write about it.

I went silent on this blog and most of my social media for a year. Everything in the world was chaos, and I didn’t want to be another trite voice adding thoughts to the discussion of it. I underestimated my role and value in the world, and I let my feelings dictate my actions.

Working remotely was more freeing than anything I had experienced in my career, and I loved it. I could work in my pajamas. I could do house chores that I never had time for before. I could visit with family and friends within my safe circle–all while still doing my job as a teacher. I was no longer tied to schedules or office hours; I was free!

I did everything from home and only returned to the office once a month for paperwork as needed. When I did return, I was wearing a mask and staying socially distanced from everyone. The first thing I noticed was that the office culture changed. People didn’t gather and talk anymore; everyone stayed in their separate offices and barely acknowledged when someone else was nearby (except to put on a mask if they were).

The very thing that made us human–our communication, connection, and care for each other–became the first thing we shed in our fear.

I found myself afraid of being around others. For a year, I isolated myself from friends and community involvements like my church. The mere thought of returning to in-person classes caused me anxiety. I wanted to care for others but keep my distance, so I leapt at an opportunity to work remotely full-time for more money than teaching. I left eight years of teaching for the security of never having to see another person face-to-face unless I chose to. The irony of this choice is that I was already given special permission to work remotely as long as I wanted to, but I knew there would come a point where that choice would no longer be given to me.

I thought that isolation was a good thing. I was staying out of the public (with all the germs). I was ordering my groceries and online shopping for everything else. I was watching more church online than I experienced in person. I was socializing with people I lived with and a few close friends I trusted. I was distancing myself from the rest of the world, and I thought I was safe. I had no idea how much that distance was toxic for me.

Loss Becomes Real and Personal

Isolation was supposed to keep myself and my loved ones safe, but it didn’t. My only living grandparent–more isolated than me–got COVID, ended up in intensive care, and almost died. We couldn’t go see her. Our only communication was the hospital phone or the personal phone she had taken with her. If either line stopped working, we had no way to know what was happening to her, if she was safe, or if she was coming home to us.

I still remember the sound of her voice on the phone. Hooked up to machines and heavily drugged, her voice was low, gargled, and strained for breath. She was afraid and said a lot of things that didn’t make sense. Nevertheless, she said she would fight to stay with her family as much as possible, but she also kept saying her goodbyes like every breath would be her last. It was heartbreaking. I was powerless. All I could do was pray and surrender, so that’s what I did–every day, every moment that I thought of her and feared I was losing her.

I guarded her story. I didn’t share my life on social media or my blog, nor did I allow my friends to do so for me. In many ways, I gave up on the world and ever being part of it again because I was convinced it had nothing but hurt to give me.

When our prayers were answered and my grandparent got better, I knew that time with loved ones was something I didn’t want to take for granted anymore. I took it a step further. I determined to spend more time with the people I loved, and I devoted my energy to being present as much as possible. I helped care for sick loved ones, I spent time with extended family, I visited close friends, and I made plans to see family out of state.

Life became complicated in May 2021 when I lost my job (the one I left teaching for) and couldn’t go back to teaching. All the pain and angst from isolation were intensified by fear over money. Loss of income derailed my plans for connection and made me feel powerless, but those were just feelings (and feelings are temporary).

A month later, I lost three people that were important to me: my brother-in-law died of a sudden non-COVID-related respiratory problem, an 8-year relationship ended, and a former student died in a boating accident.

So much loss derailed me. I wanted to succumb to my feelings and just die, but God said…

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7, NIV

Change Your Perspective

Doubt, anger, guilt, sadness, and fear circled me. I allowed myself the freedom to feel my feelings while they were raw, but I did not allow them to root in me. Feelings, both the good and the bad, are temporary and they lie to you. You can’t let your self worth and perspective of the world be determined by them.

I took control of my thoughts as best as I could–even though it felt like holding a balloon in the wind by a thin sewing thread. I reminded myself of scripture and the truth of Christ that makes up my moral compass.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.

Philippians 4:8, NIV

I found that if I took control of my thoughts and pushed out the ones based on fear and pain, I could fill my mind with thoughts of strength, love, and affirmation. The more I allowed God’s peace to fill me, the stronger I became for the challenges that surrounded me and the more I saw God’s hand directing me through them.

COVID made me afraid of being around others. Loss, loneliness, and sadness made me need to be around them more.

It is a basic human need to crave in-person connection with others; we were not meant to live life alone. I craved fellowship beyond a mask. I craved community without fear. I longed for a new normal where I could hug or shake hands with a stranger and not immediately fear exposure to a life-threatening disease.

Something had to change, and it started with who I was listening to. I stopped reading the CDC website because it kept changing its mind on what to do and left me more confused and afraid of others. I stopped listening to the news because they had nothing good to say and capitalized on fear and anger. In case you were wondering, fear and anger are emotions we have historically used to control the public. This article from The Conversation website, does a fair job of explaining the history and how it has been used for COVID but experienced backfiring results.

I limited who and what I allowed to speak into my life. (Which is a policy I think showed more wisdom than fear and still saves me today from unnecessary confusion.)

  • I started filling my mind with advice from people I trusted including family, friends, and ministers.
  • Next, I started studying the Bible more and seeking God in worship and community at church.
  • Next, I sought wisdom on issues from authorities that were dealing with them first hand. I found doctors and hospitals online debunking COVID myths. This website was particularly helpful for countering some of the lies I was fearing.

With self-education, I felt safe enough to be in public as long as I maintained social distancing and sanitation. I didn’t consider the germs a child is exposed to in a public learning environment and then brings home to you. I had been taking my nieces to and from school every day for weeks. I didn’t question their lack of hygiene in a time of COVID. They are teenagers and what teenager EVER stops touching their face, phone, and every other surface long enough to sanitize or pull their mask up over their nose these days?

Photo by Charlotte May on Pexels.com

Then my eldest niece got sent home to be quarantined. She had been exposed to a COVID-positive person at school and had to stay out for ten days unless she tested negative. We had to isolate her and not let her socialize with the rest of us unless she was wearing a mask and distanced. I had to keep enforcing those protocols like a relentless dictator, however, because teenagers don’t pay attention to their actions. While I waited and watched for symptoms, I also lived with the fear that I had already been exposed and that this was no longer in my head–it was real threat.

I fought my fear with facts and self-educated.

  • I found out that COVID-19 is easy to kill with soap and water, so I washed my hands more and made my nieces shower when they got home from school.
  • I shut down any of our plans to be in the public, and I found ways for us to stay social but distanced together indoors.
  • I found out that people with the COVID vaccine can still get sick and still have to quarantine if they experience exposure–which made me wonder how the vaccine is helping at all if vaccinated people are still getting COVID.
  • I learned that COVID takes a minimum of five days to germinate and present enough bacteria for an accurate test result and ten days before symptoms begin to show.
  • I also learned that very few symptoms often present in children. That meant that my niece–who struggles to focus on schooling when she is home–would be stuck self-motivating herself to do well in school for a whole week of work before she could get tested. It also meant that all her household chores fell on me and her sister because all her energy and time were spent on staying focused on school.

I watched the girls and myself closely for symptoms according to the CDC and WebMD. The girls didn’t exhibit any signs, but I had almost all of them. While I could explain away the nausea, dry cough, fatigue, muscle ache, headaches, sore throat, and congestion, I couldn’t explain my loss of taste and smell. I was pretty sure all my symptoms were allergy and med related, but I had never had allergies take away my senses of smell and taste. What was worse: if I did have COVID, I had been exposing the family far longer than the school because I had all the symptoms before school began. The choice was clear: I had to get tested and quarantine myself.

Luckily, COVID-19 testing is federally mandated to be free right now, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to get tested. You still have to prove exposure and/or symptoms to be eligible to get tested. Here is what I did to get tested.

  • I googled “Covid testing near me”, answered some questions online, and scheduled an appointment.
  • When I got to the appointment, everything was handled through a drive-thru window and dropped in a LabCorp box for analysis.
  • Though I didn’t do the rapid test, I had my results within roughly 24 hours.
A negative test result for COVID.

Panic over COVID made me treat others like parasites and live in fear in my

own household. It created a

wound in people I loved and built a barrier between important relationships. It

exposed a lack of faith in an Almighty God to protect and restore us. It

revealed an area of growth and healing I needed to pursue.

What My COVID Scare Taught Me

Testing negative for COVID-19 gave me back a sense of power in my life–but it came at a cost. I had created wounds with my own fear that needed restoration. I grabbed up my nieces and hugged them tightly. I wanted them to know they were not the Black Plague of germ death to me (even if teenagers sometimes seem like they are).

No matter what happens with the pandemic in the months and years to come, we can’t let our “new normal” become a place of fear about connection with others. We need to stay alive and aligned with our core values, and we need to stay in a place of safe in-person contact with other people.

The Road Less Travelled: A Reflection on my Master’s Degree and experience at East Carolina University

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim…

 

–from Robert Frost “The Road Not Taken”

 

My Experience

If I could characterize my graduate school journey by any one thing, I would have to say it is a lot like Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”. I started my master’s degree with one clear-minded goal to teach full-time in college. At the time, all my advisors pushed me to get my master’s in Adult Education. After the first few classes, I quickly realized that a degree in this field would lead to management not teaching. I looked into open teaching positions and researched what a college professor would need to teach English at my local community college. I confirmed my findings with the Department Head. I needed a master’s in English not Adult Education.

I expected the change to be relatively easy. I’d fill out a form and change my major and be done with it. I started taking English classes right away while I was still an Adult Education student. I didn’t think twice about the paperwork until I was almost done with all the English classes for the degree. When I went to fill out the paperwork, I discovered that it was a great insult to enter the program that way. I was informed that I had to apply for the program like everyone else and I “hadn’t given enough reasons to justify” my acceptance into the program.

I was shocked and really scared that all my hard work and money would be lost. I contacted a friend of mine who is an Assistant Director of a program at Appalachian State University. I knew I could talk to him freely and get good advice about how to plead my case. He encouraged me to take ownership of my mistakes and plead my case addressing all my correspondence by their Doctorate degree. Addressing the head of admissions to the TPC program as Doctor seemed to be the added push I needed. I begged for her to accept me despite my mistakes, and she did. I’ve called every professor by their Doctorate name since then to be safe.

My entire college career has been a journey I have excelled in and loved every minute of. I always had good grades and did exemplary work. I always had instructors who were more like friends and remain friends to me today. That was my expectation coming into a master’s degree at ECU, but that was not what I got at all.

How It Was Different

The biggest difference came in the way I approached my instructors. I expected to be able to come to my instructors as mentors and ask for their advice and guidance. However, very few instructors invited us to communicate our emotions, and most treated any such dialogue as a sign that we hadn’t read the material. Anytime I asked a question about anything, I was referred to the website. At one point, I was specifically told by an advisor to go read the manual for the program because I had “no more excuses (to say that) I didn’t know (anything) anymore”. I remember a few instructors who graded discussion forums based on our use of direct references to the textbooks. There was no room for letting the work move and change us; we were supposed to absorb the work like robots. As you can tell, I have not learned that lesson yet.

Instead of feeling like I could come to my instructors with pride and thankfulness, I grew to fear them. I was constantly afraid I would say the wrong thing and hurt my grade. The dark cloud of how I entered the program was always hanging over my head as were the words of the administrator that reluctantly let me enter it. Later, when I suffered the loss of a loved one and my GPA fell below 3.0, I lived with the devastation of feeling like I was as worthless as the way I had been treated. I was kicked out of the program and took a year off per the Department Chair’s recommendation. I begged my way back in. Still, I worried that my academic record would mark me as a failure before I could even be given a chance. My overall experience with my instructors made me scared to offer anything more than an edited version of myself.

The next difference came in my grades. Many times I would pour hours into a project, turn it in expecting an A, and get it back with a C. The harder I tried to make an A in a class, the further I got from it. If I dared to tell an instructor that I was trying to get an A in their class, I was often graded more harshly. On rare occasions, a professor would work with me but still make me earn it. In the children’s literature course, for example, I went through multiple revisions of documents before they met Dr. Tedesco’s standards for an A. I had to make several trips to meet her in person for that, but I will always thank her for being willing to work with me so diligently. Very few of my other instructors were willing to work with me in this way. One instructor, in particular, failed me when I asked for an incomplete. In my entire academic career, I can’t remember ever failing a class until grad school.   

The next difference I experienced was scheduling. I expected all classes to run on the understanding that the week starts and ends on a specific day. For example, it would start on Monday and end on Sunday. What I found, instead, was that every instructor measured time differently. Weeks started and stopped as they wanted them to; no two class calendars were the same. Different calendars meant that class deadlines were constantly changing and overlapping. That was especially true with instructors that taught through external websites outside of Blackboard. Eventually, I had to take the entire outline of each class calendar and add the events to my own personal Google calendar to keep track of my deadlines. Additionally, I checked the websites daily for revisions and updates. I was always worried about falling behind, but this helped me stay ahead enough to find time for other things in my schedule too.

The final difference I experienced was in technology. Most of my experience as a student and as an instructor with education had been face-to-face instruction or instruction using the same uniform learning platform. As a graduate student, I experienced learning through WordPress, Blackboard, and a variety of other external websites. Every instructor had a different approach to how a course should be taught, and those approaches came through onion layers of technology. I had to learn to navigate my way to websites within websites and documents within documents. The only thing I could expect for certain was that every class would have a discussion forum. The rest was fluid. It was hard to get used to that much flexibility, but it was that flexibility that would ultimately inspire my CAP project.

Specific Course Feedback

My experiences with instructors at East Carolina University was diverse. The instructor I had for English 6715 and 7701 was particularly impossible to please. I made countless revisions on work for him, gave him material strong enough for publishing, and got back disgusted remarks and failing grades. I took one of his courses twice because he failed me out of the course the first time while I was going through a personal family crisis. If anyone professor could be responsible for my negative experience and resulting Academic Probation period, it was him.

Not all TPC instructors were like that. In English 6721, I learned a lot about formats, fonts, headers, and copy-editing in his classes. The instructor was very helpful and kind–I almost needed a translation chart to get through the punctuation marks–but I wish I could grade my papers by his marks. It would definitely be a lot more efficient use of my time.

Another professor introduced me to teaching through WordPress. I learned a lot from him and started my own blogs on WordPress because of what I experienced in his and other instructors’ courses. My main blog, rebeccawhitman.wordpress.com, has been active for four years. I have been visited over 2000 times and have accrued a following of 240+ followers through simple word-of-mouth marketing. I post weekly to the site and will be more aggressively marketing it soon. Additionally, I started a blog for educators at whitmansacademics.wordpress.com. I’ve received a lot of recent recognition on that blog for my accomplishments with Google Classroom and my interviews with successful students and educators. One recent interview garnishes 50 views in less than 24 hours.

While most of the textbooks in my TPC classes did not have much relevance for me, I did find some that were applicable to other situations. For example, in the English 7721 Editing class, we read Richard Hamilton’s Managing Writers: A Real World Guide to Managing Documentation. While the book was very specific to the field of TPC management, it was also metaphorically significant for other leadership roles. For example, the sections talking about management philosophy and work environments could be applicable to any job.

Of all the TPC instructors, I learned the most from Dr. Frost. Her Health and Medical Rhetorics class challenged me to see the value and aesthetic beauty of medical texts. I did not enjoy most of the texts, but I was inspired to see works like Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as intriguing. I was particularly moved by Skloot’s book and the raw candor of medical history and racial experience that she expressed. As I was reintroduced to it later in the Dr. Frost’s Writing Public Science course, I realized it would be an excellent textbook for my students. Another book introduced in the writing course, Andy Weir’s The Martian, became my second textbook for the course I created: Science Through Literature.

Far and away, my top favorite classes were the ones in writing and multicultural literature. That’s not surprising considering that my BFA was in Creative Writing at UNC Wilmington, and I am an English teacher now. I’m always more attracted to literature than the mechanics behind it.

In English 5890, the instructor was highly knowledgeable about scriptwriting and the filmmaking business in general. I remember being excited about his use of special collaboration software to allow us to virtually contribute to writing workshops. Nothing was quite so exciting as hearing my work and my characters read and discussed by my peers. I wrote a lot of notes and made a lot of revisions. I didn’t follow through with completing the script, but it meant a lot to me that the instructor invited me to continue working on it with him in another course. (An honor he did not give unless he saw promise in the work.) His choice of textbooks was equally helpful. We read Syd Field’s The Foundations of Screenwriting. The textbook was not as important as the work we were doing and discussing creatively, but it was particularly helpful about the field of screenwriting itself. It was not overly scholarly; it was practical. For example, I remember it discussing how much a film budget could expect to be based on the length of the screenwriter’s manuscript. It never occurred to me that overly wordy text could cost thousands to millions of dollars somewhere else. Now it makes sense why so many scenes are cut before they can even be shot.  

In English 7005, I was challenged to read text from different cultures I would not have normally read. I particularly remember reading Adichie’s Americanah and having a negative review of the author afterward. The instructor was always inspiring. He shamelessly pleaded with students for feedback and course enrollment through mass emails. He also made discussion boards competitive by sending us response letters featuring different students who stood out to him on the boards. I remember wanting to get featured in his letter and trying harder to comment intellectually on the boards to earn it. The instructor’s clever marketing ploys were part of what got me motivated to come back and finish my degree after a period of academic suspension. They were also what inspired me to enroll all my students in a free texting app, Remind, where I frequently send out prodding texts for their attendance and class participation.

It has been on my heart to write a particular children’s series, The Bohemian Princess. I was not quite sure how to flesh it out, so I really wanted to take a children’s literature course. I contacted the children’s literature instructor, and she created a custom course for me. A respected voice in the field of literary criticism about children’s literature herself, Dr. Tedesco challenged me as a reader and a writer in English 6515. I read more children’s books and books about children’s books than I knew existed. Many of them became so personally relevant to me that I bought my own small library of their work and continued reading them long after the class was over. I was particularly fond of the criticism of Maria Tatar, a well-respected voice in the realm of children’s literary criticism. Tatar dove into the layers of meaning in fairytales and challenged my approach to writing them. She made me think about the pedagogy going into my approach to writing children’s literature. On Dr. Tedesco’s recommendation, I read Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl and fell in love with the whole Books of Bayern series. I was equally inspired by the books we read and discussed like R.J.Palacio’s Wonder, Limony Snicket’s The Bad Beginning, Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven, and E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. I never realized the depth of character and work that went into writing books for children. Charlotte’s Web, for example, had a far more dark discussion of the cycle of life and death than I remembered when I read it as a child. Overall, I cherished getting to know new authors in the field and reading criticism about children’s literature in general. It is something I still collect and read, and it is a field of writing I will soon join. When I have my own children’s books, I hope they will be ones that Dr. Tedesco would have approved of.

In one of my last courses at ECU, an instructor reignited my poetic voice. We read authors like Layli Long Soldier, Kaveh Akbar, Joan Kane, and Elizabeth Alexander. During this whole discussion, the instructor never related the fact that she has her own published collections. She let us freely discuss the work we read and invited some of us to write our own poetry responses to it. The freedom to read and discuss poetry was the most liberating class experience of my whole degree. I did not love all the choices–I hated some of them passionately–but the experience gave me a chance to remember why I started writing poetry at a young age, pursued a BFA in poetry, and had several poems published.

The Story Behind the CAP Project

My experiences with so many different online learning environments made me want to offer a similar experience for my students. In particular, I wanted to offer my students a customized learning environment. However, that seemed like an impossible goal because the laws governing funding for Adult Basic Skills Education, where I work, require us to rely on instructional software that has time capturing features embedded into the programs. The programs are fine, but they don’t follow all the changing standards for content that we are required to follow, and they don’t teach material in the most engaging way for students. Most premade content requires a lot of reading and writing with little to no video instruction. In my English classes alone, it requires one-three 100 word essays at the end of every reading assignment. Essays intimidate the students and require a lot of grading from the instructors. In most cases, the learning can be adequately judged by a multiple choice self-grading test instead.

As I thought through all these problems, I began to explore other learning platforms used in the curriculum departments of my college. At Wayne Community College, instructors teach online through either Moodle or Google Classroom. Both require student logins through student email accounts. Both allow instructors to post content any way they want to for the students. Both allow discussion forums, video content, pdf attachments, etc. Both are similar to Blackboard, and Google Classroom has a fully functional app version for access on mobile devices.

I discovered that we could potentially use the same learning environment of Moodle or Google Classroom if we could have approved proxy hours to count for the work completed. I found the Google Classroom to be the most efficient of the two, so I started building courses in it. At the time, I was working as an adjunct with as many as 80 students in one class at one time. I wasn’t paid for the extra time to create the project, but I was able to use it in my classes to field test it. I created and field tested a Google Classroom class in all the areas of instruction I was responsible for teaching. I submitted my work to the North Carolina Community College System Office for approval for proxy hours. State auditors visited and loved it. I was asked to give a webinar about my work and, later, teach other teachers about it at Appalachian State University. After two years of waiting, the state office finally sent us back official approval to use the work as I outlined it. You can read more about the Google Classroom project here.

My CAP project will be used as a course website in the same way that some instructors have created external websites for courses in this program. It will have all the content for the course, and instructors will use Google Classroom to monitor student work in a similar way that graduate school instructors use Blackboard to monitor work. Since the course outline was approved by the state, this website will be shared with programs across the state who are using my outline to create course material for their programs. I am excited about what this means for the world of Adult Basic Skills Education and my footprint in it.

Final Thoughts

My experiences with ECU were not as inspiring and kind as I had hoped, but they were educational. As you can see from the highlights included here, not every instructor was a discouragement, but part of finding encouragement in my learning came from learning to make lemonade from my lemons. I have to say that falling so far off my academic pedestal taught me more than I could have learned from my degree. It taught me that my self-worth can’t be dictated by a classroom or a grade point average. It taught me that when you really want something, sometimes you have to articulate your need and fight for it. I may never use my degree for a career in Technical Writing, but I will always be able to use how it taught me to fight and how it taught me to read and write critically.