A Tale Of Two Crises

Originally published in Greater Park Hill News on August 31st, 2020

Living In A State Of Suspended Animation

I was only 17 at the time, but I can recall in vivid detail the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Anyone who is old enough remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing the moment they learned of the terrorist attack that shook our nation’s core. We remember, because it stopped us in our tracks. We remember, because the loss of life was so significant and sudden. We remember, because it is a timestamp in history … an event that created a world we remember as pre-9/11, and a world post.

There is no debate that 9/11 was an American tragedy. A crisis that triggered chaos, anguish, and long-lasting consequences; but also an event that united us in grief, in compassion and in understanding.

Nineteen years later, America is facing a new crisis: COVID-19. A crisis that at the end of August has taken over 183,000 U.S. lives – more than 57 times the number of lives claimed on that fateful Tuesday morning in 2001. A crisis that, similar to 9/11, will be remembered for its extensive loss of life, far-reaching repercussions, and a division of history into before and after.

The difference between these two crises is the amount of time that exists between these pre- and post-worlds. 9/11 unfolded rapidly in a matter of hours, allowing for Americans to unite in trauma, grief, recovery and healing. For COVID-19, our pre-pandemic world ended in March, but when will the post-pandemic world begin? For now, we live in a state of suspended animation.

Because this is ongoing, we continue to live through the fear-provoking, stress-inducing, traumatic space that exists between before and after. We haven’t begun to grieve or recover or heal simply because it isn’t over.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In the 1940s, American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a theory referred to as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This theory states that a person’s basic physiological, safety, social, and esteem needs must be met before self-actualization (or the fulfillment of potential) can be reached. For example, if a child comes to school hungry, they are going to be far more focused on hunger than on making new friends or completing assignments. We must meet the most basic needs that affect us before moving up the hierarchy.

As COVID-19 continues into its seventh month, the impact on our individual progress through the hierarchy has been profound. For some, it has disrupted our routines and habits. For others, it has prevented celebrations of beautiful moments such as hard-earned graduations and wedding celebrations. For older people and those with underlying health conditions, the virus has triggered immense fear for safety needs, requiring isolation from friends and family. Others watch their sense of security threatened as restaurants and businesses shutter. Unemployment is at record high rates, and millions of Americans face imminent eviction, inciting the very real fear of homelessness.

No matter where you fall on this continuum of loss, it’s safe to say that this pandemic has forced almost all of us to re-prioritize our needs. But the truth is, those of us with financial security were already in a better position to weather this crisis. Our loss is real, upsetting, and worth grieving. But for those who entered the pandemic on a lower rung of Maslow’s hierarchy, the fallout is far more acute. Divisions in wealth and class existed pre-COVID. Without intervention, however, the post-COVID divide could widen beyond repair.

The impact on education

As socioeconomic inequities amplify during the pandemic, so do the inequities in education. Gaps that existed prior to COVID-19 will increase as we move through this crisis, with potentially catastrophic results.

Families whose physiological and safety needs are met during the pandemic can focus their priorities on educating their children, ensuring that they don’t “fall behind.” Many private schools and districts with ample funding are attempting to return to in-person learning this fall, ensuring small class sizes and access to face masks and face shields for all staff and students.

Meanwhile, larger metropolitan districts like Denver Public Schools – with many high-need students and fewer resources – are having to tackle how to educate students remotely. Among the challenges: ensuring equitable access to computers and internet, while at the same time trying to meet many of the basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy such as food, clothing, learning materials and mental health support.

Just as with wealth and class, these inequities in education existed before COVID. Now, while wealthy children can continue to forge ahead in their education, children in poverty are experiencing the amplification of their basic needs. Post-COVID, the learning gap between these two demographics of children may be impossible to recover, if we fail to intervene.

What can we do?

In the wake of Sept. 11, neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens came together to support one another. The collective trauma we experienced awakened our vulnerability. As we felt deep sorrow, we each vowed to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to prevent anything like that from happening again.

This crisis is different. It isn’t violent, and it isn’t fast. In fact, it is incredibly slow moving, and at times, feels never-ending. But what if we were willing to make sacrifices for one another this time too? What if those of us who are operating in spaces of privilege, take a step back this year from business as usual? What if instead we came together, as a community, to address the very real needs of safety, security, housing, food, clothing and shelter for so many of our neighbors? What if we press pause on academic achievement, and instead focus on our collective need for friendship, intimacy, family, and sense of connection with each other?

No matter where you fall on the hierarchy, I think we can agree this is something we all desperately need. Looking for a way to actively combat inequities facing our community? There are three things you can do:

Donate to the One Park Hill Fund – donate.dmci.network – choose PHNEE-One Park Hill Fund in the dropdown. Donations will help create and sustain supported learning environments for those most in need in our neighborhood, as well as support activities and community building across all schools.

Register to volunteer – volunteer.dmcimpact.org Denver Metro Community Impact and PHNEE will work to match volunteers with needs.

Join us on Sept. 9, from 7-8 p.m. for EdEquity Corner, a monthly zoom conversation sponsored by PHNEE. Register at tinyurl.com/edequitysept2020. For more information or to get involved, email info@phnee.org.

Erin Pier is a mother of three, Stedman parent, and school psychologist at AUL Denver. She is an active member of the Park Hill Neighbors For Equity In Education, which works toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in all schools in the neighborhood. For more information, check out the group’s Facebook page at facebook.com/phnee, or send an email to info@phnee.org.