Last month, I had the privilege of moderating a roundtable discussion on the Gendered Impact of COVID-19 for the American Council on Education.
This was a follow-up to a 2020 session with Felicia Commodore, Gloria Blackwell and Elizabeth Travis that was moderated by Gailda Davis of ACE. The conversation at the 2020 session had focused on lessons for leaders and provided valuable messages for leadership early on in the pandemic.
At the November 2021 session, almost two years into the pandemic, we really started to look at the longer-term gendered impacts of not only a global pandemic but also racial and social reckonings and financial crises. We looked at the challenges faculty, staff and administrators are facing and talked through some of the ways our institutions have started to address the resulting inequities. At the end of the session, we wrapped up with recommendations for leaders. This more recent session really articulated some of the lasting impacts on faculty and staff and the messages that leaders needed to hear from faculty and staff.
The panelists included Christa Porter, assistant professor of higher education administration in the College of Education, Health and Human Services at Kent State, and Kathryn Kennedy, founder and executive director of Wellness for Educators. Christa’s scholarly work looks at policies and practices that impact Black women in higher ed, and it was great to have her expertise on the panel. Her 2021 co-authored paper “Co-Conspirators and Community Care: Toward Theorizing a Post-COVID-19 Academy” in the Journal of the Professoriate is a fantastic read on this topic. In this paper and in her contributions to the roundtable, Christa frames COVID-19 as an opportunity and posits justice as a pathway for institutional transformation. She also looks at community care as an alternative to rampant individualism. This dovetailed nicely with Kennedy’s work related to wellness and mental health.
Our roundtable conversation focused on hybrid work policies at our institutions, the vicarious trauma that our BIPOC colleagues have been experiencing—especially our Black colleagues—and mental health challenges we are facing. Over 100 people pre-registered for the event, and the participants were looking for many things. A few that stood out to me included: how to make sense of our COVID lives, concrete actions that we can take to address the increased inequities and how to be a more desirable workplace for women. Over all, there were many questions about mental health and well-being—for faculty, staff, students and administrators.
People are exhausted—students, faculty, staff, leadership—and it is not over. Omicron is here, and cases are rising at institutions across the country and the globe. We are entering our third year of pandemic living. Booster shots are required at many universities in the Boston area, and as this week’s Atlantic has reported, Gen Z has had enough. The youth are over the pandemic, and as a generation in emerging adulthood, they are through with this. I know that I am Omicron cautious, but I also know that I can’t expect the same degree of caution from everyone else.
Mary Churchill is the former chief of policy and planning for Mayor Kim Janey in the city of Boston and current associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis and an ICF certified leadership coach.