A World of Difference

Baltimore magazine|June/July 2020

A World of Difference
What will the “new normal” look like in the COVID-19 era?
RON CASSIE

Matt Hornbeck, the principal of Hampstead Hill Academy, a pre-K to 8th-grade public school next to Patterson Park, found out Maryland schools were closing at the same time everyone else did—after Gov. Larry Hogan’s afternoon press conference on Thursday, March 12. It meant he and his staff had less than 24 hours to prepare 859 students for a transition to online “school,” which would last for the remainder of the academic year due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Hornbeck’s staff got as many learning packets to the kids as they could. They spent the next few weeks safely distributing Chromebooks. Teachers began posting assignments, reading books to students online, and creating homemade instructional videos. They provided sample schedules to parents and organized “coach” classes—where kids could log-on in a live setting and ask their teacher questions.

Given the city’s gaping digital divide, hoping that a class of 25 city school children would start showing up in daily 8 a.m. Google classrooms was never an option. Many Baltimore kids simply don’t have WiFi at home. Others don’t have a parent in the house during the school day to help navigate the process. Even at Hampstead Hill, the highest performing school in the city, the staff still hadn’t heard from 55 students—and that was after six weeks of diligently whittling down their “hardest to reach” list.

Schools, like Hampstead Hill, are more than sources of neighborhood pride. They are hubs providing breakfasts, lunches, afterschool activities, and childcare. It’s where kids make friends and connect, and parents do, too.

“It doesn’t look anything like school used to look,” Hornbeck says. “It’s hard to even call it school.”

It’s a statement that applies to almost everything at the moment.

RESTAURANTS, BARBERSHOPS, bars, churches, libraries, gyms, movie theaters, museums, festivals, music venues, sporting events, and the state legislature shuttered all at once in mid-March. As did all “non-essential” workplaces. The entire economic fabric of the state, not to mention the natural, vibrant social life of Baltimore, was quickly torn asunder by the stay-at-home orders that were issued. It wasn’t just in Maryland, of course. By the end of May, nearly 41 million people—one in four workers nationally—were filing for unemployment each week. One Federal Reserve model projected a gross domestic product drop of more than 50 percent in the second quarter—both figures representing the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression. That Maryland, with its large number of federal workers, has fared better than most states hardly serves as consolation. Unemployment in the state, which tripled in a matter of weeks and remains at levels unseen since the 1930s, overwhelmed the system to the point where out-of-work Marylanders failed to get checks for weeks. Meanwhile, hospital intensive care units attempted to keep pace with coronavirus patients and food banks struggled to meet the demand from suddenly unemployed families.

One can only hope that lessons will be learned about preparing for future pandemics, including the need to manufacture and stockpile personal protective gear and testing equipment. But how do you measure and address the full impact of the COVID-19 virus in Maryland or a city like Baltimore? Is it a simple calculation of deaths and illnesses, plus job and tax revenue losses? What about addressing the hugely disproportionate impact on low-income and Black and Latino communities? Other questions arise, too, about building more resilience into our healthcare and economic systems. How long, for example, will U.S. citizens, the tens of millions of whom lost their livelihoods and insurance benefits in the middle of the pandemic, accept a system that ties their family’s healthcare to their job? Will the coronavirus crisis, in combination with the massive protests following the police killing of an unarmed George Floyd, spark any kind of reckoning of our ever-widening racial, health, and economic inequality?

It’s too early to know the answers to any of these questions. As we keep our fingers crossed for a vaccine, and social and economic life return to some kind of new normal, everything remains up in the air.

It’s not even clear yet if Maryland schools will fully reopen on August 31, officially the first day of 2020-2021 school year.

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June/July 2020