Working on this assignment three semesters later, I have the advantage—or perhaps disadvantage—of hindsight. We were hopeful in 2021 that pandemic measures would lead to new ways of doing things. Robert Arnove built on Arundhati Roy’s image of the “pandemic as a portal”: we would pass through it and, in the wake of the pandemic’s destruction, we would build the social infrastructure that has been lacking for generations. Unfortunately, that is not exactly what happened.

For my part, in 2021, I was working in TRIO Student Support Services at a small college. I was helping disadvantaged students to succeed in college and launch their careers. Social distancing led to more communication, not less, as we were suddenly free to communicate with students on their terms, using text messages and video chat. (I had used these tools with college students in Alaska, but they were not as accepted here.) Career fairs, grad school fairs, and conferences went online in an effort to reach the same students they had reached before, but now students whose options had been limited before by distance or cost were able to participate on a higher level. New opportunities to expand access for marginalized groups and create a new reality were appearing.

But as we returned from social distancing to in-person activities, the “cult of 2019,” as I called it, dictated that we do away with those opportunities in order to “get back to normal.” The tension shifted. The momentum went in the wrong direction.

Throughout 2022, I worked on events where the organizers were “excited to be back in-person.” There was always talk on the side about the people who had had more and better access when things were online, but it was too important to get “back to normal” to worry about them too much this year. One of the events I helped plan in April went hybrid, because some people couldn’t travel to participate in person—the precedent for online conferences has been set. Other event committees talked about maybe having a hybrid option next year, but it’s too hard this year. I worry that we won’t get there. Enough people will be happy to be “back to normal” in 2023 that those who found opportunity and access when events were online will be sent back to the margins.

A similar opportunity was lost in college classes. For a year, professors were willing to make their classes hybrid to accommodate sick or quarantining students. This year, they are back in person, and many are unwilling to open a Zoom meeting or record a lecture. Athletes and non-traditional students missed class often before the pandemic, and they still do. For a year, they had the ability to Zoom in or watch a recording later, but that opportunity is becoming less common.

I taught a math class this fall. Nine of my seventeen students were on the football team, so there were Fridays when the majority of my class was absent. Halfway through the semester, my family got sick, and I stayed home for the better part of two weeks. I moved class online, so that we wouldn’t fall behind. When I came back in person, my students did not, partly because they were all getting sick in turns, and partly because they liked the convenience of Zoom classes and being able to watch lectures on YouTube later. I taught hybrid for the rest of the semester. The one thing that disappointed me was that the first year students had no hybrid class etiquette: they did not check their email, respond to messages, or turn in work.

One opportunity that has been kept is the prevalence of video conference meetings. I hold most of my one-on-one student meetings on Google Meet. My department holds all of our meetings over Zoom, because some of our team is remote. (I now work in Career Services at a research university.) In addition to helping me keep my family safe when viruses were circulating this fall, online meetings have enabled me to give the same service to students and alumni who are not in area and to students who might not be able to come to my office for whatever reason. This level of access for students and flexibility for staff is a positive development for our educational community and for society as a whole. I think it is here to stay.

Learning Activity: “Phone a Friend (or Talk to Yourself)”

This activity uses one still-ubiquitous feature of life in 2020-21 and some light storytelling to solve one of the perennial difficulties in job hunting. I have posted it on the website where I share career resources for my students, but it is not in the navigation of that site, so you can only get to it from here.