WMS people

Getting Through the Pandemic. What Will It Take?

Jill Skilton
Director of Communications
COVID-19 Coordinator

Getting Through the Pandemic. What Will It Take?

When I think about the last year in terms of Covid response, it’s often the tangibles that stand out—blue tape marking the center of the halls; plexiglass wrapping the front desk; daily symptom checks accumulating in my inbox; soap, water & towels all effortlessly appearing on cue; x’s marking 6 feet between here and there. 

Other times what most strikes me is the sheer amount of “new” and “unexpected” we’ve all had to learn and adapt into our daily lives. “Polymerase chain reaction” is perhaps the most scientific thing I’ve uttered since 1995 when I decided to change my major from biology to journalism. And not since the months leading up to my wedding day in 2002, have I put more effort into flattening a curve. 

I admit these are weak attempts at humor, but they are also an intentional effort to put my fear and anxiety of Covid into perspective. Humor doesn’t dismiss, remove or replace fear; humor strengthens our ability to confront, cope and conquer fear.

We have collectively endured significant trauma, which, like toothpaste, can’t be easily put back in the tube. Ken Goodman, a social worker who specializes in anxiety treatment, writes: “Once a trauma occurs, anxiety is maintained with fearful thinking and anxious behaviors. We saw images of hospitals being overrun, severely sick people on ventilators which were in short supply, and not enough protective equipment to shield the nurses and doctors treating those patients. We heard doctors talk about the virus spreading quickly through asymptomatic individuals and there were scientific models estimating millions dying. To be safe and flatten the curve, virtually everything shut down – quickly. Because our knowledge of the virus has improved since March, we must now flatten the fear, a difficult task for many reasons.”

Difficult because our already challenging, but nonetheless, rewarding experiences as parents, caregivers, and educators have only gotten more challenging, less rewarding. Difficult because we all have loved ones to care for and worry about. Difficult because the measures we take to ensure our safety are also constant reminders of that from which we are protecting ourselves in the first place. Difficult because we as a school community have endured significant change. Difficult for a million different reasons. Especially difficult because the compounded effects of all the above have shaken the foundation of trust that has defined the WMS experience for decades.

Washington Montessori School trusts children’s innate and unique abilities. Our students learn to recognize and trust them, as well. Parents trust teachers’ depth of knowledge and expertise. As a WMS parent, I personally have benefitted from a teacher kindly saying, “Trust me,” more times than I can count during conversations about my children. I’ve always been grateful to have had that level of support from my children’s teachers, and that kind of faith in their WMS education. And however terrible the Covid situation has been, there has always been a part of me that has felt grateful for the opportunity to return even a smidgen of that support. I’ve never worked harder, but I also have never felt more part of the team.

I feel a deep sense of responsibility in the role of Covid Coordinator, and I am motivated to continue on out of an enduring trust that WMS simply makes better humans and that the world needs as many better humans as it can get. I believe it’s a similar idealistic belief that motivates even the most pragmatic of us at WMS.

These past few months I have spent an enormous amount of time sifting through public health reports, listening to various webinars, scouring the websites of the CDC, the WHO and the Connecticut DPH and—quite honestly—searching for the silver bullet that will immediately solve everything while we wait our turn for the vaccine. It’s almost impossible to believe that with all of our technological advances and medical breakthroughs, the best we’ve come up with is: Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Keep a distance.

My daily searches end the same way: There is no perfect solution, no magic potion, no way to completely remove risk. Our best course of action— so far— is, in fact: Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Keep a distance. There’s plenty of science and data to support the claim, but who the heck has time to consider data when you’ve got so much toothpaste to jam back into the tube?

The following few sentences in a paper titled “Risk Reduction Strategies for Reopening Schools” got me thinking beyond face masks, hand hygiene and all the practical, yet-whimsical, ways of illustrating what a 6-foot span looks like. “Just as there is no single control strategy that is effective in and of itself, there is no single entity that is solely responsible for keeping everyone safe. Everyone has a critical role to play. Getting through this pandemic will require a great deal of social trust.”

It’s that final sentence that resonates most. “Getting through this pandemic will require a great deal of social trust.” Is that the magic bullet? Is it: Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Keep a distance. And…. Trust? There’s something tragically poetic about a situation that demands trust as much as it erodes it.

One of the central emotional responses during a pandemic is fear. “When fear dominates, the primitive brain takes over, releasing cortisol and catecholamines—hormones released during emotional or physical stress. These chemicals shut down the brain’s prefrontal cortex, or executive functions, which enable sophisticated strategies, trust, integrity, and strategic thinking.” (“Minimize Fear–Maximize Trust“) Okay, so that’s probably the most scientific thing I’ve uttered since 1995. “Appreciation and Trust, on the other hand, minimize the impact of cortisol, and enable oxytocin, the bonding hormone, to flood the brain – elevating our ability to have a voice and partner for mutual success.”

Building—and maintaining—trust is complicated. Trust is allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, believing others will do right by us, having faith that others will not abuse us and put us at risk. In the absence of trust, there is an increased need for proof, evidence, facts.

Covid has added an enormous amount of work and stress to all of our lives. We’ve all been working in triage mode for months now. Important things—the kind of things that are imperative in a community of trust—haven’t happened because there are more urgent things needing our attention. 

If social trust is what will carry us through the pandemic, we are going to have to choose to trust. Mistrust won’t move anyone forward. We need to remember we are all in this together. We will get through this together. WMS will continue making better humans and those better humans will continue to go on and make the world a better place. The pandemic will come to an end. It won’t likely be the dramatic resolution we all so desperately deserve—no final buzzer, no victory lap, no fireworks over the forest moon of Endor, no tear-filled visceral gasp to close the show, no standing ovation. 

Until then, we have to do our best to keep moving forward and staying healthy—both physically and mentally. If constant fear is taking its toll on your overall well-being, it’s important to keep your Covid-related anxiety in check. “Instead of focusing on the worst-case scenario, you can reduce anxiety, by looking at the odds, choosing faith over fear, and focusing on living your life.” I very much recommend Ken Goodman’s article, “Flatten the Fear with Facts: What is an Appropriate Level of COVID-19 Worry and the Steps You Can Take to Reduce Anxiety.” I’ve quoted from it throughout this piece. Informed by data and statistics, his advice empowers us to live life while protecting ourselves simultaneously from the virus and from the fear of the virus.