Opinion

Imagining a New Normal Outside the Post-Virus Box

Some of us are seeing our values shift as COVID-19 maintains its grip and challenges us to rethink priorities.

Cooking has become critical; walking, a way to preserve sanity. We are reaching out to relatives and friends with virtual parties, book groups, and meals. We are rethinking the art of gathering.

This morning, I had a prearranged phone call with two college buddies to discuss “Fear and Faith Amidst a Collective Crisis.” In normal times, we wouldn’t have had the courage or impetus to dive deep on a Monday morning. We left the call energized. “Better than church,” declared my Christian friend. We agreed on a weekly Tuesday morning call. Next topic: the lyrics of Bob Dylan, John Prine, and Neil Young.

I wonder if we can carry forward what we are discovering about a slower pace — about connecting deeply with our friends and family, and about long walks — to the post COVID-19 world. Can we create a new normal? What might this mean for the environment? Can we muster the momentum, move the hearts and minds, ignite the political will, and make systemic changes to support a slower pace, longer walks, cleaner air, less obesity? As an educator, I wonder what a values shift might look like for schools.

How about this for starters: Let’s say school doesn’t start until 9 or 10 a.m., and every kid who arrives under their own natural power earns physical education credit and free food at the farmers market. And you know what? Children, especially the young ones, need much more time outside running around discovering, playing, inventing, and realizing they are physical creatures who thrive in fresh air. Why not a community recess every day from 8-9:30 a.m. before school starts?

I can see it now at the Pell Elementary School in Newport — students arriving from the West, from Festival Field, emerging from the woods after climbing the hill, the highest point in Newport and spilling out into Miantonomi Park. And why not dot the woods with volunteer naturalists to support the exploration of nature? After all, Miantonomi Park is Newport’s largest contiguous wooded area, the first stop in spring for song birds migrating north and in need of a break after a long journey over sea. The last stop in the fall for the southbound warblers, grosbeaks, blue birds, and barn swallows. The songs. The colors. The mystery. The wonder.

Hey, and if kids prefer to play games, climb the monkey bars, or even go inside and tune up one of their three Rs, or make art or music, let ‘em go. Give them a choice. Trust their instincts. Their desires. The sooner kids have the opportunity to take responsibility, the sooner they will be responsible.

And what about the parents? Invite them to play, to socialize, to teach a class from 8:30-9:30 a.m. Give them a reason to put their phones in their pockets and purses. To be the person their children aspire to be. To lead by example.

Now, you might say, this is fantasy from a guy who lives on an island. I do. But in reality, our children attend schools where 19 percent, according to SurveyWorks, say they are engaged in high school, are in desperate need of help, fresh ideas, and clean air. Why not start outside the box?

Steve Heath is a Jamestown, R.I., resident and the executive director of FabNewport.

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  1. Amen. A nice vision. Or, at present, perhaps more accurately a dream… What I would most like to learn more about is the origin and nature of the contagion of fear that has steadily spread in our society over a considerable time, leading, at last, to this present generation of child rearing parents who interrupt—it would appear severely—not merely our children’s relationship with nature, but of perhaps more concern, their relationship with each other, the fundamental socialization that underpins a healthy and resilient psychology throughout life. I, too, have been a teacher, for 31 years, and though my view, I know, is merely anecdotal, I seem to have witnessed the proportion of physically unhealthy, socially alienated children spending a school year with me grow and grow and grow. School alone is light-years less a place for both physical activity and socialization, but as the prison doors open each afternoon and funnel them into buses, how much more freedom will and extended society will so many really enjoy?

  2. I’m wondering where grandparents are in this picture of the future. Or parents with chronic conditions, or who take certain medicines to live. Unless Covid-19 is eradicated in Rhode Island, or any island, people cannot return to enjoying family life without threatening to expose their family members to a life-threatening infection. If parents start going to work outside the home, they can bring home nfection if they share office space, if they serve customers all day, if they use public transport instead of cars. Grandparents will be told to stay away from them, at risk of dying. Rhode Island is a small state with excellent access to scientists in Massachusetts who are working to rid communities of Covid-19, and keep them that way, using local public health officers, which every town has. The major focus of every community activist should now be, in my view, to work to make the community where the live as a virus-free community. Pawtucket and Central Falls are creating programs to do this.

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