Orchestrating educational access: when a ‘CovEd’-ed dream becomes reality
Reflections from a community effort to keep students close during social distancing
It had been 44 hours since I last slept, and my mind was racing.
Recycled Amazon boxes scrawled on with black broad Sharpies scattered our common room floor. Our walls, devoid of the usual smiling Polaroid faces from YardFest and Friendsgiving, stared blankly back at me.
I skipped class the next day and walked to 77 Mass. Ave., Building 46. It was difficult to express what I was feeling even with a group of MIT labmates that I have grown to love and admire over the course of the year. Long after a teary conversation with my mentor, I realized it wasn’t the housing insecurity or lab shutdowns that produced this relentless sinking sensation in my chest. It was saying goodbye to the impromptu ice cream runs, the 11 p.m. post-lab movies at Kendall Square, and the countless pranks our UROP squad had masterminded that would be left unfulfilled (sorry, Daniel and Alexi’s un-Googly-eyed micropipettes).
When Harvard/MIT no longer feel like home, how do you find a community amidst the chaos?
Fast forward a week later and I’m at the Logan airport, waiting for my flight back to California. My friends and I were hearing about public school closures in Montebello, Compton, and Los Angeles Unified School Districts. On the plane, I remember having a conversation with a close friend and realizing, “Wow, I’ve been so caught up in my own worries about finding emergency housing and continuing school that I didn’t think of anyone else around me.”
With many schools around the nation closing their doors, school districts and students who cannot afford resources to enable virtual or remote learning were being heavily disadvantaged. In addition, many students whose families have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis struggle to continue their education from home, even with sufficient access to WiFi and educational materials.
While educators nationwide transitioned to virtual classrooms and administrators worked tirelessly to combat food/housing insecurities of underserved families, we found ourselves in a not-so-different world at the border where our undergraduate bubble meets the rest of society. We had participated in dozens — if not hundreds — of discussions theorizing about social disparities from the comfort of our lecture halls and Canvas discussion posts. Now that we were being sent home, could this be an opportunity to concretely help our communities who face these realities on a day-to-day basis?
One Google Form, three Zoom meetings, and over 1,500 mentor sign-ups later, I’ve learned to associate “community” not with its physical implications, but rather the collective heart and strength of its members that have empowered us to combat these shared obstacles. Not just the perennial challenge of ensuring equal access to education for K-12 students, which has only now begun to make its way to the forefront of American society; rather, our CovEducation community has been, for my team and myself, an indefatigable push toward combating the isolation and angst that accompanies social distancing and our worldwide pandemic.
As the late Marina Keegan (Yale ’12) speculated, “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.”
That’s what CovEd means to me.
With the help of ~150 undergraduates and faculty, 1,500+ mentors from over 40 states representing 60+ institutions across the U.S., and 950+ members in our virtual community of students, educators, and parents, CovEd has rapidly grown to a scale I would never have imagined, and has become much, much more to me than a group of college kids offering academic support to K-12 students in need.
Within the span of the past year, I’ve lost two great mentors (my faculty dean, Deborah Gehrke, and my former coach/teacher, Alan Lee) and gained 200 more — from our professors that helped drive this project forward, to our team and families we work with:
I’ve learned from Kay Merseth, Professor of Education at Harvard, that we don’t need towering political or even administrative influence to effect powerful changes in our community; we as college students cannot fight all of society’s injustices, but we can cast a stone that will create many ripples.
I’ve learned from Dheekshita (MIT ’20), our web development guru who built our entire website within hours and is currently working to create a CovEd mobile app, that meeting lifelong friends online is, like, soo not a thing of the past. (I’m looking at you, Club Penguin haters.)
I’ve learned from Zoya (Harvard ’22), our public relations head, that CovEd is “an opportunity for students of all ages: some to learn and some to teach.” One of the most powerful moments we shared was finding a mentor for a student for whom the mother requested “a role model who uses hearing aids,” and getting a message regarding their first meeting: “She spoke with her mom & they both use the same aids!!! CRAZY!!!”
… from Tam (MIT ’21), that no matter how many fist fights we have with MailChimp or how stressful coordinating the workflow for manual pairings of 700+ students is, there will always be that one email — no matter how small — that keeps us moving forward, whether it’s hearing about a student’s writing progress, their virtual ballet classes, or getting messages like these:
[From a mentor] “J. wants more guidance in terms of public speaking/debate instruction, and he made some very good points about why cats are better than dogs in the practice debate we had.”
[From a parent] “Hi Tam and L., This is great news. It's the first smile I've had all day. And today has been rough!”
And from so many voices of encouragement, of support, and advice: from expanding resources to ESL and SPED children, headed by Sarah (MIT ’21), our education head, to reaching out to low-income and rural communities, headed by Daniela (MIT ’23), our outreach lead, that brought to my attention so many factors in educating a child that go into supporting their well-being and personal development.
At a time when many fragments of our lives have disintegrated into the void of family apprehensions and countless Zoom memes, our team encountered each other at this precarious border between privilege and marginality, where passion and leadership met to reconnect the pieces. And this, to me, speaks to the enduring essense of community that has touched my heart through the kindness of its members:
Motivated by a similar restless desire to ensure equity and excellence in K-12 education, we found our way into a powerful friendship that will continue on, even if CovEd doesn’t.
Evelyn Wong is an undergraduate researcher at MIT and a member of the Harvard class of 2021.
Update 4/10/20: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of CovEd's web developer. She is Dheekshita, not Dheeksita.