Remote Learning, Isolation, and Families: An Interview with Patricia Drentea, Professor of Sociology

Serious concerns about COVID-19 this year forced many schools to close with short notice. Teachers, students, and caregivers scrambled to find ways to continue education with a quick transition to remote learning in isolated households. Recently, I interviewed Patricia Drentea, Professor of Sociology, about isolation, remote learning, and other pressures on individuals and families caused by the novel coronavirus.

Patricia Drentea, Professor of Sociology, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Patricia Dentrea, Professor of Sociology

Patricia Drentea is Professor of Sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from The Ohio State University. She has numerous publications on aging and families, caregiving, and dying. Her work has been published in journals such as The Gerontologist, The Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Social Science & Medicine, Sociology of Health and Illness, CANCER, and the Journal of Aging and Health. She just wrote the book Families and Aging, Publisher Rowman & Littlefield.

Why do young people need time to be social with their peers? 

It is part of their development. Being with friends provides a sense of acceptance. They learn how to socialize with others in society. They are loved and accepted, and as every parent has painfully watched, “corrected” when they do something “wrong” according to their peers. We want them to go through this to learn social norms. These interactions are like the banks of a river that guide the river along the way. Older kids need their fun times with one another too. They are spending a lot of time with parents now. This is especially hard for tweens and teens, who are beginning the individuation (separation and identify formation) process from parents.

How can teachers foster some social time amongst their students? (And should they?)

As a college educator, I’ve heard both sides of this. Some students are really wanting interaction and appreciate the efforts put forth by the instructor to bring students together. Many do not want this and quite a few do not have reliable internet access, no camera, crowded conditions at home, shared devices, or feel they have the emotional energy to be “on screen.” I was shocked in my own class of college seniors, having had 3 different Zoom meetings, most left their cameras off. It was lonely to be hanging out there leading a meeting with all microphones and cameras off. Felt a little like the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “Anyone? Anyone?” Also had a friend who got her 4-year old so excited to see her preschool teacher and friends on a Zoom meeting. But then, the little girl lasted 3 or 4 minutes only! Then she just turned it off. She was done! Made me laugh, the poor mom. In her 4-year old brain, I guess she saw them. Done. Mom was hoping for at least a 20-minute break!

But to get back to the question, we should try, but also be prepared to be dissapointed. As educators we want to bring people together. Students may not be as excited as teachers might be, and they have a lot going on in their classrooms. We definitely cannot count off points against them if they don’t show. We should also walk them through the etiquette. I’ve heard more than one case where college men showed up without shirts, flexed muscles, and the female instructors felt uncomfortable. Discussions of Title IX came up, and not in the usual way. Rather the female instructors felt their class authority was being undermined, and that they were being disrespected. Since I had college seniors, I put the question to my students and asked what they think is “zoom” camera etiquette? But then, as I mentioned before, they really didn’t want to be on camera.

What are some tips for teachers about ways that they can support students while teaching remotely?

Check in, schedule meetings, send announcements, be flexible, know some people are really going through very, very hard times. Try to set up video meetings, I still think it is really good for students to “see” their instructors and other students. Some are very lonely, some are in abusive households, this may be really helpful for some. I have heard some students say seeing their instructor was the only normal part of their day, and that it was comforting.

What are the repercussions when people (of all ages) are cut off from their friends and normal life as many of us are now during the Pandemic? 

People really rely on routines and schedules. Daily social interaction is important to most people. It helps us feel connected to society and others. I am especially concerned for several groups of people, based on my research about age and social support. I am concerned for younger people and teens because so much of their social development comes from interactions with peers. However, most young people know how to use texting and social media to stay connected. Thus a larger concern is all the people who live alone-especially older adults. Older adult men living alone are especially lonely and less likely to be connected even to family members, thus they are more at risk both health and mental health-wise. Divorced men, and men estranged from their kids are especially at risk. That said, many more older women live alone than men (due to women’s longer life expectancy). Older women however will generally have family checking in on them, and they are better at making friends than older men.

You write about how debt affects well being. How do you see the financial burdens from this pandemic affecting the wellbeing of people, families and society in the short term and going forward?

This pandemic has been a huge financial shock to many families. Many have suddenly lost jobs. What was especially hard was how we didn’t see it coming. Unlike other recessions, this was a sudden, acute recession. I am sure families in need are relying on loans and credit cards to make it. It is likely that payday loans, which are not good for people due to the high interest rates, are on the rise, but I have not looked into this.

How can we mitigate the negative effects of both isolation and financial issues?

Isolation may be easier to solve. We should check in on one another, and friends and family. Help our children, and adults who are not as technically savvy to get on a video-conferencing software. I got my parents (who live far away) on Zoom for the first time ever and they watched my daughter’s virtual recital. In some ways, we can be more connected so long as someone takes the lead to establish meetings. We are finding at times that with so many people home, some virtual meetings are better attended than ever before.

You also write about aging. Aside from the immediate obvious concerns about COVID-19 affecting the aging population disproportionately, how do you see COVID- 19 affecting aging going forward?

It is really scary for older adults. They are more at risk. Younger people may unknowingly infect them if they are asymptomatic carriers. The home caregivers are having to work harder than ever. There is little support, few outings, no respite. Caregiver burnout, which is always an issue, is even more of a concern now, and this disproportionately falls on women. There is also the added worry that if someone in your household works outside of the home, and especially with the public (whether it is a grocery store employee or a health care worker) they have a higher chance of bringing the virus home with them.

I’m not sure about how it will affect aging going forward. I do hear some older adults saying things like they still want to see their grandchildren and they are at peace if they die. But I think that is too much to put on a family to know that you or your kid transmitted the virus to grandmother. Any way we can set up virtual meetings would be great. Many older adults really don’t know how to do this, and need someone to do it for them.

One of the saddest outcomes is all the people who have died alone. We hear about saying goodbye on phones, if they are lucky enough to have a nurse there with a cell phone, for instance. My own father-in-law died at the beginning of the crisis. It was sudden (not from COVID-19), but we still have not mourned and don’t know when we can as a family. It was hard for his immediate family to fly to him and say goodbye, the procedures were changing at the hospital each day, and they were lucky they did get to see him. It is very important at the end-of-life to mourn. It brings a sense of finality, acceptance, and peace. Some sociologists/gerontologists have written about “The Good Death.” I.e. a death with dignity, with loved ones surrounding you, at peace. These COVID-19 deaths are not good deaths. I understand that being on a ventilator, one cannot talk. Patients are too sick to communicate, and no one can be with them but the health care staff. I don’t have an idea for change, but it is reason for mourning all who died this way. Certainly, any way we can get family there on a cell phone or computer is important and we applaud all of those who made that happen.

There is a health disparity in who is both getting and dying from this virus now. People with jobs that work with the public have been disproportionately affected. Those who are poor and live in crowded housing are disproportionately affected. People of color are disproportionately affected. Now that states are opening back up, I worry this will be even more the case. Those with low-skill jobs working in retail or food service for instance will be more likely to be affected.

Regarding education specifically, what do you predict are some of the positive societal changes that will come out of this pandemic? 

I do see some good things. Many have been forced to be more technically savvy. Myself included. It will help my teaching later on. It opened up previously off limits private events (like a music recital), to a larger audience and allowed far away families to see their grandchildren perform. That is priceless. Living in Alabama, the assumption is always that your family is nearby, but for me, they are not. I was able to educate some people about that. In terms of education, we learned we CAN flip on a dime, not completely well, and the systems (i.e. The internet and learning management systems) handled it for the most part. There were definitely a lot of problems, but we are resilient, and I like to believe in the American ideals of being industrious and forward-thinking. I would like to see more creative thinking in the future. All kinds of ideas such as staggering school schedules, eating at desks, teaching outside etc. are being discussed. I really hope we can move to a later starting hour for high schools so teens get more sleep. So much of the logic against it (at least locally) is around school bus and work schedules. But if we are asynchronous to some degree with online learning, there is no more barricade against it.

You can find Patricia Drentea’s book, Families and Aging, on Amazon.

This interview has been edited and condensed for Clarity.

Julie Brannon

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