How Lessons Learned from COVID-19 Will Impact Our Work

By Molly Blankenship, Executive Director of Chattanooga 2.0

Like so many other communities across the country and world, Chattanooga and Hamilton County have spent the past seven weeks in unprecedented, unpredictable, and scary times. And on top of a global pandemic, our resiliency was tested yet again by devastating tornadoes on Easter weekend.

Despite these trials, we have, at every turn, proved that this community we call home has something unique – a “special sauce” if you will – an ability to come together, to be better together in the face of a crisis (even when we’re apart).

Before COVID-19 hit, Chattanooga 2.0 was nearing the end of a strategic planning process to shape our next phase of work. We felt confident in our direction and in the most pressing issues facing our community.  Throughout the process, we sought to continue our collaborative work to transform education and workforce development outcomes, and it became increasingly clear what students, families, and our community needed from us as leaders seeking to serve in the coming years. And then, on March 13th, when schools closed and the reality of COVID-19’s impact fully set in, the saying “you don’t know what you don’t know” took on a whole new significance.

Since that fateful Friday the 13th, Chattanooga 2.0’s team has dedicated its full efforts to coordinating and aligning emergency responses to COVID-19’s impacts on students, families, and learners of all ages. With seven weeks of crisis response under our belts, I find myself reflecting on some of the key “aha’s” gleaned from being a resident and contributor to this community’s response, and what it will all mean for our long-term efforts to become the smartest community in the south.

Some of Our Most Valuable Assets are the Intangibles

Chattanooga and Hamilton County, like many communities our size, run on relationships. We are a community built on a tradition of collaborative problem-solving, cross-sector partnership, and bold leadership. As our systems of support for students, residents, and employers have come under strain due to COVID-19, it’s become clear that those relationships and traditions are what have enabled us to respond to emerging needs quickly, to collaborate, to pivot, and to serve those who need us most. Chattanooga 2.0 stakeholders have the collective structures and relationships in place that will make us more resilient in the long run. We know how to work together, which is something that many other communities are now racing to try to figure out.

Big Things Are Possible When We Feel a Sense of Urgency

This pandemic has shown us what’s possible when urgency drives the work to support students and families. What we once thought was impossible turns out to actually be within our grasp. From expanding digital access to thousands of low-income households thanks to partners like EPB; to transitioning out-of-school-time programs to serve the most pressing needs of students and families; to re-evaluating student supports at postsecondary institutions; to providing tens of thousands of students with high-quality digital learning opportunities, we’ve shown what we can do when we’re pushed to innovate, break down barriers, and think differently. The new imperative, then, must be to continue that urgency once the COVID-19 crisis begins to subside, and to ensure that those barriers we’ve broken down aren’t built back up.

Some of our Systems Need an Overhaul

As COVID-19 and resulting school closures, layoffs, and quarantines have impacted our community’s residents as well as whole sectors of our economy, it’s become even more clear that a focus on systemic change is imperative to our coalition’s efforts to transform outcomes and opportunities for students and families. Our current crisis has shown us that when it comes to vital sectors like early childhood, the system we have today is a patchworked one, and it will give under pressure. National data suggests that we may lose 30-50% of child care providers who will be financially unable to return after the economy reopens, exacerbating the lack of access to high-quality early learning services for children and their working parents. This same “aha” can be applied to a number of other systems – whether it’s emergency food distribution, services for the homeless, or supports for dislocated workers, we must ask ourselves – how can we build new systems that are strong enough to provide stable supports, especially in the face of a crisis, to the beneficiaries who depend on them?

A Crisis Does Not Erase Inequality, It Expands It

Both public health and economic impacts of COVID-19 will continue to have disproportionate effects that fall along racial and economic lines. The students who already faced barriers to academic success will be most at risk to learning loss due to school closures. Low-income families impacted by lay-offs or failing businesses will need new and stronger supports to re-train and re-enter the workforce and climb the economic ladder. And with higher rates of underlying conditions like diabetes and heart disease, residents of color are most likely to suffer the brunt of the public health impact. Placing equity at the center of our decision-making both for the short-term response and the long-term recovery is vital.

Now Is the Time to Ask the Big Questions

It is clear that with great infrastructure and partnerships in place, our community has been and will continue to be a leader in the response to COVID-19. However, there is more that must be done in order to build a new and better normal than the one we had before. With the pressing issues of long-term school and campus closures, and the remaining uncertainty of just how long we will be facing these challenges, now is the time to tackle the bigger questions:

  • What would it look like for every student and family to have easy broadband internet access and what will it take for us to get there? 
  • How can Hamilton County lead the way in providing high-quality, equitable digital learning opportunities to ALL students?
  • How can Hamilton County lead the way in ensuring that every child has access to high-quality early learning services?
  • How can Hamilton County lead the way in removing barriers to ensure that all residents have access to a quality education and career opportunities that help them realize their full potential?

Our Work Matters Now More Than Ever

All of these lessons learned, all of the remaining questions, all of the challenges and tremendous opportunities for a new and better normal bring me to one clear conclusion: the work of Chattanooga 2.0’s partners and the realization of our vision is more important and more urgent than ever. If we can leverage the assets we’ve built as a community, continue to lean into empathy, tackle systemic challenges, work boldly to address disparities, and use this opportunity to tackle the big, important questions, we will come out of this time of crisis a more prosperous, hopeful, and vigorous community – one where every resident has the true opportunity to realize their full potential.

 

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