A family friend’s favorite saying when things get tough is “we gotta push on through.” That brief statement reflects her reluctance to put a rosy spin on difficult circumstances — especially when the path forward isn’t always clear — but also her belief in the need to keep moving forward anyway, using the resources available to make the best of the situation.
As we approach the six-month anniversary of COVID-19 turning our world upside down, my guess is that many of us have been thinking or saying something comparable. Early hopes of a summer reprieve from the virus were dashed when a surge of new cases swept across the South, including North Carolina. Continued economic distress caused by the pandemic, coupled with social and racial unrest across the country that further exposed and highlighted societal inequities, turned the summer of 2020 into anything but the carefree season of our memories.
As fall arrives, the prospects of a second wave of the virus overlapping with the start of flu season, combined with the frustrations and hardships thrust upon families by yet another period of remote learning in our schools, have left many of us wondering just how resilient we are.
And yet, we know instinctively that we have to push on through, and that the more supportive we are of one another, the easier it will be to get to the other side of this crisis. Last April, I wrote about how the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute was adjusting to the pandemic, and our struggle to figure out how to be a “public service” organization when it wasn’t clear what form that service should take. I shared a few examples of articles our team had published about the impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations in the Charlotte region, and asked our readers to share their ideas on how the institute could use its resources to inform their understanding of the pandemic’s impact on the region.
As I reflect on the institute’s work since last spring, I’m proud of the staff’s contributions to address the economic and social crises caused by COVID-19. We established a “coronavirus dashboard” to provide weekly updates of confirmed cases in the 14-county Charlotte region, a particularly welcome resource for counties outside of Mecklenburg without the media presence to keep the public informed. Scroll through the articles published on our website since March, and you’ll find stories about how COVID-19 is impacting a host of local issues, including educational inequities, food and housing insecurity, transit, parks, the gig economy, and even how we think about the future of urban design and architecture.
Our research team has responded to requests from civic and philanthropic leaders to provide data and information about the impact of COVID-19 on renters, and how the philanthropic community might prioritize rental assistance. Just last week, they responded to another request for estimates of the level of need for “supported remote learning environments” to guide local decision-making about how to support students with limited online access.
Some of the faculty in our second cohort of Gambrell Faculty Fellows (announced in August) have chosen to address economic mobility through a pandemic lens, from building a more equitable post-COVID food system, to the access Latinx families have to early childhood education during a period when so many Latinx parents are employed in “essential industries.”
However, not all of our work has been as visible as these examples. One of the lesser-known units of the institute, outside of education circles, is our two-person team that supports the NC Department of Public Instruction with its Transportation Information Management System (TIMS). Usually their summer months are filled with helping school systems across the western half of the state refine their bus routes to deliver students to school safely and efficiently.
But with school systems shifting to remote learning and staggered attendance schedules, the TIMS team has quickly adapted to meet the changing needs of the 56 districts they serve.
When schools closed in early spring, they provided guidance to school transportation staff about how to create and maintain routes to distribute computers, laptops, and mobile hotspots for virtual learning. They also assisted districts in developing strategies for delivering food to families with children who were dependent on the meals their schools would have provided during a normal year.
And as the new academic year approached in late summer, with school systems opting for different combinations of remote learning and staggered, in-school instruction, the TIMS team once again sprung into action to assist in establishing schedules, often in the form of “A/B/C Day” cohorts of students based on geographic location, last name, and grade level.
I’ve often referred to the institute staff as “unsung heroes.” They are rarely the ones you see on the front lines addressing the issues that matter most to our communities — whether it’s affordable housing, emergency relief measures, educating our children, or enhancing our quality of life. And that’s as it should be, with the focus appropriately on the direct relationships between service providers and the constituents they serve.
But the Urban Institute team is often somewhere behind the scenes, as they have been these past six months, providing resources we’ve needed to “push on through” to the other side of this latest challenge.