Is COVID-19 this generation's 9/11?

A discussion with USN eighth graders prompted Director Vince Durnan's latest column, a look back at the events and aftermath of 9/11 twenty years, and a global pandemic, later.
The other day a group of USN eighth graders, fresh from our archives, arrived bright-eyed to ask what I recalled about September 11, 2001. They’d read what they could, imagined what must have been true then, almost a decade prior to any of them being born, looking through a historical lens. And my mind wandered through indelible memories, ultimately comparing them to our present-day public health crisis in terms of disruption and capacity to change our default settings.

In truth, the two experiences provide a study in contrasts — one, a sudden shock that brought a broad sense of togetherness, appreciation, and patriotism — albeit with some tragically misplaced animosity toward perceived enemies among us based on color and culture. And the other, an evolving, wave-after-crashing-wave experience that has too often proven to be a more broadly divisive, confounding test of our capacity to sacrifice any degree of personal liberty — even for our own good and the good of those around us. It’s hard not to wonder what the lessons of the pandemic will be for the young people in our care.

For those who might wonder what really happened on that Tuesday morning in 2001, here’s a sampler. Try to picture any of this happening two decades later. Word came about a plane hitting the World Trade Center just after classes began, which prompted my turning to the cable TV that used to sit in a corner in my office. When the second tower was hit, our team of administrators assembled in the conference room down the hall, spontaneously, I think. We agreed on the following:
  • We’d bubble the Lower Schoolers through the day so that their parents could share the story of what happened in a way that best suited each household.
  • The Middle Schoolers would meet by grade level to hear, together, from their teachers about whatever was unfolding through the day on the national stage.
  • And our High Schoolers all met with me in the Cheek Gym, where they were reminded to stay on campus so that we were sure of their whereabouts, given all that was happening, and asked for their help keeping the K-4 students unaware of what had transpired. They responded beautifully, by the way.
  • The 10th graders however, en route by bus to Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina for their class retreat, were told via clunky cell phone to continue on the highway to their destination, since it seemed at the time a safer option than returning to an urban center.
We came together in the uncertainty of that day, checking on anyone in the wider USN community whom we knew to be in New York, or at the Pentagon, or traveling. And the plan worked, at least as well as any plan could under those circumstances. That tragedy generated a level of trust and gratitude and common purpose that defies present partisan tendencies. And it’s worth remembering. Thank you, eighth graders.

The challenge of that earlier time was to find and share current information, then to frame a response consistent with our commitment to community, to safety, and to service. In those respects, our latter efforts since March 13, 2020, when classes went remote, do bear some similarities to the days after 9/11. But at each turn, questions about the basic medical realities of the virus, some genuine and others more sinister, threatened our efforts to build consensus. Surely we’ve learned as we went, and there’s still much to be learned, with momentum drawing us to shared purpose, to shared commitments.

In that regard, my gratitude for the USN community, for our willingness to follow the best guidance we can find, continues to grow. The spectacles now familiar in schools and school districts just down the street or over the county line represent a complete departure from efforts twenty years ago to stand together. I’ll leave it to others to trace the path to these sad examples in hindsight. Let’s pause for a moment to recognize the way our students rose to the occasion, then and now — leading by powerful example.

I remember hearing about a person in town who manipulated his way into a chance to fly back to Nashville just after the terrorist attacks, when all planes were essentially grounded — and how universally that action was deplored. And I wonder what corners are cut, what vigilance is suspended, now in the face of the pandemic, with the predictable result of overwhelmed hospitals and intensive care unit wings. What happened, and how long will this last?

By all indications, we’ll face challenges no less daunting than global extremist threats as we work to manage from pandemic to endemic, to restore life as we knew it while making room for improvement in the way we respect, include, and listen to one another, to avoid demonizing the other, nationally and internationally. All indications are that we’ll be at these tasks in some form for a while, more than likely for a lifetime. And here’s wagering that one day another group of students will ask what really happened at USN during the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s be proud of the answer they’re likely to hear.

Let’s keep that weekly case count in this very publication nice and low, because of all you do,


More USN News

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