Math in the time of COVID-19

In the past few posts, I’ve been avoiding writing about the current Coronavirus outbreak. Honestly, I’ve been having a hard time coping with the uncertainty and worry about how we are going to survive and move forward from this. Around the blogosphere, there has been an overwhelming amount of post talking about exponential growth, pedagogical tools as we transition to distance learning, ways to keep connected, to keep the research going, to keep moving forward.

I stopped to reflect on what math means at a time like this and came up with many different answers. But the biggest themes of all were empathy, kindness, and a lot of flexibility. For many, this period will be one of collective grieving. During this time some seek to ground themselves with math, others seek to distance themselves from it, both responses should be expected and welcomed as we face this unprecedented challenge. In this post, I want to share a compilation of some of the math-related resources that I’ve found to help me navigate this pandemic. 

As we transition to distance learning, many posts have addressed the challenges not only in supporting our students and faculty but in how grading is promoting/highlighting inequities. In Grading as an issue of justice in this time of transition by Brian Katz and Kate Owens, there is a great discussion on what our concerns and priorities should be. Many of the concerns such as “students’ access to computers, internet, and quiet time/space and equity of this access, the need to adjust goals, changes in our ability to support students, and allowing students to make the hard choices based on their contexts and priorities”, are discussed and some ideas are provided on how to address them.

For example, making the grades this semester “Unsatisfactory/Satisfactory” would ease the pressure on students, if carefully implemented to take into account for “students who need a certain GPA, who can’t have P/NC courses count toward their major, and who might lose NCAA eligibility.” But as mentioned in the post, I think it is crucial (and I cannot emphasize this more) that we put the humanity of our students first, as Owens states,

“If we can’t do something in the best interest of the mental and emotional health of thousands of people because of (obscure regulation), then I maintain the regulation should be expected to adapt, not the people. We are all being forced to adapt to stressors and situations none of us ever imagined a month ago. We need to lighten the burden felt by all of us. Cut the red tape — trust me, it’ll be easier to repair that than emotional baggage when things go back to normal (which I hope is soon).” -Kate Owens

Another great post that provides resources for transitioning to distance learning is “Mathematics Education in time of COVID-19” by David Bressoud, a compiled list of resources by the MAA, “MAA recommendations for COVID-19 response”“Accessible Teaching in the time of COVID-19” by Aimi Hamraie, whose suggestions come from the disability culture and community. This is a great time for conversations about how we perceive accommodations and rethink how to better support students with disabilities.

Inequality will be increased not only in our student population but throughout the academic ladder. In this recent post, The pandemic and the female academic, Alessandra Minello talks about how in the world of academic clocks we will see gender inequality exacerbated by during this pandemic, she proposed that the lockdown period is taken as a care leave as a way to support families during this time, particularly single parents who most often tend to be women.  

With the footnote “*Everything is definitely not fine.” , I am very grateful to Piper H for sharing in Everything * is fine” the challenges and thoughts on the human side of this pandemic. I felt very seen especially as we rethink our responsibility as teachers and to each other.

“If we lose a member of our community to illness due to lack of funds, lack of resources, or lack of connection, who cares if we successfully zoomed our lectures?? I’ve heard it said that we have an obligation to our students to provide them what they paid for, but what about our moral obligations to each other? If I’m having breakdowns because I have to navigate caregivers whose exposure I can’t control, whose availability I can’t rely on, and I get a mass mailing with a thousand links about administering exams, all I can think is my workplace doesn’t care if I survive this.

And the worst thing is I know I’m super privileged in this.

Everyone makes connections; reach out to others and let’s remember those who didn’t. I will no longer be intimidated by mathematicians who failed this massive test in decency.” – Piper H

There has been a boom in the number of posts tackling the main features of transmission and spread using mathematics. As a math biologist, I am no stranger to modeling infectious diseases. We see talk about flattening the curve, exponential growth, transmission rates, basic reproduction number, among many other terms used at the intersection of math and epidemiology.

I’ve been so impressed with the efforts to demystify the math behind some of the key features of this outbreak. It might be in your family and friend circles, or also to your students, but I think part of our contribution can be helping the public better understand what these numbers/concepts mean. I really enjoyed Kamuela E. Yong’s, “The mathematics of a pandemic”,  3Blue1bBrown’s on exponential/logistic growth and epidemics , “Coronavirus, by the Numbers” by and “Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to “flatten the curve”.

Professional societies have also made available compiled lists of resources such as the American Mathematical Society’s list “AMS Resources & Updates related to COVID-19, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics “Mathematical Resources to Help Understand COVID-19”, Mathematical Association of America’s “COVID-19 Update”, and the Association for Women in Mathematics’ “COVID-19 and the AWM Community. These include lists of online seminars, updates on the status of big community events, resources for teaching, articles of the current research, among others. 

For me, being part of a community is everything and in these isolated times we must find ways to support each other. As Carrie Diaz Eaton discusses in “Community in a time of COVID-19”,

“One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen is the crowdsourcing of help documents and Zoom chat meetups on Facebook and Twitter, the formation of open education communities like the one on MAA Connect and QUBES, and beautiful stories on my email about how my own campus community is helping students and each other through this with as much support as possible. Even without our formal gatherings, our community is still there for us. Don’t do this alone. You don’t have to. Remember that we already are a community, even in a time of COVID-19.” – Carrie Diaz Eaton

At times like this, I am reminded of Francis Su’s words from his 2017 speech at the Joint Math Meetings. 

“Because we are not mathematical machines. We live, we breathe, we feel, we bleed. If your students are struggling, and you don’t acknowledge it, their education becomes disconnected and irrelevant. Why should anyone care about mathematics if it doesn’t connect deeply to some human desire: to play, seek the truth, pursue beauty, fight for justice? You can be that connection.”  – Francis Su

During challenging times, having a connection to others is needed more than ever. Reach out to each other and extend as much kindness as you can, build structures of support for yourself, your students, and others, and stay safe. 

Do you have suggestions of topics or blogs you would like us to consider covering in upcoming posts? Resources to share? Reach out to us in the comments below or let us know on Twitter (@MissVRiveraQ)

About Vanessa Rivera-Quinones

Mathematics Ph.D. with a passion for telling stories through numbers using mathematical models, data science, science communication, and education. Follow her on Twitter: @VRiveraQPhD.
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