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Reader response: What we learned and what we’ll carry forward

Illustrations of people walking across the street wearing face masks

Our readers weigh in on the lessons of 2020 and how they are thinking about the world of 2021 and beyond.

While we are already well into 2021, the challenges raised last year have not gone away. Recently, we asked readers to start to visualize what a post-COVID-19 world might look like and think about how this time has changed their views.

As we asked readers to catalog the many aspects of life that will be different, we offered up a prompt, originally brought to us by Shawn Ginwright: “What are you going to leave behind in the old world, and what are you going to bring into the new one?”

Ginwright, a professor, researcher, and one of the nation’s leading innovators, provocateurs and thought leaders on African American youth, youth activism and youth development, raised the question not only in the context of COVID, but also the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others.

We received the thoughtful, and at times provocative, responses we’ve come to expect from our readers. We asked for views on education, the economy, race, misinformation, and the future of work. And while we didn’t expect everyone to agree on everything, there was a general consensus that the world will indeed be different after the events of 2020.

Who responded, by the numbers

  • > 90 readers responded.
  • Ages ranged from 25-65+ years old.
  • > 33% of responders were between 55-64 years old.
  • 68% of responses were from women.
  • 42% responders had a master’s degree.
  • Ethnicity breakdown: 74% white, 13% Black, 6% Asian, 7% two or more ethnicities.

The economy

We asked: How has the “K-shaped” recovery (in which economic gains of 2020 have been unequally distributed) impacted you? As the premise would suggest, the economy in 2020 did not treat all readers the same.

How were your finances impacted by the 'K-shaped' recovery of 2020?

Readers like Niki Rowe-Fortner pointed out that even within the same household, there were both positive and negative impacts to the budget: “I have saved funds through daycare closure and staying home, but company-wide pay reductions were put in place in Fall 2020, negatively impacting me,” she said.

If the economic downturn affected people differently, readers demonstrated generosity, helping others in need.

“Pouring what I can into my community with energy, time, and the funds I do have. Giving blood, volunteering where I can. Tipping above and beyond. Thanking those I can. Having more patience with everything and everyone,” said Katrina Struloeff.

Many readers told how they support entrepreneurs and small businesses, either professionally or through their choices.

“We are working with the Biden-Harris Administration to have a unit inside SBA that will focus on disability-owned businesses. We are also working with vocational rehab in Iowa on their model, and are partnering with Bank of America, to expand small business start-ups for people with disabilities in Iowa,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who is president of RespectAbility.

“Our community, Lawrence, Kansas, has been VERY intentional in ways to support small businesses and restaurants that converted their service to those in need of a meal, a home, etc. They should or could be a study of how a community can help and support one another in emergency,” said Jill Reffett.

Doing your part word cloud
Common themes emerged from the responses we received, particularly around “help,” “local,” “small businesses,” and “community.”

Rob Perhamus, who runs UMakers, used 3D printers and other tools in the shop to make and donate 7,000 ear savers, 350 face shields, 1,000 no-touch door openers to local hospitals.

Jan Davies McDermott summed up the sentiment of a number of readers who recognize a need, and are able to buy small / local: “I buy nothing online; everything is from farmer’s market outlets, local hardware stores, my favorite woman-owned dress maker, compounding pharmacy, local bookstore, etc. No Walmart, Home Depot, Amazon, or other giant big business.”


We asked readers how their views about race had shifted through 2020. While two readers held out that the American system is a meritocracy that doesn’t specifically work against people of color, the vast majority felt otherwise.

Which of the following most closely captures your point of view about race in America?

When filtered by those who provided their ethnicity, perhaps not surprisingly, 78% of people of color were fully aware of systemic racism prior to 2020. For whites, only 39% said they were aware previously, while 53% said 2020 “opened my eyes to racial inequity.”

Given the police killings of Black people and the subsequent protests in 2020, it is not surprising that we received passionate responses. Those varied by lived experience and perspective.

“As an older Black woman, the current state of affairs saddens me. As far as I’m concerned, laws have been enacted to protect all of our civil rights. Still the hearts and minds of many Americans remain prejudiced and biased against BIPOC,” Dr. Lynne Shipley said.

As an immigrant and person of color… I am trying to shed old habits of trying very hard to become as ‘white’ as possible… I don’t need to re-interpret my background in order to fit into the American culture and would like to lend my voice to others who feel the same way.

— Swati Ghosh

“It has caused me to further distrust many of the systems that are not built for Blacks – mostly education,” said A’Yanna Webster. While Beverley Zuccarello said, “I have seen that people not living through circumstances of inequity, or are far removed from it, don’t understand it and sometimes flat out deny that it exists.”

“I have been very pleasantly surprised by how many white people have woken up to the reality of racism around them,” said Swati Ghosh. “I think many still think that they are not a part of the problem and are only highlighting the systemic racism that exists in the society for the benefit of others, whereas they have been a part of the problem all along. Personally, as an immigrant and person of color, I am trying to shed old habits of trying very hard to become as ‘white’ as possible (whether to appear that I am better than others or mitigate potential hurt, etc.), and stay true to myself, my culture, and my roots. I don’t need to re-interpret my background in order to fit into the American culture and would like to lend my voice to others who feel the same way.”

For many white readers, who might have thought they were enlightened, 2020 was indeed a wakeup call.

“It encouraged me to address my lackadaisical view of systems as too big to change, and to fight for the changes we must undertake. It also opened my eyes to my own acceptance or tolerance of peers or family members racist views, attitudes, and words as supporting the system. That, no matter what efforts I participated in otherwise, not addressing those situations and individuals was part of the problem that I was responsible for and must take unto myself to address,” Jill Reffett said.

The theme of self-education, and gaining a new understanding came up often. “The killing of George Floyd was so visceral and awful it prompted me to engage in a whole new way.  I spent more time watching the news coverage, paying attention to local, regional, and national discussions, and in self-reflection. My Episcopal church offered a study group study through the national Episcopal Church’s Sacred Ground curriculum that I have found profoundly helpful and enlightening. It exposed some history and doctrine that I had never been taught (which made me angry) and provided a way to process so much,” said Jill Vassar.


We wanted to get readers’ opinions about how students are faring, given the uneven mix of virtual, hybrid, and in-person educational experiences they’ve had through the pandemic. Judgement about the quality of achievement outcomes varied among readers, though only a small portion (9%) could say the students in their lives had made significant progress during the past year.

How would you rate the educational progress you’ve seen of the students in your life (K-12 and college) due to adjustments to schooling through the pandemic?

How does what we’ve learned recently impact the course of education going forward?

For Dr. Shipley, this time has exposed the inequities in education:

Six decades after the Brown decision, we still find school systems that are separate and unequal…. The pandemic pulled down the veil of mediocrity.

— Dr. Lynne Shipley

“Six decades after the Brown decision we still find school systems that are separate and unequal. If we drill down and are honest about the inequities in our schools, not much has changed. The pandemic pulled down the veil of mediocrity. The voices of the vulnerable and those most impacted by the pandemic should drive the discussion and changes moving forward. The value of teachers is unparalleled and has been highlighted during the pandemic. Classroom teacher suggestions should be at the center of how the educational system improves, in addition to the top-down decision making of educational leaders and researchers, which can hamper substantial foundational and structural change.”

For readers, the painful disruptions to education and the reliance on technology for virtual learning have offered both hope and concern for the future. “I think the shift to technology usage in education, even in the youngest learners, is here to stay. The sheer amount of resources that can be accessed and utilized online makes it easier in many ways,” said Swati Ghosh.

“We have more tools now in the toolbox for parents to use. I think teachers learned a lot in a very short period of time but have a ways to go. We need to invest in training teachers how to teach virtually,” Patricia Smithson said.

Yarrow Kraner sees the opportunity: “The centuries old ‘factory model’ of education was seemingly immovable and now has thankfully been disrupted forever. We need to individualize learning, and educational pacesetting. Some students are effective virtual leaders, and others are not. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution.” Diana Joseph worries about the digital divide, but also sees an upside: “I think there’s a real opportunity to get more self-directed and apprenticeship styles of learning in the hands of more students.”

The future of work

Across the board, readers viewed the ability to work from home to be a tremendous benefit.

91% thought there were benefits from working from home

For many, like Beverley Zuccarello, the change has made a profound personal difference: “I became healthier. I had more sleep. I spent more time with my family. I am happier and less stressed. I am more productive.”

The benefits have been wide-ranging, according to Yarrow Kraner: “The massive drop in commuting time allows for more time with family and personal passions. More centeredness and connectivity. It also had a huge benefit on the climate, with hundreds of thousands of people suddenly not commuting two hours a day.” Carrie Lawson also sees benefits to organizations: “I think that organizations that were previously opposed to having remote staff see that many jobs can be done remotely, or at least partially remotely. I think it will allow talent pools to expand beyond geographical boundaries. I’m hopeful that the rise of remote work will be especially beneficial to rural communities with a lower cost of living, as they may see an influx of talent,” she said.


What to believe and who to trust as a source of truth was repeatedly called into question in 2020 in the political arena, but also in matters of science and health. Readers expressed skepticism about many sources of information, though they had a generally rosy view of public media.

Indicate the level of trust and credibility you place in the following sources, using a sliding scale 0-100. [0 – don’t trust, 100 – completely trust].

Samantha R. Jones expressed uncertainty about where to turn: “I have lost all trust in media, social media, and friends and family. I don’t know who is telling the correct information.”

“I believe in hearing all the garbage, then reflecting on it myself, and deciding what is realistic, believable, remotely plausible. I am tired of the attempts to manipulate me, my thoughts, and my actions.  I find myself skeptical of everything and everyone,” said Jan Davies McDermott.

For Carrie Lawson, adding more sources to the mix has been important: “I’ve always been fairly critical of my sources of information, but my news sources have been dominated by white voices. I am trying to diversify the voices I hear from.”

Those already inclined to double-check information are even more inclined to now. “I spend more time fact checking than I used to (e.g., look up research universities and institutions mentioned to ensure they are credible sources of information),” said Debra Jarvis.  “Interestingly – I have always been a fact checker but am more of one now.”