Ottaway Professor Sarah Carr Gives Speech on Post-COVID Education

Sarah Carr leads the way in education journalism, sharing her findings about education post-pandemic. Photo Courtesy of SUNY New Paltz

SUNY New Paltz had the pleasure of hosting its Ottaway Visiting Professor, Sarah Carr, this past Tuesday, where she delivered a powerful speech titled, “Why it Took So Long to Reopen Schools During COVID, and What it Means for the Future of Education.” 

Professor Carr is a distinguished education journalist and is widely regarded by many in the profession as one of the best in her field. For the past 20 years, Carr has covered education all over the country, unearthing the untold stories of the nation’s youth and providing a platform for them to speak. From reporting on Hurricane Katrina’s devastating effects on New Orleans schools to COVID-19’s negative impact on Boston’s education system, Carr has accumulated a wealth of experience in the field of education reporting. She’s written for the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, The Hechinger Report and many more publications. Countless articles later, including her book, “Hope against Hope,” Carr has solidified herself as an expert in her respective beat, and now looks to help the next generation of journalists. 

This semester at SUNY New Paltz, Carr has taken the mantle of the Ottaway Professorship and leads her class, “The Kid’s Story: Telling Stories of American Inequity Through the Lens of Youth.” Throughout the course, her students learn how to cover education stories and develop the skills necessary to interview children and adolescents. Many of her students were also in attendance at her speech. 

Before her speech was given, a dinner was held for Carr in the Student Union Building, where colleagues, students and faculty members mingled and discussed various topics of journalism. It was a light affair, in which like-minded individuals did what New Paltz does best: build and strengthen connections, both old and new. It was a collection of differing personalities and experiences, united by conversation in true New Paltz fashion. From digital media and journalism professors and advisors to James H. Ottaway Jr., the founder of the university’s only endowed professorship, the dinner hosted an impressive range of people. Also in attendance was SUNY New Paltz President Darrell Wheeler himself, who eagerly engaged in conversation with students and faculty alike. 

As the dinner came to a close, the guests made their way over to the Coykendall Science Building (CSB) Auditorium, where Carr was to deliver her speech at 7 p.m. While the dining had concluded, the conversations carried on, accompanying the guests as they migrated across the campus. 

Upon reaching the CSB Auditorium, the audience filed into their respective seats and prepared for the speech. Lisa Phillips, an Associate Professor in the DMJ department, spoke first, welcoming and thanking the audience for attending, before passing on the welcoming address to Wheeler. 

Wheeler thanked the audience for attending as well, and proceeded to introduce Carr and provide background on her experiences in the education journalism field. As an education worker himself, Wheeler enthused over Carr’s career and past work, citing her invaluable efforts and importance. “When Sarah Carr is the journalist, we’re sure to hear from the most important stakeholder in our educational system: our nation’s young people.” Wheeler spoke on Carr’s book “Hope against Hope,” her time with various publications and her involvement as an O’Brien Fellow in public service journalism at Marquette University. The president also referenced his earlier conversations with some of her students, like fourth-year Austin Jefferson, who had said of Carr’s class, “The seminar makes me rethink how I view education, journalism and how we treat children altogether. The things we talked about in class make me wonder what we could be doing better.” Wheeler finds immense value in hearing students’ voices and applauds Carr’s career and current work educating SUNY New Paltz students. 

As per tradition for Ottaway professors, the president proceeded to bestow upon Carr two gifts. The first was a book titled, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” written by Isabel Wilkerson. The second gift was a professor membership card, a comedic but heartfelt token that Ottaway professors receive, eliciting chuckles from the audience. A physical card that can be stored in wallets, it serves to cement the Ottaway professors’ statuses as SUNY New Paltz educators. 

Wheeler’s final comments before passing the baton onto Carr was directed towards James H. Ottaway Jr. and his wife, Mary, who were also in attendance. Their work and contributions to SUNY New Paltz have lasted for 22 years, and hopefully for the duration of the university’s history. 

Carr took to the podium and, for the following half-hour, delivered an impressively detailed overview on the debilitating effects COVID-19 had on the U.S.’s education system. Even though, her speech wasn’t about COVID-19’s direct effects, but rather focused on the government’s and districts’ mishandling of COVID-19 with regards to schools. 

Her first observations recapped the near year-long duration that most U.S. schools stayed closed, drawing examples from other countries to provide context on the unnecessary length of time they remained so. “On average, students in the U.S. were faced with partial or full school closures for 62 weeks, more than twice as long as in the U.K.” Carr noted, “Overall, the United States school closings were more on par with developing countries than developed ones.” 

These points reflected Carr’s observations that the U.S., a world leader, mishandled the educational system during COVID-19, which directly contributed drops in sectors across education, from the economic sectors, where teachers and caregivers lost their jobs, to the academic side, where students lost over a year in traditional learning, effectively stunting their education. 

Carr went on to discuss three reasons why school closures lasted so long. The first called out the politics of the country, where she held no restraints on her criticism ­— “We have a political structure in our country that devalues children and families.” The second and third reasons credited an “economic structure that devalues certain professions and the people who work in them,” and a lack of trust in the education system by the families themselves. Carr referenced her Hechinger Report piece that detailed the failing child care system and its sexist and racist roots, which helped paint a bleak but compelling picture of an extremely flawed education system. Utilizing such a concise and elaborative argumentative style left no stone unturned, truly illuminating Carr’s expertise and extensive knowledge. The audience was enraptured by her speech, and the journalism professors were nodding in agreement throughout the lecture. 

Professor Carr’s speech ended with a Q&A, in which much of the audience participated in. Students, teachers and faculty members all had questions, but unfortunately time caught up to the event and it drew to a close, signifying the end of an extremely informative evening. Carr’s speech was invaluable; education took a tough hit from COVID-19, and our nation’s youth suffered from that. Her work continues even now, and she hopes to continue to inform and inspire to evoke change.