Covid-19: Hope and Opportunity

Mar 31, 2020 by

Tom Watkins

We are fortunate to have caught up with Tom Watkins who has unique skills in mental health (served as Michigan’s Chief Deputy Director and Director of State Department of Mental Health 1983-90), Education: (Michigan’s State Superintendent of Public Education 2001-05), considered an “expert” on China and an early adapter and advocate for distance learning: helping to establish partnerships and building bridges between US and K-12 schools and universities in China. Watkins has held leadership positions in both the public and private sector: serving as the President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Fl and as a management consultant with a large CPA firm.

With this rich and diverse background we wanted to get Tom’s take on the coronavirus and his thoughts on the short term and likely long term implication are for our schools and children.

  1. EdNews: First, we are sorry to read that Michigan has become a hotspot in this global fight against Covid-19. How is Michigan faring in these challenging times?

Watkins: Thanks. We are fortunate to have a governor, Gretchen Whitmer who has been leading with both her heart and head, making tough and difficult decisions to first protect the health and safety of our citizens and targeting scarce resources to area of greatest need. She has been firm and compassionate with a clear understanding of the fight ahead of us and the emotional and economic toll the coronavirus is leaving in its wake. “Leadership matters”, is often a cliche, but we are seeing its value as this virus rolls across the world. 

As a mother with high school daughters, our Governor  has always been a strong advocate for public education and continues to make good decisions – not only to close all of Michigan’s schools early, but to target resources to enable teaching and learning continue the best as possible during this crisis.

I have also been impressed how she is using social media to lift up our schools, teachers and children during these uncertain times 

EdNews: You have served at about every level in the behavioral health field, from childcare worker, therapist, running mental health clinics, President and CEO of the Detroit/Wayne Mental Health Authority, perhaps the largest community behavioral health organization in the country and state mental health director. What do you see as the short and long term behavioral health issues this crisis will bring to our children and schools.

Watkins: First, I want to thank the exceptional educators, teachers, administrators support personnel that have been thrust into a new environment as they strive to provide an academic and  social/emotional safe harbor for their students. The crisis is reinforcing my strong belief that our public schools are the true Statue of Liberty of this great country of our and our teachers and support staff are the torch lighting the way for us all.                        

It is vitally important during these crisis times that our young people understand are all working together to keep them safe. Parents and teachers are anchors for students during this time. To the extent parents can help their children maintain a routine during this time is very helpful. Help your children get enough sleep, wake up in the morning, get dressed, take a shower and eat as healthy a diet as you can. 

Schools are often the place where many children get their most nutrious meal of the day and that routine has been broken. This is an area where schools across the country have stepped up and and are scrambling to keep meals coming. 

In New York, mental health professionals have answered Governor Andrew Cuomo’s call after his state has become an epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, with more than 6,000 mental-health professionals volunteering to provide free mental-health services. 

The Kaiser Family Foundation published a poll last week that shows, Americans’ top worries related to coronavirus include that they or a family member will get sick from COVID-19 (62%), a negative impact on investments such as retirement or college savings (51%), and lost income due to reduced hours or workplace closure (46%),

There is much information out on the web on tips of what to do during this time to look out for adult and children emotional health this article on how to get past the coronavirus crisis with losing your mental health is a great place to start:

If people are feeling depressed and are at risk of taking their own life please have them reach out: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline800-273-TALK (8255) 

It is highly unlikely in Michigan and in other states across the nation that our children will return to their brick and mortar schools this academic year. The Federal government is going to need to provide funding for more social workers, psychologists, nurses and other support staff to deal with the Covid-19 PTSD that is sure to follow this crisis.

I would encourage State Boards of Education, State Superintendents, with the active input of educators on the local level to appoint a group of individuals to be thinking about restarting our schools and what policies, procedures, support that will be required to assure safe and secure plans are in place. 

Planning for the future is difficult at many of these same leaders are dealing with the daily crisis dejour in their work and private lives. Many local superintendents have told me they feel like they are drinking from a fire hose at this point. Dealing with the problems in their face is a priority, we need a team to be thinking of what we needs to be in place for our students when this tsunami subsides.

Let me end this question repeating something I said above: It is vitally important during these crisis times that our young people understand are all working together to keep them safe. Parents and teachers are anchors for students during this time. 

EdNews We were fortunate to catch up with someone you are familiar with in your state, Beth Baker with Centric Learning, WAY American School and Her recent interview generated a buzz about how educators are using e-learning across the US and the world. She cited your seminal report: The New Education (R)evolution -e-learning for Michigan Schools. What are your thoughts on how prepared, or underprepared our schools are to switch to this technology to keep learning moving during the crisis. 

E-learning Takes Center Stage: Governors, State and Local Superintendents Should Take Advantage

Watkins: it is a mix bag. Some schools were well prepared and many, not so much. This readiness often paralleled the relative wealth of the community. 

 In 2001, before the birth of today’s seniors now in high schools, as a then a member of the Michigan State Board of Education, now Oakland County, Michigan Circuit Court Judge, Michael Warren led a Task Force, while I was Michigan’s State Superintendent of Schools on: Embracing the Information Age, which produced a groundbreaking report               

Sadly, far too many of our schools have NOT embraced the Information age.

After this crisis is over, it would be wise for governors to appoint a task force inside and outside of government to review our “preparedness” on a number of planes.

This pandemic has highlighted the inequities, flaws and policies and practices across government that are antiquated and are anchors to thriving in a technologically driven world. 

Ed-Trust-Mid West has been in the forefront in our state in highlighting the inequities in our schools. Covid-19 has placed a bright spotlight on the unfairness of how our schools are funded. EdTrust has demonstrated over and over how low-income, rural and other vulnerable students are being left behind because of these blatantly inequities. It is the hope with continued advocacy, these injustices can be addressed going forward. 

Poor children are unlikely to have connectivity and technology in their homes, and may not have adult supervision. Continuing their learning outside of the confines schools is a challenge.

It has been said, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. This crisis should lead to progress for America’s children. That will only take place if we learn from the lessons that have been stuffed in our faces because of this calamity. Our goal must be enhancing education excellence for every student, every school, across the country Those that need more should receive more. 

Clearly more needs to be done to create student-centered distance learning for all across America.

There are many e-learning platforms available. The quality varies widely. I have been helping local, state and international adapt to this new normal. is offering their e-learning education platform, built by educators for students and teachers  and is being offered for $1/month during this crisis. Reach out, they have over a decade of delivering quality student focused e-learning for children in the US and across the globe


EdNews:  I know your focus has been on education and mental health but you also know a thing or two about politics, running a successful governor campaign, working as the deputy chief of staff in the governors office and being elected to political office yourself. Is there a political element in the decisions being made around this crisis?

Watkins: I would say, a bit… with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. Of course there is and and we are seeing it play out at the local, state, national and international level.  I have attempted to divert my attention from the politics” and focus on teaching and learning— for the time being.

Michigan is a hotspot for the coronavirus and our Governor has been pushing hard to protect and meet the needs of the people of Michigan. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in hosted by a policy and communication guru, Walt Sorg to discuss these issues and you can listen here. 

EdNews: China has taken some hits as the virus originated in Wuhan, China and the lack of transparency from the Chinese government did allow this virus to get a foothold in China and spread around the globe. I know you have a lifetime interest in China, interesting enough, sparked by a great teacher and are considered by many, as the “go to guy, on all things China. What are your thoughts on this issue form an international perspective?

Watkins: Certainly, the coronavirus has reinforced what I have been saying about China for decades: What happens in China does not stay in China. China clearly shoulders some responsibility for their slow acknowledgment of this virus to their own people and to the world. 

Having said that, we need to quickly pivot to the fact that we are in this fight together.

I am concerned by the game playing in both nations (US/China) on a international geopolitical basis. The world is grappling with a pandemic, and the two top nations, the US and China have played a blame game to gin up nationalism and in the US, votes. Both leaders are attempting to shift blame for their respective nations slow and inadequate initial response to this deadly disease. The tit-For-Tat, see-saw game, where one nation must be up while the other is down is not helping the people of America, China – nor the rest of humanity. Stoking xenophobia, spreading disinformation and trumped up rumors, at any time is unhelpful, now it is down right deadly. All nations need  to come together to fight this common global threat. 

Stop it! 

I expect China will once again become the boogieman in our up coming elections 

We are better than this:

 Stoking xenophobia, spreading disinformation and trumped up rumors, at any time is unhelpful, now it is down right deadly. All nations need  to come together to fight this common global threat.

6 EdNews: Speaking of China, xenophobia is rearing it’s ugly head because of the tension this pandemic has unleashed. Do you have thoughts on this topic?

Watkins: The great Spanish-American philosopher, George Santayana taught humanity an important lesson when he said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Yes, we are seeing the disgrace of xenophobia heat up again in America, it is always just below the surface. The misplaced blame during tough times has been the hallmark of American politicians since the founding of our nation. In spite of truth and facts, stomping out this vile disease has proven remarkably resistant to the lessons of the past.

In times of fear, doubt and confusion the uninformed look for someone to blame.  Putting the blame on “foreigners” and minorities has been a pattern in America. This disturbing trend was placed on steroids with the election of President Trump, who has taken divisive, blame politics to new heights.

Blaming Mexico, Muslims, “those people” has become his brand as he has branded so many. Heaping scorn on others is a age old deflection strategy to take the masses attention off of the failures of their leaders.

In his unflinching and powerful. book, America for Americans, noted historian, Erika Lee shows that an irrational fear, hatred, and hostility toward immigrants has been a defining feature of our nation from the colonial era to the Trump era. Lee, points out, The United States is known as a nation of immigrants. But it is also a nation of xenophobia. Benjamin Franklin ridiculed Germans for their “strange and foreign ways.” Americans’ anxiety over Irish Catholics turned xenophobia into a national political movement. Chinese immigrants were excluded, Japanese incarcerated, and Mexicans deported. Today, Americans fear Muslims, Latinos, and the so-called browning of America.

Here in Michigan and across America should never forget Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, mistaken as Japanese who was beaten to death by a baseball bat in the 80’s  by two laid-off autoworkers who blamed the Japanese for their economic woes. Officially, it was a blow to the head that killed Vincent Chin. But it was ugly rhetoric, tolerated by a complacent society, which set the stage for Chin’s murder.

Sadly, at times like these with hate in the air, children often mimic there parents and other adults. What makes the crisis worse is when adults stoke fear and uncertainty to stir up hatred and cast blame— which is simply ugly wrong and can become deadly.  Their ugly, venomous, prejudice misinformation is absorbed by  children and is as toxic as the disease itself. 

Today with the Covid-19 virus reaping havoc on America and much of humanity, a convient target for the vitriol has been Asian Americans. These patriotic citizens have once again been pushed under xenophobic bus. 

We need educators, parents and the society at large to watch for xenophobia popping up and to be ready to knock

It down as rapidly as a game of wack-a-mole. This is especially necessary with children at home from school, mobile devices at hand and the time span from a thought entering their heads to being spread on social media is often measured in milliseconds. 

Hate has no place in our schools, in cyberspace and in America. 

EdNews: I understand the Chinese/American community in Michigan has truly stepped up during this crisis. What is going on? 

Watkins: There is nothing more American than fellow citizens volunteering to help out their neighbors in a time of need. Chinese Americans in Michigan are stepping up in big and small ways to try to help their neighbors, friends and fellow citizens during this coronavirus pandemic. The Michigan Chinese American Coalition was formed in late January 2020 to assist in combating the deadly coronavirus.

Over the last two weeks, they have donated necessary  health supplies to 18 local hospitals. They understand the virus knows no political boundaries. It will sicken and possibly kill regardless of your race, color of your skin, immigration status or political identification.

Discovering this group, I asked, “Who is the leader, who is in charge?” In very Chinese style, they each deferred and collectively said, “We are all workers, using our knowledge, skills, talents, time and money to be helpful as we can to this combat this invisible war without bombs that harms us all.”

8: EdNews: There are some extremely creative things happening now with distance and e-learning. It seems this crisis has bought out a level of imagination and creativity in our teachers, parents, students and, even grandparents. Tell us how you are interacting with your grandkids and how others may tap technology to stay connected?

Watkins: Yes, multiple times a day I am amazed and excited by the level of creativity and imagination I hear about taking place during this stressful time. 

Connectivity at all levels, family, friends, neighbors, colleagues is important for adults and children. I love to connect with my kids and grandchildren and find Skype, zoom and FaceTime exceptional tools to do so. 

Having worked in the e-learning space for sometime I have kiddingly set up 

“GrandPa Virtual School” to connect with my grandsons. I was “Face-Timing” with my daughter and her two preschool little boys when the idea was hatched: “Grandpa Virtual School” We try to connect and read books, tell stores learn to count and other fun (and learning) opportunities. Just spending a small amount of time watching them play and goofing with their grandpa, is perhaps more important to my mental health than their academic success. It certainly gives me joy!

Others may try as well. It is a good activity for 3 generations for dealing with isolation, boredom, break for mom and dad, and lots of smiles for ole Grandpa.

EdNews: Speaking of connectivity, haven’t you written about the lack of broadband in rural America and other challenges these communities have that are being exposed to an even greater degree today because of the coronavirus?

Watkins: You have a good memory. Yes I have spoken out on these inequity issues facing our rural communities for a number of years. Here are some links: 

     * Connectivity can be an economic driver in the U.P.

     * Invest in U.P. infrastructure

     * Michigan needs a ‘rural ombudsman’

10 EdNews: I have heard you talk about “universal truths this coronavirus has taught the world— what are they?


  • Science matters. Hope and prays while welcome are not going to solve this problem.
  • Facts matter. There is a time and place for political spin- this is not one of them.
  • Transparency matters. We need our government and health leaders to keep us informed, good, bad and ugly.
  • Truthfulness matters. In a era where the Groucho Marx line, “Who ya gonna believe, me or your lying eyes” has become a standard punchline, we must demand the truth.
  • Preparedness matters. Budget cuts and hiring freezes in federal departments are often hidden from the public view— until they aren’t. There are many key positions in critical public health and homeland security roles that are vacant- and it shows  
  • Trust matters. When at least half of American citizens don’t trust the POTUS in good times, Houston, we have a crisis in tough times. 
  • Leadership matters. At a time when we should be rallying around the flag to protect our nation from this foreign invasion we are splintered and divided. As Abe Lincoln reminded us at a perilous time in our history, a house divided against itself will not stand. 
  • Health matters. My grandma would always tell me, “Without your health, you have nothing.” I now understand grandma.  
  • What happens in China does not stay in China. Going forward, all global issues will intersect at the corner of Beijing and Washington, D.C. How are respective leaders manage and lead these issues will impact the people of China, America and all of humanity as we are witnessing today.
  • Tribalism and nationalism are on a rise- but we need to grasp, we are all in this together as we continue to be reminded, we live in an interconnected world where walls  won’t prevent health or economic pandemic. We can’t drill holes in the other side of the boat we are sharing and not expect it to sink us all
  • In an interconnected world, we need to build bridges – not erect walls or dig moats to survive and thrive.
  • Global problems. Problems like the coronavirus, climate change, water scarcity, ignorance, poverty, nuclear proliferation require a collective unified, coordinated collaborative response.

We can  help avert catastrophes we know are coming our way, if we have the courage to upset the status quo. We cannot survive in the 21st century without casting off the anchors of the past that are holding us in frozen in place. 

 11.  EdNews: Tom, thank you for taking the time to share your insights with our readers. How do our readers contact you and do your have any closing thoughts ?

Watkins:  Please feel to reach out to me: or Wechat: tdwatkins88

Covid-19 /coronavirus is a hideous, frightening pandemic that has blanked the world. It is bringing illness, fear and death. We need ALL of us to do our part to help rid the world of this scourge, this silent war that has attacked us all. 

Acts large and small are needed: Wash your hands like your momma is watching, shelter at home, don’t hoard food, toilet paper, cleaning products, love your family and help your neighbors.  

Together, we are truly better.

There is pain we all are experiencing because of this pandemic. We can also find meaning in this crisis. We can all strive for happiness, but this virus may help us find meaning. We will bond with family members, friends, neighbors and strangers because of this tragedy, We are in the mist of a silent war without bombs.  This time can be a powerful magnet for us all to find meaning in the search for a higher good.

Godspeed to all. 


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1 Comment

  1. Cleaster Jackson

    As usual great insight and right on target.