School & District Management

‘Deaths Every Single Day': Leading a School Through the Pandemic and Racial Strife

By Catherine Gewertz — March 10, 2021 5 min read
Cedric Hall, principal of Eagle Academy for Young Men in Queens, N.Y.

Cedric Hall is the principal of Eagle Academy for Young Men in Queens, N.Y., one in a network of six public schools designed to support young men of color in grades 6-12. He describes what it’s been like to lead a school community through COVID-19—even while he fell victim to it himself—and through the emotional fallout from the police killing of George Floyd, whose nephew is a student at his school. His interviews with Education Week have been edited for length and clarity.

It’s been a complex and very emotional time for schools with a lens like ours. We can’t not deal with this, as other schools might. This is our mission, to uphold the protection and messaging around men of color. When George Floyd hit, it just devastated us. We did some evening [school community conversations] to give our young men an opportunity to talk. They had all the rage, all the feeling. It’s one thing to be upset to see it on TV, to know how much of a reality it is for every Black man. It’s another when George is part of our school community. It’s super heavy. That and the pandemic hit us with a two-piece knockout.

I got COVID the first week of April. This is about the time New York City became an epicenter. By that time, we’d gone remote. At first, I felt like I had a bad flu. Then I started having major respiratory challenges. I quarantined for 14 days and spent a lot of time in bed. I wasn’t in ICU condition. I still conducted the staff meetings, [teacher] observations [by Zoom]. I didn’t take any days off. But it was pretty rough. And it was scary. People were dying everywhere.

Before Christmas, I lost my first cousin and her mother, my aunt, right after New Year’s. COVID wasn’t their cause of death, but they each had health conditions that ended up being fatal because they couldn’t get care the way they would have before COVID. My grandfather got COVID and was in the ICU for months. Thank God, he’s at a family member’s house now with medical support.

My athletics department took a hit. We lost two lead coaches, one on basketball and one on football, both varsity. One was from COVID, another was pre-existing health reasons. We had just gotten over another coach’s death before the pandemic. For my young men whose outlet was gaming, they still had that. But for the ones whose outlet was sports, they couldn’t access that, and then we lose these coaches. It was really rough. These young men still don’t have their sports.

It has taken a toll. Not just because the job got difficult. Not just because we had to figure out how to take school remote overnight. But as principal, you are the depository for all tragedy and strife. However many homes I have, however many family members in those homes, all the variables that impact school and learning. You add the staff members, the community leaders, because we are super ingrained in the fabric of southeast Queens.

I was getting calls notifying me of deaths every single day. We have families who’ve been through fires, floods, evictions. I get everything: every illness, every death, every kid who struggles with a mental wellness breakdown. As a human being, it’s tough. It’s a lot to take in, to carry. I don’t just hear it; I have to respond. I have to provide support. For me, on the body, the spirit, it’s a major toll.

The job is 24/7 since March 2020, summer included. Me and my cabinet were meeting at 2 a.m. sometimes. Your diet starts to fail. You start not working out as much. You feel the anxiety and stress. I have a responsibility professionally to make sure I usher every one of my scholars safely to the other side. It’s no man left behind.

Cedric Hall, principal of Eagle Academy for Boys in Queens, N.Y.

During all of this, I had to see the boys. I knew it increased my exposure, but it was necessary. I had this one mom call me. I had to drop a device off for her son, and she was having an extreme challenge with him. It was a small apartment in Queens over some takeout restaurants. I went up the stairs. She’s a single mom. She’s doing everything she can, but she’s struggling.

My heart broke as soon as I entered. I saw the condition of the home; the mom had her laptop out, trying to work. It was afternoon and she hadn’t managed to eat yet that day. I went into his room. He was sitting there, somber. The room was a mess. There was just a soullessness in the house, a somber, deep darkness.

He hadn’t been showing up to class. I sat on his bed and talked to him. I’m, what’s going on? He says, ‘Nothing.’ I said, don’t tell me nothing! And he just breaks down and cries. He said, ‘I need help, and I need Eagle. Being around all the things I’m around all the time, Eagle was my opportunity to escape, to reset, develop fortitude to move forward day to day.’ I cried with him. We put together a check-in plan. I told him I like to clean when I’m stressed, so we cleaned the house. The mom got some time to work.

I left, went down to my car, and sat there and cried again. Our young men need our school in regular conditions. And in these conditions, he needed it more than ever. When they’re in the building, I know just what to do: I pop in, I offer warmth and nurturing. But the pandemic tied our hands behind our backs. I’ve never felt helpless as an administrator. To see the feeling of defeat in that home just ripped me. He’s doing better now. But that day. Man.

Today [Feb. 26], my senior class came together for convocation. The first time in a year in the building. We usually do it around October, as a pledge to finish school. But last year we couldn’t. So finally today, we got together for an experience that felt like school again. They were all here, about 50 of them, all but four of the senior class, beaming energy and light in the building. Normally we have hundreds at this ceremony, with family members. Today that wasn’t possible. But we had our seniors, and our 17 middle school scholars [who’d opted to return for in-person learning], and staff and administrators, socially distanced, in the gym, with 85-inch monitors, and we live-streamed it. It was maybe 100 people altogether, but it felt like thousands because of the energy.

We did a video version of the “the passing of the wings” ceremony, where a representative of the senior class passes a statue of an eagle, with its wings spread, to one of their junior brothers, as a symbol of getting them to take the pledge of graduating. Here at Eagle, scholars wear shirts and ties, but senior year, we give them blazers and pins. So today we gave those to them so they could finish out their senior year strong. I’m talking tears! And I’m not saying a few hugs didn’t slip in there. At one point, they started chanting, “Brotherhood!” We didn’t ask them to. They just did it. Those boys are an inspiration to me. We are all starting to feel that burnout, stuck on a plateau, and it was just what our school community needed.

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as ‘Deaths Every Single Day’: Leading a School Through the Pandemic and Racial Strife

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