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School Climate & Safety Opinion

A Teacher’s Diary of a Week of School Closure

By Colin Lieu — March 24, 2020 5 min read
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Schools have closed in 46 states and counting, with learning moving online. And, boy, am I grateful.

During the public back-and-forth over the decision to close New York City schools this month, I was rooting for the United Federation of Teachers’ criticism of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s reluctance to close the schools.

Little did I know in just a few days, a lack of surgical grade masks would lead first responders working in hospitals to turn to bandanas and sports goggles for protection. That, and more, put things in perspective.

Here’s an account of my first week adjusting first to the expectation that I would have to put my health on the line to meet the shortcomings of other policies—daycare shortage, food access, housing affordability—and later to the subsequent decision to finally close schools:

Friday, March 13

Educators in my school sat in a circle to discuss how we felt. Under the bright collegiate outfits of our monthly College Spirit Day, layers began to unravel. Ideas, confessions, and vulnerabilities bubbled up. What I thought was going to be a statement of anger became an emotional admission:

Before bed, my angst turned into heartburn."

“I feel as though we’re made to feel like a food pantry or nurses,” I shared. “We’re proud educators. Now we’re being asked to come in so that kids can be fed, so that they have a place to go. But why is my health on the line to act as a Band-Aid for the historic and structural issues around poverty?”

Embarrassingly, this was a tear-filled monologue.

I felt heard. I got a few fist bumps, a Kleenex, and hugs (so much for social distancing)—but the decision had been made. We were opening on Monday.

Saturday, March 14

I refreshed the New York City Department of Education’s coronavirus page more times than doomsday preppers have made a supermarket run for toilet paper. Even schools with confirmed cases would only be receiving a deep clean, closure for a day or two, and then reopening. What was going on?

Finally, relief. We got a message from our head of school that we’d be closing. Maybe my tears were heard. The plan was to move 100 percent of our learning online. But … how?

Sunday, March 15

Click. Scroll. Swipe. Share. Like.

Finally, it was announced that New York City public schools would close. My fellow educators in our group text had no idea what would happen next. My eyes started to hurt. I’ve had too much screen time. I was binging on my own news-curated show: Coronavirus Chaos, season 1, episode 4—The United States of America’s delayed reaction.

Monday, March 16

We got our marching orders: We would prepare a YouTube lesson for each of our classes and compile content for a weekly print packet to be distributed at school for families who opt to come in for them (because they can’t print, or don’t have access to the Internet).

But the reality is that not every teacher would be able to become Silicon Valley sages overnight. I started receiving text messages from fellow educators on how to lock Google Docs, add YouTube videos to playlists, and create virtual video classrooms.

By the end of the day, I had overworked myself: I uploaded three advisory video lessons to help students get accustomed to remote work and time management and two health and wellness videos so that our students would continue to get their daily yoga and mindfulness. I wanted to prove to myself that I was just as efficient, if not more, when working from home.

Our school launched a YouTube channel—and we were ready for classes tomorrow.

Before bed, my angst turned into heartburn. It would be hours before I actually fell asleep.

Tuesday, March 17

Whoops. That didn’t last long. As the number of cases and death toll continued to rise, it became clear it was unsafe to ask staff members to go to school, print packets, and then to wait for families to pick them up. Having a hardcopy version was idealistic and equitable—but ultimately not sustainable.

My attention turned to school culture. How can we keep students motivated? Celebrate their success? Make them feel connected to each other? My brain would not stop.

Finally seeing some students in my Google Hangouts office hours doing yoga with me made everything come full circle. This is why we’re working so hard.

I left the house for the first time in two days to take out the trash. Wow. How many door handles did I have to touch just to do that? I sanitized door handles and light switches before bed.

Wednesday, March 18

The day started with a phone call from a friend who is a middle school teacher. To get families at her school ready, all families needed Google Classroom accounts. If parents didn’t have an email, teachers were expected to create an email login for them, call them, and walk them through the process.

If this pandemic had happened before Google Classroom launched just six years ago, would teachers have been expected to transfer decades-old practices from dated to digital? Technology is forcing us to keep working—for better or for worse.

After a morning session of sun salutations, yoga pose stories, and meditation on Google Hangout, one of my 5th grade students said, “I needed this. It feels like a bunch of days since I’ve done yoga.” Worth it.

The day ended with a phone call: Someone in our school community tested positive for COVID-19. Crap. Another perspective change. Now I had to think about quarantining myself and my husband.

Thursday, March 19

Some form of normality needed to return. I woke up earlier. I did my stretches. I had a full breakfast. I lit a candle. I wrote a journal entry. All of this, before our daily 8:30 a.m. meeting. I need to look after me.

As I’m writing this, I’m intentionally deciding to take things slow. I’m stopping to notice the different grains of wood on my kitchen counter versus my TV stand. I’m appreciating my water filter—no matter what, I’ll have water.

Today was a hard day to focus, knowing that someone in our school community has now been hospitalized. My YouTube lessons aren’t going to win an Academy Award. Heck, I might even forget to submit some. But I will get good sleep. I will eat regular meals. I will laugh. And I will move on from this.


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