“It’s been two weeks since our school closed, and I need this to be over.” That’s what’s on the mind of every principal in New York City during this coronavirus pandemic. We want to be back in our buildings, in front of our kids, greeting our families, collaborating with our staff. Of course, I know that’s not possible right now. I know that closing schools is the right thing to do, and we need to remain closed until we flatten the curve.
The rational part of my brain understands that. The other half, however, feels like a captain on a lifeboat in a dense fog, desperately trying to convince the crew and passengers that we’re going to be OK when we can’t even see or touch one another.
I do believe that we are going to come out of this OK. I believe in the resiliency that is at our core. Our students and families have already overcome a million obstacles by the time they walk into our school. This pandemic, while unique in its reach and impact, will certainly not break us.
But I can’t sleep. There’s a pulsing angst growing in my chest every day as I think about our students and our families’ immediate need for food. I think of the students I worried about getting enough to eat even when school was in session. And even though we are making meals and pantry goods available, I know there are families who may not be able to come for meal pickup or not want to share that their family needs help. Nearly 90 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, so I worry about my students getting the nourishment they need every day.
For so many of our students, school is where they feel safe."
I think about the fact that our families are already feeling the economic effects of this pandemic. With businesses being shut down across New York City, I worry about our families having to find new ways to earn a living, which only adds to the stress they are already feeling while sheltering in place.
For so many of our students, school is where they feel safe. It’s a space where they can forget about the trauma in their lives and find stability and structure. Now, they don’t have those eight hours surrounded by teachers who love them and help them deal with their struggles outside school.
Our focus as a school has been to remotely replicate the systems of revolutionary love—learning to love in so that you can love out—that are the foundation of our school. We continue to provide strong academic content, but our priority is providing our students with a sense of consistency and reassurance during these tenuous times. We engage with our families often on social media now and have set up a nightly read-out-loud session on Instagram for our families.
The other night we read Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss, and one of my students asked if we’re in the waiting place as the book describes. “How do we get out of the waiting place? Are we ever going to go back to school?”
I told him, yes, we are in the waiting place—or “on pause,” as Gov. Andrew Cuomo calls it. The important thing is that we transform the waiting place into action. We need to create, we need to inspire, we need to do.
For our students, that means TikTok videos on the importance of washing your hands and dance challenges between advisory groups to maintain a sense of community and joy. For us as educators, it means continuing to advocate for the needs of our families. We need more food, we need more cleaning supplies, we need more laptops and iPads, we need legislation that protects our families from losing their jobs or their homes. We need a rent freeze. We need essential workers to receive essential pay. We are doing everything we can, but we need help ensuring that the basic needs of our students are met.
While I can’t tell my students when it will be safe to return to their beloved school, I am confident that everyone at KIPP Freedom Middle School will continue to use creativity and find innovative ways to keep our community close and inspire one another. Together, we will do whatever it takes to help our students and families navigate even the most treacherous waters.