Twenty years ago, I was a newly minted English teacher at Oceanside High School in Long Island, N.Y. A few days into the start of my teaching career, two planes flew into the Twin Towers, and my students formed lines by the guidance department so they could check on their parents who were working in Manhattan. During the Great Recession, my students wrote about their families’ foreclosed homes. When our town—a former seaport—was underwater, literally darkened by the chaos of Hurricane Sandy, we charged our phones in the classroom and did our laundry using the home economics department’s washer and dryer. The Sandy Hook massacre gave way to active-shooter drills. The 2016 divisive presidential election resulted in professional development for challenging classroom conversations. And when our school community lost three innocent souls to murder, suicide, and accident in one school year, we launched a series of mental-health programs for our students.
So, when the COVID-19 crisis shuttered our school buildings last March, we jumped into action much as we had before. Every student received a Chromebook and access to Wi-Fi, and our mental-health staff was primed and ready. It seemed our community, once again, had the resources and the staff to rise to the challenge. It was going to be OK.
Cut to the first day of school last fall. The September ritual once so familiar was now simply foreign as the school year began with a hybrid model. Wander down our eerily empty halls and into my classroom. You will find us, six feet apart, windows wide open as the Mid-Atlantic weather gusts in. Plastic barriers separate my desk from my students’. Wearing masks—our smiles hidden and our words muffled—we wave as if in a pantomime show to express ourselves. The Google Meet is projected on the smartboard, where we see the other half of the class—the fully remote students and those who will rotate in later that week. Some point their cameras to the ceiling, while others hide behind an icon. I call out to them: “Hello! Can I see your face? How’s it going today?” Some turn on their cameras and give a thumbs-up; others turn on their mics and say hello.
The challenge of COVID-19, unlike the other crises over the last 20 years, would be its endlessness.
By mid-October, just a few weeks later, the emails start coming. “Dear Ms. Grogan, I feel I owe you an explanation. It has just been so hard to concentrate.” “I’m emailing you on behalf of my daughter, who has recently been experiencing panic attacks.”
“Please be informed that your student is out for bereavement.” From a distance, hidden behind screens and masks, they appeared OK, upbeat even. But they weren’t. Most of my students were struggling. The ubiquitous stress of a pandemic, coupled with the demands of an entirely unfamiliar learning environment, was more than they could manage.
My students were spiraling into apathy with a sixth sense that this learning arrangement, which rationally seemed to be a solid approach to educating in a pandemic, would irrevocably change their perspective about their future. The challenge of COVID-19, unlike the other crises over the last 20 years, would be its endlessness.
The small but daily rituals my students have had to abandon, like lingering at lockers or sharing a slice of pizza or the natural impulse to hug a friend or belly laugh with our mouths wide open, have left us all with an inexplicable sense of loss that is hard to accept. But we keep at it. For my part, I have tossed due dates aside, made writing assignments an opportunity for personal reflection, and overhauled the curriculum. And tried to comfort them anyway that I can.
In spite of the haze, I hope they learn to value the power of literature, the stories of humanity prevailing in the face of injustice, evil, and disaster—which teaches us that we can understand ourselves and others better through storytelling. But as spring approaches, Advanced Placement exams, college applications, and state tests cast long shadows on our confusing days. The ebullience of teenagers at the first hint of warmth has been replaced with kids who seem smaller, fragile, and withdrawn. I do not know how they will fare after this second lost spring.
They are grieving, as am I. We are in desperate need of someone to tell us it is all right if you cannot operate as your prepandemic self. Let us, as educators, be the voice that tells our children, I see you and I hear you. And it is OK to grieve. What is an education for, if not to show students what it means to be human?
Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2021 edition of Education Week as ‘It Is OK to Grieve’