First Person

One Teacher's Life in a Coronavirus Epicenter

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The news comes to me between online classes. New York City, where I live, is now the hotspot for coronavirus. Elmhurst Hospital, a few blocks from my home in Queens, has lines out the door, never before seen. News helicopters are circling above it, letting the rest of the nation know this is all too real.

Friends who are nurses are posting on Facebook that there are no more masks and gowns available at their hospitals. I learn that a young principal in Brooklyn has died from the virus. A teacher at my school tested positive for it, too, and is home with mild symptoms. She’s one of the few people I know who were actually able to get tested when feeling sick.

My husband and I keep looking at each other, thinking the same thing: Should we get out of here? Would health care be more available elsewhere? If we stay, will our grocery stores still be stocked with food? These questions loom large, as the risk of the moment comes into alarming focus.

As all of that swirls, I’m on a group chat with my middle school team. This kind of connection is new for us. We can no longer just pop into each other’s rooms. Now, our scheduled meetings are on Zoom. We’re using a continuous Google-chat stream to problem-solve Zoom hacks. Today, the most urgent matter is how to identify the uninvited guest who keeps popping into 7th grade Zoom classes and putting up inappropriate profile pictures. We have learned a LOT in the last week.

One of the many emails that pour in: A message from an administrator, reminding us we need to be working a six-hour and 50-minute day, including six hours of instruction to students and documentation of all activities and interactions with students and families. Our charter school’s funding depends on it.

A ‘Don’t Look Down’ Situation

The reality is we’re all working our behinds off. Many of us have our own children at home, too, who need care and help with their own remote learning. I understand the need for our school to be able to support our claim that we kept school “open,” but the idea of documenting every single online interaction makes my chest feel tight.

It’s a “don’t look down” kind of situation. This could so easily NOT work. But so far, it’s going in the right direction.

I answer emails from students. I post on Google Classroom. Then I get more news: As we suspected, state English/language arts and math tests are officially canceled for the year. I delete 12 emails from companies trying to interest me in curriculum products. I need time to think.

My husband is doing an ice experiment with our daughter, as part of the remote learning her preK teacher assigned. (Suddenly, thousands of New York City parents now know how Google Classroom works, which I find oddly amusing.) Throughout the day, our daughter bounces between her dad and me, amusing herself in her room, and the TV. Yesterday, she woke up crying because she misses her friends.

Connecting to Students' Lives

Time to Zoom with my second 8th grade English class. Seeing them makes me happy, now that I know how to manage the functions with adolescents (they’ll chat off-topic privately and annotate the screen if you don’t disable those functions). Attendance is 100 percent, which amazes me. (My school delivered Chromebooks to all families who expressed a need.)

The first two days, I had heavy agendas with lots of slides. I assigned daily homework for students to chronicle their experiences in their Daybooks.

But today, based on many requests from students, I allotted most of the period for sharing. Students read their Daybook entries aloud during our Zoom class and then sent them to me.

The realities of their lives spring into sharp focus as they unmute themselves to speak. I hear a toddler making noises, a news broadcast in Bengali. They hoist their cats and dogs into the frame. It’s nice to hear my students’ voices and spend time in this group.

Many students said that, at first, they were excited for “a month” off school, but that quickly turned to boredom. Being back in virtual school after a week of nothing is a relief: “I did a happy dance!” one student said. “If it wasn’t for Zoom, I would probably go crazy,” another wrote.

Some students can’t decide whether they like “remote school.” They’re getting a lot of emails and online assignments; it’s uncomfortable to sit for so many hours a day. Everyone is sick of being stuck inside. Most of all, students miss their friends.

“I notice that being with my friends brings fun or joy to my life. … Even though I have a [PlayStation] 4 and a laptop and my phone, that still doesn't bring joy to my life. This is the reason why I really miss school,” one student wrote.

‘Will We Be Part of History?’

One student was relying on memories to sustain her. At school, she used to film everything on her phone and post it on Snapchat. “People would ask, ‘Why do you film everything?’ Well, now,” she said, “I have so many memories I can watch while I’m bored, missing my friends, missing how it was back then.”

One student was starting a Muslim Club. She’d gotten a staff member to sponsor it and secured a room after school: “I am really super disappointed. … Just when I wanted to spread the Muslim Club fliers, THIS happens? Like, plz, not now!”

One student asks, “How will we do group work?” I’m wondering the same thing.

“Will we be part of history?” another asks.

One student has started a sci-fi story, inspired by our new reality: “I never thought this would’ve happened,” it said. “My life depends on screens now. Talking to my classmates and teachers through technology. What have we done? Nothing. Our whole lives we acted selfish, about the earth and the people around us. We never thought about how it would affect people. And here we are suffering, worrying, trusting other people. We thought one little thing wouldn’t affect the whole community. Whoever thought that should look at the world.”

So Many Questions

Another student said, “We are learning to appreciate what we have. We took so much for granted.”

And another, notorious for never reading outside of class, describes his boredom and then exclaims, “So guess what, Ariel. For the first time in my life, I actually chose to read by myself. I grabbed this book and actually read some.”

Leaving the Zoom session, I feel good. I’m going to comment back in students’ Google Doc entries. Then I’ll take my daughter outside so she can ride around on her scooter. We’ll keep our distance from the few others outside. I wonder, is this safe? And will my daughter come out of this experience traumatized? Will I?

Then there’s more news through email: The sole caretaker of two of our students is sick with what sounds like COVID-19 symptoms. I feel my chest tighten again. There is no hug I can provide. No solution in my reach. Only emojis, empathy, prayer.

Maybe we—humans, Americans, teachers, students—will learn something from this pandemic. I’ve heard a few arguments to that effect. But there is no bypassing the devastation already snowballing in our lives. We are staying put, grateful to be connected and purposeful, and keeping our eyes looking forward. But we are not OK.

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