Jen is a full-time music teacher in Queens in New York City. Back in January and February 2020 the coronavirus was already on her radar since many of her students were Asians who were following the situations in their home countries. However, she saw herself as being relatively healthy and in great shape, and she felt invincible. Like most New York City residents, awareness was not accompanied by more vigilance.
The virus made an entrance into her life on Monday, March 9th. She was on her way back to work when her phone rang. The middle school in her daughter’s school district reported a case of coronavirus and the entire district was to be shut down for a day of cleaning. Since she worked in a different district, this meant that she had to get a substitute in order to stay home and look after her six year old. It was worrying.
Jen was also a member of the Brooklyn Symphony, a semi-professional music band. The following night, she went into Brooklyn for a rehearsal. They were auditioning for the Midwest Clinic. Little did she know that twelve of the band’s members would become sick or be diagnosed with the coronavirus within the following three days. When she said goodbye to her friends that night, she did not realize that was to be their last time.
As that week progressed, the pandemic became more real. Their parent-teacher conference went online. Her daughter’s school never reopened. One by one the school districts in Long Island began to close, and then the suburbs followed. New York City insisted it would not. Too many kids in poverty were depending on the schools for meals and other services.
“I’ll never forget the morning of Friday, March 13, because I just had this feeling, this eeriness in my gut, that I’d never see my eighth graders again. Had I known, it would truly be the last time I would see my graduating eighth grade seniors, I think there is so much more I would have said, but I said some really nice things to them and reminded them of how far they had come. They’ve been teaching them for three years. So I said my goodbyes without saying goodbyes.”
That weekend, every district in the tri-state area had closed except New York City. The mayor kept on saying – and it was viral on the internet – that the Department of Education would stay open no matter what. However, late Sunday night, NYC schools were officially shut down.
“The decision to close a system like New York City for in-person learning is not something that was taken lightly by the upper echelons of administration. It felt like being on a sinking ship as you knew it was spreading and you knew it was dangerous to go in. Then, of course, you wanted to be there for the kids and make sure they were OK and make sure they were fed.”
Teachers were told to still come into school through Friday the 20th to plan. Jen’s husband, who was also a teacher, went to school until the very last hour on the 20th. On that Monday, though, Jen found out that she had been exposed at the rehearsal and thus she was excluded from going to school that week, which was lucky since her baby’s daycare was closed and her daughter’s school was shut down.
During the next few weeks, the full extent of the raging pandemic in New York City became apparent. From only a few cases reported per day in mid-March, 10,000 cases were being confirmed per day in late March. New York City had become the coronavirus epicenter of the world.
“To give you an idea of how staggering that number 10000 is, at that time it was almost impossible to get tested. So for every 10000 positive tests we had in New York City, I’m sure there were tens, maybe arguably hundreds of thousands, that we might have missed. It spread fastest in our most dense neighborhoods. So my area of Queens, the spread was not nearly as fast and not as pervasive as just one or two neighborhoods over where there are taller apartment buildings and just much higher population density: Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Corona, the western part of Flushing. You had exponential spread there just because people live in such close quarters that we went to early March.”
Jen later found out that the first positive case at her daughter’s school district that had set off its closing was actually a teacher at the middle school.
“I’m not sure how he got tested. At that time in New York, and I guess anywhere, it was really hard to get tested. I know so many teachers personally that later tested positive for antibodies, and they were so sick. They were negative for flu and they were not tested for coronavirus because there just were no tests or they couldn’t be assessed. So basically, one of the only ways to get a positive test was to be in the hospital. If you were sick enough that you were hospitalized, OK, you got a test. But if you went to the local urgent care — I know someone that had like a hundred-and-four fever and she was told that it was probably a virus; it could be Corona, it could not be, but we don’t have tests for people like you who are well enough to walk in and walk out of here.”
Over that time period, Jen personally knew more than thirty people who got sick from the coronavirus. Jen was lucky. She never got sick, and as far as she knows, she never contracted the virus.
The schools transitioned to online learning. Jen spent the time trying to get her kids registered for Google Classroom and setting up the technology for her students. Many kids, just due to the size of the system, did not get the technology needed for online learning until very late. Even in May, some of her kids still did not have Department of Education (DOE) issued devices and were trying to share their one phone and iPad between all the family members. It made learning a struggle.
Soon after the schools closed, Jen’s school started providing meals to the community, unlimited meals with no questions asked. Families could come in get their bagged breakfasts, lunches, and they could take extra sandwiches and stuff home for dinner.
“To date, my school is still a feeding center and every day when I go, when I see people lined up around the corner, we still average close to 5000 meals a day. And that’s just one school out of eighteen hundred schools that are handing out free food. So getting the students online, getting the meal services set up, communicating with kids and families, working around and working through socioeconomic barriers such as poverty, hunger on language barriers. It was very challenging for the system, for administration and for teachers and for the families.”
It is hard to fathom the devastating impact the coronavirus had on the communities. At Jen’s school, a couple of students lost their parents and are still recovering from the loss. In other communities like Corona, where a lot of her friends teach, there was barely a student who didn’t lose someone close.
“I think the hardest thing for me to do in education… was just seeing this loss, seeing this confusion and its devastation and the most you could do was direct them to the local food pantry. Or in many cases for students that have very sick relatives or lost parents, we brought them meals through Uber Eats and other meal delivery services just to make sure they were getting food.
It kind of made teaching seems so irrelevant, like I’m trying to do these lessons. At the same time I’m like, are these kids okay, are they eating? It was just heartbreaking not being there. You almost felt like they were on a sinking ship and you were retreating to your nice house in the suburbs where you could walk outside and not even come in contact with people. Because where I live in Plainview, it’s not dense at all. So I really just felt for the students and the parents and the community. I felt helpless at times, like there was so much more I wanted to do.”
Classes were online, but some students did not connect or even respond. With all the terrifying possibilities out there, it was easy to imagine the worse. There were too many unknowns.
“I can tell you, I’ve never experienced more heartbreak as a teacher than I did in the spring of 2020. The first week or two I cried myself to sleep every night just because I was worried sick about the kids. One thing I love about teaching is when you look into their eyes and you know if they’re OK or they’re not OK because you see them every day. And when that was suddenly taken away from us and from them, it was gut-wrenching to just not know. So I got to the point where I would tell them, like, I don’t care if you come to class. I don’t even care if you do my assignments. Just message me back. Let me know that you’re okay.”
Jen’s school did a lot of email outreach and phone call outreach. She found that some kids just didn’t have the technology at home or their home situation wasn’t conducive to learning. Other kids were just so overwhelmed. They openly admitted that they didn’t have enough headspace to deal with music and the major subjects. Jen would be fine as long as she knew they were okay.
“I had like a messenger thing, one of the apps we were using, and I would just be messaging back and forth with kids like, ‘Hey, how’s Dad?’ You know, Dad was in a nursing home and had had a stroke, or sending food vouchers to the families that had lost people. But my school has a great team of teachers and we also have amazing guidance counselors. And I think it takes a village. A middle school – they don’t just have me, but they’ve got seven or eight others. We divide and conquer. I’m going to check on these kids. You check on those. And guidance was very good at just getting to the kids and calling them, and if they weren’t engaging on Google Classroom, following up with their families and trying to get to the bottom of the issue.”
After the school year finished, the school had a meeting in June on how they would help the students readjust and re-acclimate to school.
“One of the things that I was very passionate about, and a lot of the staff agreed, is that we just can’t come back and start teaching music or math and literacy. From day one, maybe the first week, maybe even the first month, we need to focus on the emotional and physical well-being of the kids.”
The school planned a lot of getting-to-know-you activities in all their classes from the beginning. The music and artistic staff were to show the students that they were there and listening and that the students were valued. They would be validating their children’s emotions. The staff would try to work with children not only on helping them to recognize their emotions, but also to articulate and begin to regulate them.
On Monday, September 21st, eight of Jen’s nine classes were supposed to come in, but the school’s opening was delayed. She had to counsel them.
“A couple of my kids almost cried. They’re just like… ‘This is the most devastating news I’ve ever heard. I just want to come back to school. I just want to see my friends’ faces. I just want to see my teachers’ faces.’”
Jen notes that nothing she’s ever done in her career relates to what she is doing this year. Her school is known for having one of the highest level middle-school band programs in the entire city of New York. This year, though, she’s not even teaching band as her school cut the sequential arts program because of social distancing. So she’s been assigned to teach general music to incoming sixth graders and self-contained special ed classes. Her classes are some of the ones that need the most tender-loving-care.
“Everything I need to do is different and everything I’m trying to do is just absolutely interwoven with socioemotional learning and helping the kids cope with their emotions. We’ve just done over the past week in our Google Meets a lot of very low key, very fun getting-to-know-you activities and expressing yourself and something called Jam Board. They write different things down on some sticky notes and post them online. So it’s very different from running a competitive band program. But I want to use my power as the music teacher just to help these kids heal, just to help them move on and cope and become stronger human beings.”
Jen believes the kids will be changed forever by the pandemic, but she also believes in the resiliency of children. In previous years, she was assigned to one to three kids who were living through repeated trauma, and she worked with them as an extension of the guidance department. Music was used as one of the therapeutic tools. She was able to see kids overcome things that were just even hard to talk about. So she believes the pandemic is a big deal, but she also believes that children are resilient.
“I think it’ll take a lot of time, and in a way, not teaching a competitive band program this year gives me the opportunity to slow things down and focus even more on that emotional well-being side for the children.”
Her kids are recovering and so is New York City.
Jen believes New York City has learned from the pandemic. When she walks the streets, whether in her neighborhood or another, she sees people practicing social responsibility. Everyone is wearing a mask. People are making decisions, not only to protect themselves, but also to protect their fellow citizens. It is dumbfounding for her to see images from the rest of the country of people partying, not wearing masks, and ignoring the pandemic.
And her kids are showing social responsibility as well.
“What I see in my kids right now, I wish they could be a microcosm of the world. I see the most incredible selflessness. Friday, seventh period, this little girl could not get on our Google Meet because her DOE issued device was malfunctioning. So this other sixth grader in the class was like, I got this. She FaceTimes the girl and then holds her phone in front of the computer. So that way the little girl who didn’t have the good enough technology was able to communicate and give a presentation and talk to her classmates. And I see little examples of that every day in my classes, of the kids helping each other.”
Jen wishes that the rest of the nation would learn from her city.
“We were the highest peak and we had the slowest march down that mountain to where we are now at about one percent positivity. But it breaks my heart that so many communities have not learned from our misfortune.”
Read more about the impact to New York City and learn about how Broadway went on hiatus.