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What One New York Teacher Is Learning in a Pandemic

New York City’s more than one million public school students have not now sat in a classroom since Friday, March 13. As a result, memories of some of my students’ faces, voices, and mannerisms remain frozen in my mind.

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A public school in Brooklyn standing closed during the the coronavirus pandemic, New York City, April 14, 2020

On a recent afternoon, I virtually tagged along with a student as she navigated a neighborhood Walgreens with her family. Sometimes, my student’s phone appeared to bounce and I caught glimpses of soda bottles, tampon boxes, and bright fluorescent lights. When the screen reeled back, I saw her eyes smiling above her surgical mask. “Did you know that they are making everyone who comes into the store wear masks and gloves? There’s a sign and if you don’t have them, they won’t let you in.” She raised a hand so I could see her teal gloves. I told her I liked the color, and we spent a few minutes in the haircare aisle, comparing the shampoos and conditioners we’d each used for our coarse, curly hair. 

From my Brooklyn apartment, I thought about the last time I had entered my own local Walgreens—almost three weeks ago. As she turned her head away, I heard my student conferring with her mother off camera. Her mother, deemed an “essential worker,” spends her days traveling across the city by subway. Now, her wide brown face appeared onscreen. “Can I ask you about prom?” she asked urgently, through her matching surgical mask. It was not the first time she and I had had this conversation, but I also knew it would not be the last. “We saved for a dress. The girls all have dresses now. It would be a shame. They worked so hard.” She paused. “Very hard.”

*

I teach eighth graders at a progressive secondary school in the Lower East Side, within the Department of Education designated District 1. Our school is part of a network of schools in the city inspired by the work of Deborah Meier, the renowned educator and reformer, who is considered the founder of the modern small schools movement.

The neighborhoods within District 1, which includes the Lower East Side, the East Village, and Chinatown, have experienced decades-long, political, cultural and academic arguments over urban renewal, “white flight,” gentrification, and the perceived winners and losers of urban change. With its curious mix of tenement blocks, large public housing developments, old artists’ squats, and gleaming luxury apartment buildings, District 1 became important in the school integration fights that were dominating the educational news agenda before the arrival of Covid-19. After Richard Carranza was appointed the city’s schools chancellor in 2018, he promoted two platforms that remain surprisingly controversial: integrating the city’s more than thirty school districts to reflect the city’s true diversity, and promoting anti-bias and culturally responsive education practices for the city’s teaching force.

At the beginning of 2020, I was already finding the word “unprecedented” rendered meaningless from overuse: we were three years into the Trump presidency. And then, a little more than three months later, I decided it was the only world that could accurately describe the mass quarantines and “shelter in place” orders locking down countries all over the planet, not to mention Governor Andrew Cuomo’s eliminating spring break from our public school calendars, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s hasty follow-up proclamation that school would be in session on Passover and Good Friday, and the general expectation that we teachers would all be expert remote pedagogues now. 

New York City’s more than one million public school students have not now sat in a classroom since Friday, March 13. At my school, by then, we had already received a flurry of communications from wary parents from across the socioeconomic spectrum: they did not intend to send their children to school anymore. My school’s average attendance—usually higher than the district’s—was cut almost in half. I distinctly remember commanding a student returning from the bathroom to take a pump of our classroom’s huge bottle of hand-sanitizer when my phone buzzed: due to Covid-19, my therapist’s office was closing for the foreseeable future: Did I want to create a plan for teletherapy? 

On that Sunday evening, March 15, after widespread pressure, including from the powerful teachers’ union and its more radical wings, Mayor de Blasio announced that beginning the next day, all 1,866 New York City public schools would be shuttered until April 20. And now, although New York’s governor will still not confirm the mayor’s latest pronouncement, it appears we will not return to our buildings for the rest of the school year. (Teaching in New York City right now invites a certain degree of whiplash: in a recent late Friday night directive, citing privacy and security concerns, Carranza banned schools from using Google Meets and Zoom, two popular video conferencing platforms that educators had quickly embraced as vital teaching tools. After significant uproar and panic, he rescinded the ban on Meets; Zoom’s status remains dubious.) 

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Of late, media outlets have run many good and necessary pieces about how teachers across the country are grappling with the implementation of remote learning. A subgenre of advice columns for quarantined adults now home-schooling their children flourishes, too, alongside memes and humorous Twitter requests on how to suspend or expel these unwilling new pupils. More recently, media outlets have been publishing collections of student experiences. Undoubtedly, these accounts provide invaluable insight into the minds of a young generation for whom this will be a life-defining event. No Class of 2020 across the world, it seems, will have a prom, senior trip, or graduation ceremony in the way that previous years of students took for granted. 

Still, the bulk of these personal experience pieces skew toward young people who are experiencing quarantine with the privilege of (sometimes second) homes in rural or suburban locations. Their parents or caretakers are overwhelmingly not classified as essential workers, and their shelter-in-place accounts come with more square footage, fully stocked kitchen cabinets, and outside green space than their lower-class peers, many of whom remain confined in less inspiring urban spaces. 

In our app-enabled meetings, I mark the contrast between the students who diligently come on time, with sunlit pastoral scenes behind them (and occasional cameos from curious parents), and students who insist on keeping their cameras and microphones off, with nothing but their name and a colored icon to indicate their presence. Of course, virtual presence is now the baseline for effective instruction. There are students who do not respond to texts, calls, emails, or social media blasts from concerned teachers, counselors, or administrators, much less attend video meetings. As a result, memories of some students’ faces, voices, and mannerisms remain frozen in my mind from the first weeks of March. 

Now, we are all grasping for historical precedent. Is this like September 11, 2001? In New York City, it is the inevitable question. In terms of deaths and economic devastation, it already has a worse impact than Superstorm Sandy, although that was the last time the mayor closed the city’s public schools for days. But no. September 11 was brutal, sudden, and unexpected—a rupture in normalcy. At the opening of the twenty-first century, there is a clear before and a clear after: much of American life has a necessary pre-/post-September 11 designation.

So what is this? One friend, a fellow native New Yorker and educator, compared the current crisis to having a loved one dying of a slow illness, like terminal cancer. There is a clear diagnosis, but the duration of the decline, and the forms it will take, are hard to predict. The illness becomes a background din against which you live; there are good days and bad days. Time takes on new, fluid forms. Throughout, you decide what form “meaning” will take. 

For me, September 11 marked my first full week as a high school freshman; only later would I dwell on memories of the scraps of white paper flying up First Avenue that day, and the seemingly permanent gray cloud that blanketed my travel to and from school that fall. I never explored what it meant that I marked time by my student’s birth years: you were born that year, one year after, and now, five years after. And there was a clear after, then: the passage of the Patriot Act, the invasion of Iraq, the scandals of Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and new forms of security and surveillance—that gave the lie to Francis Fukuyama’s hubristic 1992 declaration that we were living at the end of history. 

But today, I tell my students, they are indeed living through history, every day.

*

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Free meals for students from the Department of Education being prepared for distribution during the Covid-19 pandemic, New York City, April 14, 2020

Teaching, I have come to find, incorporates some of the most demanding work a person can do, emotionally and intellectually. Leading up to the schools closure, Mayor de Blasio insisted that they could not close—besides providing childcare for working families, the biggest reason was that the majority of city students lived below the poverty line, and their families relied on schools to provide both breakfast and lunch. And yet, amid concerns for our own and our families’ possible exposure to infection, teachers wondered again how we had become the stewards of be-all, end-all social welfare. 

Most teachers in New York City, and, in fact, across the nation, do not need lectures or proffered statistics about how essential schools are. Schools are not mere educational institutions; they act as community centers providing medical and social services to a bewildering number of students and their families. Teacher pay across the nation remains notoriously low. The Red for Ed movement over the past two years has demonstrated that teachers throughout the United States know the crucial parts they play as educators, social workers, mental health counselors, health and welfare benefits coordinators. Teachers have shown they are willing to strike not just for higher pay, but for resources dedicated to the full range of what schools and the people who work in them are expected to provide in the twenty-first century United States. 

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In November 2019, The New York Times profiled two homeless students—one of them attended PS 188, a District 1 elementary school a little over a mile from my own, where administrators estimate that more than half of the student population is homeless. In 2016, the school purchased a washer and dryer to provide students with the opportunity for clean clothing. For decades, in fact, our nation has been content for schools to function as laundromats, medical centers, and cafeterias for the most vulnerable. These services are borne of necessity: already, before the Covid-19 pandemic, the United States was noteworthy for its inequality—throughout the early 2000s, during lean summer months, I remember the long walk my brother and I would take down to our elementary school for a needed free lunch. For many, the coronavirus outbreak is illuminating the fault lines of disenfranchisement, poverty, and disparity that course through our nation. But as my colleagues reaffirm over texts and Zoom chats, teachers had always known where to look. 

In keeping with our historical preferences for rugged individualism, America prefers heroes. Most teachers I know do not necessarily want to be heroic, and yet, in the face of routine systemic breakdown and endemic social failure, they wind up behaving in ways that can be described as just that. Since March 13, teachers, administrators, and school staff across the city have worked tirelessly to connect students and families with much-needed technology—in many cases, personally delivering laptops manually to families in need. They help negotiate with cable companies to provide free or reduced-rate wireless broadband connections, and provide ad hoc translation services for families navigating utility providers and needing technology assistance and set-up. (While the Department of Education has promised to distribute 300,000 iPads to city students, less than a quarter of them had found their way to families at time of writing.) 

Recently, one of my students wrote me: 

I want to go to school I feel like I’m trapped in my house and I’m slowly getting more claustrophobic in my room each day. I just want to be outside and be able to go to school and see my friends. I miss my friends and teachers.

Who knows what this experience will mean for my most vulnerable students and their families. There could be an upsurge of grassroots activism, or there could be more despair. As the scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in a Times opinion piece: “The fear of falling even further behind disciplines people to expect little and prepare for even less.” I do know my students will have a deep, lingering feeling of loss: of rites of passage such as proms, yearbook signings, and school ceremonies, and of opportunities for summer employment and travel. 

I fear they will have lost educational opportunity itself, the confidence that they have truly learned.

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