Covid diary of an NYC Schoolteacher

A Firsthand Account of a Back-to-School Season from Hell

By Sarah Leonard

Photos by Marilena Marchetti

Last spring, as the coronavirus swept through New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio resisted pressure to shut down the public school system and send home 1.1 million children and 75,000 teachers. Around March 12, teachers discovered a case of Covid-19 at the Crotona International High School in the Bronx. Administrators declined to close the school because the Department of Public Health didn’t have the case on record. But as more and more cases popped up in schools, unionized teachers organized sickouts, met with parents, and decried the dangers of de Blasio’s policy in the press — finally forcing the mayor’s hand. On March 16, he ordered a switch to remote learning. 

Marilena Marchetti is one of the teachers who was involved in this effort. She’s an occupational therapist, a job that requires her to go from school to school to conduct assessments and do direct service work with special education students who have trouble reading or with motor skills. She’s also a member of the radical Movement of Rank and Filed Educators (more) caucus within the United Federation of Teachers. She has worked at the New York Department of Education (DOE) since 2014, and prior to that she spent two years working in Chicago public schools, where she participated in the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012. She is a socialist.

We talked in November, when New York City schools were partially remote. Marchetti had spent the summer organizing with parents and fellow teachers to keep schools closed and get resources for online classes until the virus was under control, but by September, de Blasio had declared a partial re-opening. A passionate fight gave way to resignation, and students began returning to classrooms on September 29. When I spoke with Marchetti on the phone, she was exhausted, disgusted, and near tears. “This is a depressive rage,” she said, “it’s like being numb and on fire at the same time.”

On November 19, as the city approached a 3 percent test positivity rate, the mayor shut down schools again. As of December, at least 79 DOE employees had died of Covid-19, including 31 teachers.

Here, in her own words, is Marchetti’s description of a back-to-school season from hell:

FREIGHT TRAIN COMING

“All summer, I felt like I was full-time organizing. I would wake up, get out of bed and open WhatsApp, start my computer, and I had this drive to protect the kids. I was so positive about this time because I felt like I was in Chicago again: I knew what a united, interracial parent-teacher-student education justice movement could be like, when parents are your comrades in fighting against the city. Then, the re-opening got handed down from the mayor.” 

“The mayor’s plan was to show that it was okay to go to school, and therefore that it was okay to go outside and to restaurants. That was also the agenda of the business class.”

“I have this image of a freight train coming right toward us, and we’re yelling and the driver sees us — actually sees us! — but just keeps going. It couldn’t have been made any more clear to us that the mayor was going to prioritize profit over life. As a socialist I’ve always known this to be true, but if ever there was a time to test it… Are you really a human? Is there a heart in your chest? No, the laws of capitalism always prevail. The system won’t stop until your money stops.”

TRUST AND TECH

“Students got iPads if they needed them, which sounds amazing until you realize that these iPads didn’t have App Store access because the DOE didn’t want students to use them for anything other than school. They limited their capacity, which prevented us from actually getting work done. Most of my students have phones, and so it would have been beautiful if they had been able to set it up with the same password and sync across their devices, but god forbid we give families vouchers to get tech that can be integrated with what they already have and or let them download apps that their teachers would want them to have — the DOE has to control everything. I can’t have my kids download anything I’d want them to use but the DOE can track me because you can only log in with a DOE account. It felt like a tracking device.”

“My kids who are in sixth grade and below have visual motor delays that make it hard for them to write, and so an iPad is no different than a TV. Instead of this $800 device let’s send them crafts, Legos, something that helps them engage with their parents.”

“Then there’s the ‘free’ Wi-Fi — to access it you had to sign up for an account with your credit card. If you already owed money on another internet account then you were cut off. We drew attention to this and they changed it. But since there is no citywide free Wi-Fi right now the idea that any family can opt in to remote learning is a joke. I have students who don’t have Wi-Fi and they’re just not logging in to classes.”

DEATH AND DEPRIVATION

“One of my students lost two of his uncles, another lost her mother, and I’m relating to them over a screen. These kids need a lot more support than they are able to receive. They might not log in, they might not answer a phone call, and I might not be able to see the pain they’re in.”

“It’s sad because I’m always left thinking that I’m not doing enough, and that’s why a student isn’t showing up, but no — they’re on the verge of being homeless, or they don’t have Wi-Fi. How is my role going to be able to account for all that neglect and deprivation? The best way to improve educational outcomes is to improve other things: kids need tech equity and stable lives that aren’t impeded by chaos and lack of opportunity.”

RE-OPENING AND THE RACE GAP

“All the New York Times articles highlighting parents who wanted the schools to open felt like some kind of propaganda. My sense is that disproportionately whiter and wealthier students are attending in person. Friends teaching in the Bronx at schools without any white kids tell me that they have only one or two students in class. I see a lot of white kids at school, and I know that many of my students of color are at home.” 

“We expected this disparity because kids of color face more death from the coronavirus. This mayor keeps saying that education means so much to poor communities of color, and it’s like, yeah, so does life, and those communities were hit so much harder. None of us bought the mayor’s narrative and that’s why the Times coverage was so disgusting.”

“I have a special needs student who doesn’t have Wi-Fi and has to go to school in-person, but she’s also very poor and her mom is like, ‘hell no, she’ll go over my dead body,’ because she’s afraid of her getting sick.” (Not long after our interview, the Times ran a major article with the headline: “12,000 More White Children Return to N.Y.C. Schools Than Black Children.”)

STRESS, OLD AND NEW

“The in-person work that I’m doing [during the partial reopening] is nice in some ways because the schools are not as crowded. It’s a much calmer, nicer vibe. Normally, we’re always yelling at kids in the hallway between classes: walk, don’t run; be quiet. When are we going to learn that this single-file line thing isn’t developmentally appropriate? That problem isn’t there anymore. It turns out getting ten kids to walk from one place to another is not hard.” 

“Regents [New York’s state-wide assesment exam] has been cancelled for high schoolers. The tests skew everything and they turn teaching into coercion. Some kids don’t need coercion; they’re made for the test. But my kids have special needs. Getting rid of testing has eliminated a lot of stress.”

“Of course, there are new stresses: taking Covid tests, keeping the windows open, maintaining social distance. We’ve had to close a few times. If a kid wants to have lunch with me in my classroom I’m stressed out because they’re eating without a mask in front of me. What can I do? We’re working together; we have to eat. That’s part of my anxiety, which is like a depressive rage. I feel I don’t have a lot of agency and I’m so burned out.”