In February of 2020, our biggest COVID-related problem was the unreasonable price of hand sanitizer. A small bottle of Purell, if you could find it, cost as much as a month of Netflix. We hadn’t budgeted for that.
In March of 2020, we had to pay a much steeper price. The pandemic shut down cost us our hellos and hugs. It cost us our routines, our morning coffee, our social lives. It cost us our mental health and our inner peace. We had not emotionally budgeted for this.
For millions of us, it would end up costing jobs and income, housing, entire support systems. For millions more, it would cost the lives of friends and family members, more than any war in our collective memory.
Compared to many, my March was not so bad. But I wouldn’t call it easy.
Here is what a mashed up day in March 2020 looked like for me.
Friday, March 13th, 7:00 am
I’m loading up the car to head out to a small Pre-K program in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, for one of our Pre-K in-school field trips. It’s Water Unit time in NYC and we’re going to do some hands-on exploring. We’ve got a large sensory tub, cups, toy boats, food coloring -- the works.
Today, I pack extra dish soap to put into the shared water tub, and disinfectant spray and wipes to clean every material between uses.
On any other day, there would usually be 15-20 children in the class; on this day, only nine kids are in attendance. Parents have started pulling them out of school.
We are scheduled to return the following week for another session, and 18 more at various schools over the next three months. We never get there. This is our last Pre-K Workshop of 2020.
Flashback: Thursday, March 12th, 11:00 am
I get an email from a family in one of our afterschool programs saying they are going to keep their child home for a few weeks. This is the first email of this kind that I’ve gotten -- surprising in retrospect, but also indicative of how badly we needed and expected our support systems to stay in place. I wonder if the mom who emailed might be a little overly anxious, but I understand. The WHO declared the virus a pandemic yesterday, after all.
Flashback: Wednesday, March 11th, 1:00 pm
Staff meeting before afterschool. I remind my staff again of our new COVID guidelines: practice the handwashing song with the kids, encourage distance, no activities that put them face to face, Purell constantly, Lysol everything (remember when we thought it was mostly transmitted through infected surfaces?). We are planning for the unexpected and unknown.
Looking back, we didn’t spend much time discussing what might happen because there wasn’t much time to discuss it. It was, maybe, going to be bad, we thought. Then, within what felt like a matter of days, it wasn’t a maybe, and it was worse than bad.
Florpsday, March 87th, 2:20 pm
The only way I can tell one day from another now is by which class we are offering on Zoom.
Afterschool would be kicking into gear now. Unpacking supplies during snack at some schools, picking up students from classrooms at other schools.
There was no game plan for this, no road map, no best practices; no one had shut down for a worldwide pandemic in this country before in our lifetimes. We are operating on instinct and hope, and hope is getting harder to come by. The main directive is keeping everyone safe, both physically and emotionally. What could we do to help our students feel how much we cared, even though we didn’t have a chance to say goodbye?
How do we help our students understand and adapt to this when we are having such a hard time?
Higglepiggleday, March 94th, 3:30 pm
I hop on Zoom. Our first week of classes on Zoom, we had 12, 15, 17 kids in every class because everyone was so eager to see each other. It was a new fun thing, to see your friends’ faces on the computer. But the newness wore off and the frustration set in.
In every in-person program, we worked to create an environment where kids felt safe and had fun, had opportunities to learn at every turn, and there were plenty of teachers around to go to for individual help or assurance.
Now, we are more like Teacher TV. We have to project an environment into their homes from our screens. We have lost the opportunity to have one-to-one conversations and private check-ins with individual children.
We’re 10 inches tall, and the kids control the volume.
Still Higglepiggleday, 4:00 pm
Conducting classes over Zoom is like holding classes in the dark, or through a wall, or from a city block away. “Are you there, Leni? Myles, can you hear us? I thought I heard a voice; was somebody trying to tell us something? Raegan, we can’t see you, you disappeared! Oh no, I think we lost Sam!”
Still Higglepiggleday (every day now is Higglepiggleday), 4:25 pm
Class on Zoom is ending and I hop in again to say goodbye. I’m happy to see familiar faces, but I’m reminded again of all the kids who aren’t on screen. Not every family we work with has reliable internet access, or enough tech devices in the house for their five-year-old to use one to Zoom in to a dance class while parents work (or need the device outside the home) and older siblings attend school and do homework remotely. Not every family we work with has the mental and emotional bandwidth to set their child up for a science class while they spend their days in high-risk work environments, or worrying about how to cover bills. Not every family is sure where they are going to be in a month.
Flashback: Sunday, March 15th, 5:00 pm
I am at my parents’ house. They have live TV and I’m glued to the news. Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carranza appear and declare that schools will be shut down, effective tomorrow. They are scheduled to reopen on April 20th, 2020 - but five whole weeks seems like an eternity to be out of school.
Blibbleday, March 117th, 7:00pm
The end of the day. Mr. Rogers famously said, “Look for the helpers.” In New York, we saw the paramedics, doctors, leaders, and citizens showing up for one another, and we collectively thanked them from our windows at 7 pm by yelling and screaming, banging on pots and pans, clapping. Stepping outside at any other point during the day, there are almost no cars, no people, no city life. Just silence. Now there is cacophony.
It’s cathartic and disheartening and inspiring all at once. We’re making noise to encourage whoever can hear us, and simultaneously screaming into a void.
I don’t know, is it April yet? 11 pm
My brain is keeping me awake, going over and over the what-ifs and the if-onlys. I know I can’t control the pandemic, but I still feel like I’m letting a lot of people down. I wish we could provide more routine and reassurance for our kids. More care for our families. We are not experts at virtual programming yet. I wish I could provide more reassurance for my staff about the future.
I’d built Bitty City Players to enrich the lives of children and families, spent so much of my time in schools driven by the mission of nurturing good community members, children who are confident and thoughtful, creative and expressive and loving, connected to their own identity, to their peers, and to their community.
And right now I don’t know exactly how to continue pursuing that mission. But I will.
Oh look, I’m crying again.
Nothing to do but plan and move forward. March is also, after all, the beginning of spring. Flowers will be blooming soon, and maybe new possibilities will bloom too. And they will.
Goodnight, everyone. Sweet dreams. See you soon. We love you.
Bitty City Players offers theater and science enrichment through after-school programs, in-school workshops, and events for ages 1-10 in NYC.
Learn more about the organization and our team here.