Coronavirus school closings: A lesson in privilege

Covid-19 school closings
A father and daughters stroll past the girls’ school in South San Jose, Oak Ridge Elementary, a few days after it was closed to slow the spread of COVID-19 in mid-March 2020.

Action traumatizes student again

The heartbreaking news I was about to deliver really should have come from the class’s regular second-grade teacher, not me, the kids’ fifth substitute of the week. I figured it would throw all of them for a loop. And, I would soon learn, it would be extra rough on one girl.

I thought, Who am I — a stranger — to tell these open-faced, trusting 7-year-olds that one of the central organizing features of their lives — school — was about to be yanked out from under them for at least the next few weeks? 

But there was nothing else I could do. Their regular teacher, Mrs. C., had been absent all week, sick with what she originally feared was the novel coronavirus. (It wasn’t, apparently.)

How could I, a sub with only a few months’ experience, find the right words to inform them that the comforting order of their world was about to blow up? Could I conjure up the right mix of straight talk and reassurance? Would I make them understand why this bewildering move was necessary, and their crucial part in keeping everyone safe? 

The idea was daunting. Even longtime teachers had never done this. But the coronavirus pandemic is bringing lots of novel experiences to all of us, isn’t it? I won’t soon forget this one.

Italian tsunami

Santa Clara County, California, where I live, is one of the country’s hotbeds for COVID-19 cases. In the weeks since the first confirmed U.S. case prompted the declaration of emergency, I had been telling my classes that they should be washing and sanitizing their hands frequently, not just for their own health but also for everyone else’s — especially older folks like me and their beloved grandparents.

For more than a week, as the number of local cases rose alarmingly, I had been expecting the county to shutter the schools to slow the spread of the disease. Watching from afar as the coronavirus overwhelmed the Italian health care system, it was like watching the sea pulling back from the beach ahead of a tsunami. It seemed that it might land here, too, and very soon, if we didn’t act fast.

I knew that closing the schools would flatline my modest income, but it was the right thing to do to save lives. As a 64-year-old with a history of heart trouble, I had been increasingly tempted to stop taking sub assignments if the county hesitated any longer to shutter schools. I’d been to the school board meeting the night before and came away vexed that there was no word on whether closures were imminent. So, in a weird way, I was relieved on March 13, when the closure order had finally come.  

Oak Ridge Elementary School sign announcing the closure of all schools in the Oak Grove School District due to COVID-19 outbreak.
Since this picture was taken, it’s become official: California public schools won’t reopen for the rest of the year.

Rough start to a good day

We’d had a pretty good day, although it started out a little rough. Every class I’ve ever subbed for had one or two kids whose behavior required so much of my attention that it slowed learning for the rest. In this class it was a kid I’ll call Kim. But I had finally pulled him aside midmorning, and we had a little heart-to-heart, and it seemed to soothe him. He had gained some measure of self-control and cooperation.

In fact, Kim told me I was the best sub of the week (bragging!) because I was the only one who had bothered to ask him if something was bothering him, to help him work through his frustration. After that, the day was going great, and I was really happy with the class. Maybe, I thought, I’m not out of my depth in the classroom. I love it when I feel like the kids are actually learning something, that I’m not just a babysitter or jail warden.

Thinking it over

When I returned to the campus after my lunch break, the principal stopped me outside the classroom and told me the county Public Health Department was canceling school for at least the next three weeks. Swamped, and maybe a bit flustered, she didn’t offer me any advice about how to tell the kids.

So I didn’t tell them right away. I decided to think about it while they took P.E. 

I guess a lot of the older classes had already heard the news, apparently, but my kids hadn’t.

“We’re all gonna die! We’re all gonna die!” one older kid, outwardly delighted with the prospect of three weeks without school, shouted as he ran past us on the way out to the yard. I cringed, but my tender-yeared class took no notice, writing it off as everyday boisterousness.

Delivering the news

After P.E., Mrs. C.’s sub plan called for the kids to work on something for the remaining 40 minutes of the school day, but I don’t remember what it was. My mind was elsewhere, churning over how I’d break the news. Besides, I figured the kids would need some time to absorb it. So I deviated from her plan. We’d talk the news over as a class.

“OK, guys,” I started loudly as the kids piled into the room after P.E. “I have something important to tell you.” Something in my somber tone and body language instantly got their attention — an achievement rarely witnessed in the annals of American public education.  

Anyway, I hesitated, looked down, took a deep breath. “It’s something that’s going to affect you, me and everyone you know for a while, and it won’t always be easy. 

“You know the coronavirus we’ve all been hearing so much about lately? Well, the county has decided it’s best for everyone’s health to close all the schools for a few weeks to slow down the spread of the disease. So today is the last day of school for a while.”

Even as I said it, I suspected it would be far longer but couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud. Probably better that way.

Notice of the extension of the school closures.
Notice of the extension of the school closures.

As it was, the shock and confusion of this news were written plainly on almost every little face. Eyes wide, mouths agape. Gasps. “What? No!” 

“I’m so sorry you had to hear about this from me,” I went on. “We hardly even know each other, but I want you to know I care about you and your family. And so does every adult in this school, especially Mrs. C. I haven’t been able to talk to her, but I’m sure she wishes she could have been the one to tell you. She knows you all well and maybe she would have the right words for you.”


As I expected, they looked like they could use some additional reassurance about the sudden, disturbing uncertainty intruding into all our lives. So I told them that their parents and other adults in their community know how to manage the disease, while stressing that they had an important role to play in that. They would, I added, in all likelihood, be fine even if they should catch the virus, which barely seems to phase most kids their age. Yes, life would be different for a while, but eventually, things would return to normal.

I advised them they should not think of this as a vacation. They should expect Mrs. C. to be in touch with them during the break about reading and math lessons they must do at home until the school bell rings again. Right now, you should exchange phone numbers with your friends, and say goodbye (no hugging!). I urged them to write a note to Mrs. C., which I would leave on her desk. Some of them were stunned, and all were sweet.

“Does anyone want to share with the class how they feel about all this?” I asked. “Any comments or questions?”

A fresh trauma

There were several, but the comment that will stay with me came from a kind, smart girl with a round, brown face. She said she would really miss her classmates — especially because she was already unable to see her dad due to the coronavirus. 

“Why can’t you see your dad?” I asked. 

“He’s not home.” I didn’t catch something beyond the sadness on her face.

“Where is he?”

I thought maybe I could offer her some comfort. Maybe he was just away on a business trip or visiting someone for a few days, I thought.

“Far away.” She teared up. “He can’t come home.”

“Far away? Why can’t he come home? Where is he?”

In almost a whisper came the answer. Etched in shame, it was something I never expected, and was a painful lesson in privilege for her inexperienced substitute teacher: “He’s in the big house, and he can’t have visitors.”

Handholding sisters walk past their empty, locked-up schoolyard.

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