In the same way people pinpoint exactly where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated or when America was attacked on 9/11, I clearly remember where I was and what I was doing when Mayor De Blasio announced all New York City schools were closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was a Sunday evening and I was preparing dinner and listening to WNYC radio when the announcement was made. My spouse works as a nurse practitioner, a position considered essential, so I knew the childcare duties would fall mostly on me. While the city hoped to reopen the schools on April 20th, the date came and went, and I remained my first-grade son’s teacher and, in addition, principal of this poorly established home-school academy.
I performed the different roles of school psychologist, gym teacher, baseball coach, and best friend at recess. We played catch outside in front of the local laundromat, had epic nerf gun battles, played games of hide and seek, and rode our bikes to the park. He loved joining my Zoom meetings as it was one of his few connections to the outside world early on and became a star with my work colleagues.
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There were some fun moments, moments where we shared a lot of laughs; these are the memories I prefer to think back on. Nonetheless, for all the laughter, there were moments of stress, tears, boredom, frustration, and sheer sadness — like the sadness I felt after snapping at my son to leave me alone while I tried to complete a time sensitive project for work. Or the frustration and low morale that sunk in at the end of each day, when realizing only half, at best, of his schoolwork was completed and only a third of my to-do list for work was accomplished.
The days were exhausting and often felt never-ending, and yet, time went on. The school year finished, and summer arrived bringing in the hot and muggy days that are as much a part of New York City as are the subways and Broadway theatre. The playgrounds and parks that were closed in late March, began to re-open, so we began heading outdoors to throw a baseball or play a one-on-one floor hockey game.
One afternoon, the thermostat hitting close to ninety degrees, I joked to my son, “The last time we were here, you were wearing your winter jacket!” Saying this, I realized just how long this moment has been. As happy as I was to see the playgrounds re-open, summer camps and activities remain closed, and so here we linger, just as we had from the beginning, my son and I, co-existing in this new world, bundled together in our city apartment, yearning for an escape.
I often wonder if this time will bring us closer or if, in the future, the negative experiences and stresses will be a stain on our connection. I wonder if and when schools reopen, will he experience separation anxiety? Will I? Will spending every day together playing games and taking day trips to the park create a stronger bond? Or will we grow tired of each other?
I do not know what the future holds or how this will affect us in the end. No one does. And knowing that we’re going to continue this lifestyle is daunting. However, I remind myself that it was inconceivable to think I would even make it this far. My son is healthy, safe, and, despite it all, he’s happy. Can I really ask for more than that?
Dirk Van Stee is a university administrator based in Queens, New York. His son, Grant, is seven.