Friday, March 12th, 2021. One Year of Covid

Hailey Jiang, Staff Writer

The phone call that came from Superintendent Fleishman on the night of

 Thursday, March 12th, 2020, while inevitable, was still a shock to many: In a week we went from seeing our friends and family daily to getting thrust into a world of Zoom, lockdown, and masks. March 12th is regarded as the “last day of freedom,” the last day when we could still see our friends and family, thanks to the novel coronavirus. 

 

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, part of the larger family of coronaviruses. While the actual virus itself is called SARS-CoV-2, the disease it causes is called COVID-19, or Coronavirus Disease 2019. The first cases were recorded on December 31st, 2019, as a “cluster of pneumonia cases” in Wuhan, Hubei Province from a wet market, specifically the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. The shop was closed the next day for sanitation. 

 

China, Japan, and South Korea were the hardest hit during the beginning of the pandemic, with Italy being the hardest hit in Europe. The first case in America was documented on January 20th, 2020. The novel coronavirus was proclaimed a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30th, 2020. On February 4th, the first COVID-19 case was recorded on a man in Boston, Massachusetts. He had just returned from Wuhan, China for Chinese New Year. It was the eighth case in America. 

 

At this point, Asian and Chinese businesses, such as restaurants and supermarkets were starting to lose customers as the pandemic gained more and more attention. Lunar New Year events were cancelled as people from China traveled to the United States to celebrate with relatives and friends. Racist hate crimes against Chinese and Asian-Americans rose in numbers.

 

On February twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh, Biogen held a meeting in Boston. Biogen is a Massachusetts based company, specializing in medicine and treatment for neurological diseases. However, as harmless as it might have seemed, the single meeting with Biogen employees from around the world more than doubled the cases in Massachusetts in one day. On March 9th, there were forty-one cases, and the next day the number jumped up to ninety-one. Since then, scientists have estimated that the meeting is linked to three-hundred thousand cases around the country. 

The sudden jump in cases caused Governor Charlie to declare a state of emergency on March 10th. On March 11th, 2020, the WHO (or World Health Organization) declared the novel coronavirus “can be characterized as a pandemic.” As of March 12th, there were one hundred eight cases of the virus in Massachusetts with eighty-two of them, or seventy-five percent being from the Biogen meeting. The same day, Superintendent Fleishman closed all schools in the Newton Public district. I interviewed six people to find out their experiences and memories of that fateful day.

 

Sophia Richard is a seventh grader on Phoenix. Their first memory of COVID-19 was hearing about the “mystery virus” on television. I asked them when they realized the novel coronavirus was a major deal, and they said “I realized how big a deal Covid was in other countries when Mr. Ford [Cobalt Social Studies teacher] showed us the Johns Hopkins Covid map. China was covered in red dots and the US only had two or three tiny dots.” Sophia realized Covid was a big deal in America when it was spread at the aforementioned Biogen meeting. 

 

When I asked Sophia what they remembered about March 12th, they told me, “I remember that March 12th was a Day Five and Ms. Mann made a video basically saying that school wouldn’t be closed. How ironic.” 

“That day was really sad for me because it was when I lost a lot of stuff that was important. I think I was even depressed and suicidal then. But since we’ve been going in to school, I’m better now.”

Woodrow Hartzog, or Will, is a seventh grader on Phoenix. He remembers he originally thought COVID-19 was a joke, “Because everyone in my class made it seem like that.” He had no idea we were going into lockdown as a result. When we were told to stay in lockdown for two more months, that was when Will knew that COVID-19 was affecting the United States.

“I didn’t have any idea we were going into lockdown because as I said, I thought it was a joke. I remember March 12th thinking, ‘Huh. That’s weird.’ When I look back on that day I think how naïve I was.” Will told me.  

 “Ahh, those were the days, when we could still say, ‘Hopefully this will be over soon.’ and nobody would start doubling over with laughter.”

Lauren Cao is a seventh grade girl on Ruby. When I asked what her first memory of COVID-19 was, she told me, “[When] people were posting about the first case in Boston and my classes outside of school started going remote.” Lauren told me when COVID-19 started spreading, “I didn’t think much of it. I would just think that Covid was never going to get to us because it was ‘so far away.’”

The cases in America didn’t worry Lauren until she heard schools and public places were closing down. When the cases really started to skyrocket, she realized we were about to go into lockdown.

When lockdown orders took place, Lauren felt relieved because America was finally doing something about the soaring cases. “…Going into lockdown was a great decision to keep people safe. and it also helped the environment because we didn’t go around in cars as much, so less fossil fuels [were released] in our atmosphere.”

Mr. O’Connor is the seventh grade history teacher on Phoenix. He told me his “First memory [of COVID-19] is of a news report I saw on TV.” As soon as he knew about the novel coronavirus, he knew it would be a big deal. Mr. O’Connor told me, “As I was packing up my things – I brought everything including grading and the computer home – I thought we might not return to school for awhile.” 

 

Mr. O’Connor continued, “The amount of deaths is so shocking – the isolation was so hard. Then I had a feeling like something was missing and I was so sad I didn’t get to finish the year with my students”  

He continued, “When they told us we were staying home, we all thought it would be a few weeks… after hearing more, we knew this was a much bigger issue…” There will be people that won’t survive the disease, Mr. O told me, a prospect he said is “sad and scary.” 

“You think about your own family and their needs. We had [my niece] come and stay with us for about four months because she couldn’t get home safely. My wife was vaccinated last month (second dose) so I hope we are all one step closer to a better living situation.” Mr. O said about the current situation concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.

  “Everyone says they want things to go back to normal.” He said. “That is not going to happen. After the vaccine… life should get better, but as students of history, we know, life will never be the same.”

I interviewed Ms. Mann because I wanted to hear about the COVID-19 experience from a different perspective. As the principal, her job is to make sure we are safe and happy, and the pandemic made that much harder. By definition, her involvement was going to be different than ours.

I asked Ms. Mann when she realized the novel coronavirus was a big deal, perhaps in other countries but not ours. “I think in February…  I heard what had happened in China and I was worried for the people there. And it’s so interesting like it seems so far away… l and I remember…  just not having a sense that it was impacting us here… and I just remember feeling really badly for the families there at the time.”

“I think it was a week before we shut down.” Our principal told me about when she realized COVID-19 was affecting us. 

I had some parents reach out to me that were worried, that were beginning to feel like school may not be safe, for their kids and some had selected their kids to not be in school. And at the time we didn’t have remote teaching, we had absolutely nothing – if kids weren’t in school they weren’t in school. And I said safety comes first. I respect their decision. We’ll work with them on trying to get work for their children, and then about a week later the decision was made to shut down… Many families are involved with the Harvard School of Public Health, so I was learning through parents and through the Newton schools that this was a growing situation. But honestly it didn’t occur to me – I actually thought by June this thing would be over and somewhere around May, we were talking about fall. And I said what do you mean the fall? …But when we started talking about the fall that’s when it sunk in how serious this was.

Many students may remember the video Ms. Mann made that was shown to us on March 12th that Sophia Richard mentioned, reassuring us that school was not going to close. Interestingly enough, on the same day, it obviously did. What was the final push that made Dr. Fleishman close all Newton Public Schools, when earlier in the day it was still completely unknown, so volatile and couldn’t be guessed? I asked Ms. Mann about this, and she gave me a wonderful response.

I remember being worried about the anxiety. As I said, there had been parents and students reaching out to me a week or two before that moment, and I don’t get the final say… People always say to me “Ms. Mann, can we have a snow day?” I don’t get to make that call. I had to think about what I can control and what I can control is how you guys felt in school. I knew people were anxious so that’s why I made the video. I wanted to say as of right now we’re okay, we’re safe… And I feel like that’s always going to be my job… you’re my responsibility, all one thousand children and two hundred faculty members. It’s my responsibility so that’s what the video was about. I wanted to reassure you guys. The decision to change to close school that day was made by the superintendent but in consultation with the school committee… It was a surprise to me that we didn’t go back on Friday. I was absolutely surprised. There was a phone call at the end of the day with all the principals and they said this is the message that was going out, and I thought it was ironic that that very day I showed a video of everyone safe and were in school but honestly, I felt like that was my job that as long as we’re in school I need to reassure people that everything was okay.

Finally, I asked Ms. Mann what she remembered about March 12th.

“It’s like the feeling you know? I remembered wanting to be really calm and supportive for people. What I realized and I know now – school is a safe place for kids, and not being in school is a hardship. I want kids to feel safe in school and there are times as a principal, where things happen out of my control that make kids feel unsafe. And the most important thing that I  can do is to try to restore your sense of safety, so I remember thinking, like, I have to be present, I want to be in the hallways, I want to make sure people see me. I was welcoming kids at the doors because I want them to know, like, you’re okay, I have your  back, we’re all going to be okay together… It’s unusual so I feel like you need to see trusted adults in your life saying it’s all good, It’s still school, we’re back and we’re going to be together. So that’s all I was thinking about is how do I take care of all of you, and the teachers.

Everyone hoped we would only be in quarantine for two weeks before school and other activities started up again. Unfortunately that, obviously, did not happen. The re-opening of our schools and the state was constantly being pushed back, until we learned that school was going to be online for the rest of the year. I asked Ms. Mann what she thought of that, as the principal of our school.

It’s hard, as I was saying. As a principal, I have to plan for plan A, B, C, D. There’s all these plans, and every time you make a plan there’s a schedule shift. We have to reschedule the school, we have to communicate. I have to help the teachers plan. Like, what does it look like, how are we going to remember those? The weekly plans that the teachers would send out in the spring, that was something we created with a group right of teachers and administrators. Then I had to share that with teachers, so I had to gather everyone together. I had to just realize that it was really important that we communicated early and often. 

It was just hard. That’s a word that I would use. I think I’m going to look back on this time when I’m way older and say boy that was a tough time to get through. And the definition of anxiety is when you don’t have control over the unknown, right? That’s exactly what happens in a public health crisis. There’s something happening to us that we don’t have control over. You know principals, we like to be in control. So that was hard [because] we couldn’t control the public health situation. So I said to myself, what can I control? And I can control how I communicate with everyone, and how I support them, and so that’s what I began to focus on.”

“… And you’ll see the same thing when we come back in the fall. My guess is in the fall, we’re all going to be wearing masks and when we come back because I think even with the vaccines that’s not going to change, and that’s weird.”

 

It was a thrill taking a trip down memory lane with everyone I interviewed. March 12th and the days leading up to it were a crazy ride for everyone, not knowing what was going to happen with our lives. It’s crazy to think we spent the last day of our normality aware of the situation yet also oblivious to what would happen; that a year later, we’d be worse than ever. This year will be overshadowed by what happened a year before, and hopefully memories of what COVID-19 seemed to us last year can bring everything full circle and give us at least a scintilla of a sense of closure with our last day of freedom.