It’s been two years since educators and students had to adapt to a new way of learning after the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the country and wreaked havoc on Queens. As the two-year anniversary approaches, educators, parents and students are cautiously optimistic about the future.
Maspeth High School Assistant Principal Jesse Pachter was excited to take his mask off Monday, March 7, and finally greet his students with a smile for the first time in two years. The mask mandate was lifted on March 7, marking a big milestone for city schools after COVID-19 hit the city.
A lot has changed over the past two years in education, Pachter said. Schools went from fully remote learning to remote options to regular in-person schooling this year. Now, more and more masks are coming off each day.
Pachter said he noticed about 50% of students electing to take their masks off during the first week after the mandate was lifted. And though he feels this is an excellent step toward moving forward, he knows that it’s not quite that easy.
“There are a lot of positive things that are happening right now in education, but it’s going to take a while — people have experienced a traumatic event,” Pachter said. “We cannot just expect things to go back to the way they were for quite some time. There are still students who ask if we’re going to close again and go fully remote — that’s a real fear. We cannot expect students to come in, take their masks off and suddenly be the 2019 version of themselves.”
Many realize that there has been a lot of progress and positive change in schools, such as students finally being able to see their friends’ and teachers’ faces. However, people know from experience that this pandemic is unpredictable — causing education, in turn, to be uncertain.
One student, Veronica Witkowski, a senior at Maspeth High School, said that she feels like it’s too early to be taking masks off in schools. Witkowski is just not convinced that we’ve turned a corner yet. She decided to keep her mask on due to apprehensions and an immunocompromised family member.
“Personally, I don’t mind wearing it,” Witkowski said. “I would rather look out for the health of my family and others. Everyone wants to get back to normal as soon as possible and so do I. But I would prefer to take more steps to be careful.”
Just because some are still feeling as though schools are still in the throes of the pandemic, it doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been immense progress in students’ education since they came back to school in September.
One parent, Sandy Jimenez, who has a 9-year-old daughter at P.S. 199 Maurice A. Fitzgerald in Sunnyside, recalled how difficult it was to manage remote learning.
“She was used to having recess but suddenly we were sheltering in place and just really scared,” Jimenez said. “She had some really dark times. She wanted desperately to connect so we had her in tons of interactive online classes and play dates.”
Now, Jimenez said she’s grateful that her daughter is able to safely go back to school and continue her educational and social development.
“She learned to jump rope and is working on learning to cartwheel,” Jimenez said. “She needed to get out of the house and develop socially. She needed to interact with kids in person and play. I was worried she would be behind, but [she] has gone up several reading levels since going back.”
Rose-Ann Flannigan, a special education teacher at the Joseph Quinn Intermediate School 77, said that teaching her students math remotely was almost impossible. She has noticed that some fell behind due to the shift in learning, but for the most part, all are doing much better since being back in person.
“For the kids who came online all the time, they’re moving along fine,” Flannigan said. “But for those who couldn’t, they are struggling to keep up but it’s definitely getting much better since they have been back since September with an actual routine that’s not being turned upside down.”
As we approach spring, Pachter is looking forward to the small things that bring him happiness as an educator.
“Those little things that a lot of people take for granted are bringing back that excitement that was lost through the pandemic,” Pachter said. “Providing students with normal activities like a spring musical or playoff game is huge. Students are really excited again.”