Community Organizing Responses to COVID-19
Queens Spotlight was launched in April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time of incredible hardship and severe shifts in how society functions, we are continually inspired by the resourcefulness, responsiveness and resilience of Queens community members. In this series we highlight community organizing work and hope to provide insight into the vitality of this work within our borough during the pandemic.
July 23, 2020
Deborah Herrand, Art Teacher at IS125, Woodside
Deborah, you are an art teacher at IS 125 in Woodside, Queens. Schools have been closed for the past 15 weeks and you have been teaching remotely due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The school year is now coming to an end for summer break. Could you give us some insight into what your work has looked like for the past months? What have been the challenges and have there been some moments of connection or relief?
It has been challenging to say the least to teach remotely in these unprecedented times in education. We went from teaching in a brick and mortar building with students in front of us to basically overnight changing our curriculum to go online. While some teachers were well-versed in technology, others were not. As a school community, we all managed to help each other in everything, from technology to emotional support. It was very challenging in art because we have all our supplies at school so I had to learn flexibility and alternative mediums to help students create art at home.
Early on I had lofty ideas of what could be done at home. I gave students art challenges at the beginning of the week that were due by Friday. During the week I helped them along the way by answering emails, video chatting, and doing phone calls. But I quickly realized that not every student was able to do the work as I asked. While some students had plenty of art supplies at home, others barely had pencils or paper to draw with. I learned to help students with alternative ideas and I also became flexible with the dates. I pushed back the projects to be due on Sunday night to give my artists more time to complete other class assignments along with my art projects. Every student had a different need being remote, it was very challenging to come up with alternatives. I found myself reaching out and connecting more to my staff, other art teachers, and institutions, like the Queens Museum of Art, for solutions and alternatives to incorporate in my online classes.
We have heard how incredibly challenging it has been for teachers and how their work has had to completely shift, not only adapting to remote teaching, but also in many cases, finding themselves in the role of frontline social workers in the midst of a public health crisis. As someone with direct contact to students and their families, could you speak to some of the responsive organizing with families that you’ve been a part of or witnessed that was not necessarily only related to teaching?
I don’t believe there is a person in Queens that has not been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic in one way or another. The news, the stories you hear from your family and neighbors; it is daunting. It is never easy when there is a loss of life.
As teachers, we love our students and it is difficult to see them suffer through this time without being able to hug them and be physically present for them. Some students would ask me difficult questions like “When will this be over?” or “Will I catch the virus?” We have amazing administration and counselors at our school and they constantly reached out to our students and parents.
There were students whose relatives passed due to Covid-19 and having a call with them would be so heart-breaking. I would be as comforting with my words as I could be and then cry the moment I hung up. Parents would sometimes have the need to let go and would speak to me for up to half-hour discussing their struggles and problems with everything that was happening. I would just let them take things off their chest even when it was not art-related. Our school and community relationship has grown stronger than ever.
Would you share a story or two about something you have learned from your students in this time?
I have learned that our students are resilient, brave, and talented. I knew this before quarantine, but this challenge has highlighted this fact! I am so proud of every artwork they have done during these challenging times. I could not imagine going through this as a kid! They came up with amazing artwork at home!! They took pride in their work and did more than required! I was overjoyed with their commitment to their artwork! My young artists truly inspire me to keep going every day. I am honored to be their teacher.