The fluorescent lights on all five floors of Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School usually stay on from early morning until late at night. On a typical day, there are groups of students sitting on the stairs leading up to the front door, or sitting on benches in Stuyvesant Park next to the school building during a lunch break. But this is the first week of closure for New York City public schools due to COVID-19 concerns and the school is empty of students.
“This is going to be challenging because the students have no social interactions or something to do,” said Bobbie Hernandez, the director of student support services at Manhattan Comprehensive. Hernandez said she is concerned about the disruption in routine for students who rely on school for social structure and a sense of safety.
According to Hernandez, some students were too anxious to come to school leading up to the school closures because they were concerned about catching COVID-19. “You could hear the quiet in the hallways,” she said.
Manhattan Comprehensive High School is a public school in the East Village that offers both a day and night schedule, and serves mostly students that are recent immigrants or longtime New York City residents. Many of the students work in addition to taking classes. Hernadez’s office, also known colloquially as “room 202” or “the emergency room,” is a place where students can talk through personal or academic stressors.
As the novel coronavirus permeated conversations, news and social media, Hernandez and her staff found themselves having to address students’ anxiety about the virus and dispel myths about how it is spread and who is most at risk.
“We were reiterating how to stay safe. You wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, keep your distance. We are also doing a lot of cleaning in the office, constantly cleaning the pens and the door knobs,” said Hernandez.
Young adults already lack control in many areas of their lives, Herandez said, and giving them tangible tips can give them a sense of control in an overwhelming situation.
Staying in frequent communication with their students will be crucial, said Hernandez, who is working with staff to set up google voice for calling and texting. “We have some kids who are in shelters. We have a lot of kids with mental health concerns. We need to check up on them. We know our kids and which ones we most need to be reaching out to” she said.
Across the country in Denver, Colorado, students at Manual High School are also dealing with the loss of academic and social structure after Denver Public School announced temporary school closures last week.
“Kids are so impacted by this. They are out of their routines, and that can be pretty isolating,” said Serina Montoya, a social worker at Manual High School. “Many of our kids don’t have a lot of their basic needs met, and they rely on these routines and structures to get those needs met,” she said.
Montoya said that students are also concerned with the financial impacts the virus could have on their families. “A big factor for our kids is going to be financial concern right now. A lot of parents work in restaurants, retail, and other agencies that will be affected,” said Montoya.
“Our kids already absorb a lot of financial stress. A lot of them work as well to help pay bills, not for their own spending money. The stress was already there, but it’s magnified now,” she said.
Montoya and her colleagues are working to keep tabs on students while they are away from school, posting and sending community resources to kids and their families. The day before Manual High School closed, Montoya’s team got together to plan for outreaching their kids at highest risk of mental health crises.
Students at Manual High School can also access an online self-care class with different exercises to do. The class was created before the coronavirus crisis developed, but Montoya said that students know they can use the online resources as a way to keep tabs on themselves and stay connected.
In terms of coping with the loss of structure, posts and resources about creating schedules for students at home continue to saturate social media. While having a schedule can be useful, Montoya said, it doesn’t work for every family.
“I honestly think the most helpful thing is to pace yourself. If it works for your family to create a schedule, create a schedule. It depends on what works for you and your family and what your needs are,” said Montoya. “And don’t judge yourself.”