On March 20, life for all New Yorkers changed dramatically. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the entire state would be put on pause as first responders worked tirelessly to confront the Covid-19 virus. All non-essential workers were asked to stay inside their homes and do their part to curb the deadly disease.
The vast majority of schools — along with restaurants, movie theaters and bars — closed in New York. But the situation was unique for the George Junior Republic Union Free School District, one of 10 Special Act school districts that serves about 190 at-risk students who live on campus and come from 53 counties across the state and 30 local students from around our area.
The teachers of George Junior continued reporting for duty in person to care for the livelihood of at-risk students, many of whom are neglected or abused minors and juveniles with a history of delinquency. They juggled those responsibilities with providing a remote education for local students who do not live on campus.
Before the pandemic, George Junior severely lacked state resources and financial support. But when crisis struck, our colleagues still went above and beyond to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for their students. On top of their normal duties, educators pushed to address health and safety concerns, ensuring proper protocols were in place to keep students and staff safe.
Sending residential students home to learn by themselves on a laptop wasn’t an option. Teachers moved their entire operation from their classrooms to their students’ living areas because they knew that ensuring there were no gaps in learning was absolutely essential. More than that, they knew there couldn’t be gaps in the care and love these students need to feel from the adults they rely on. Our staff became their counselors, parents and a support system — and they did the same for each other, leaning on their colleagues for support with both instructional and emotional challenges.
Simply put, teachers and staff have been nothing short of heroic, showing up for their students and for this community. They have continued to excel at their jobs, strengthening the community and creating a safe space for children who need it most.
Throughout the pandemic, our staff has continued to empower students, molding them into our future leaders. For many of these students, these educators served as their mentors during this crisis and were entrusted with their academic and emotional well-being. Teachers worked quickly to create a safe-learning environment that has helped students navigate the trauma they have experienced and the anxieties that come with learning during these unprecedented times.
On site, it wasn’t just subject-area teachers who reported for duty. Our reading specialists, speech therapists, physical education teachers and our culinary arts teacher pitched in to make sure math, science and other subjects were being taught in the residential cottages where students live. It had to be all hands on deck to keep our school going for these children who went six months with nothing more than a weekly Zoom call with their families as support.
Off site, our day-school teachers were calling home, calling social services agencies and families, and in some cases scouring local towns for students dealing with homelessness to make sure that every child was looked after and there was as little disruption as possible not just to their education, but to the supports they rely on.
In a pandemic that has highlighted inequities in education and beyond, we are yet again seeing the disparities that exist for our Special Act schools. The state is in a precarious financial situation, but we can’t allow that to disproportionately affect schools that serve students with the highest needs. These students need adults to do the right thing and provide them with every resource possible to succeed.
No matter what, George Junior has continued and will continue to be a safe haven for students because of the perseverance, care and commitment of the educators and staff. We cannot help but express the deepest gratitude to these individuals who, despite many challenges, continue to provide for some of the highest needs students in the state of New York. We feel privileged to work with such a dedicated and caring staff. We hope that you feel just as privileged to have them in your community.
Hiscox and Bradley serve as co-presidents of the George Junior Republic Teachers Association.