Worldwide, the novel coronavirus, and Covid-19, the resulting disease, have ravaged countries and societies, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and causing health crises.
With millions of people across the United States quarantined, people have begun adjusting to working from home, learning online and staying connected to loved ones from behind screens.
Everyone’s realities differ during this unprecedented period of time. For a high school teacher, a pharmacy technician, a registered nurse and a graduating college student, life looks different now than ever before.
The four still feel commonalities despite their differences, though — they feel fear, they crave connection, and they have taken the opportunity to learn from the global pandemic.
Thirty desks sit vacant in Mindy Simard’s classroom at Williamsville South High School. Usually occupied by her ninth and eleventh grade English classes, the room collects dust as Simard teaches her classes from behind a screen in the den of her home.
A book hasn’t been checked out from the high school’s library in almost two months. Simard’s 7 a.m. library hours no longer exist. The chatter of students, once a little too loud for the library, has dissipated. Simard said she could often gauge how her day would go based on the students’ attitudes before the first bell in the library. Now, she has not seen some of her students’ faces in seven weeks.
But the physical vacancies—empty chairs and silent hallways—don’t begin to cover Simard’s feeling of loss over school cancellations in New York State.
“One of the things that is most difficult now is trying to take the temperature of the room for 120 faces you’re not seeing anymore,” Simard said. “It used to be, you know, kids would walk in and I would right away be able to tell if somebody was just having an off day because their demeanor was different than usual. I have none of that anymore.”
Simard said she relies on the school district’s email system, WitsMail, and Remind text messaging technology to stay in contact with her students on a day-to-day basis. She holds office hours for her students on Zoom, a video conference technology, twice weekly.
But for Simard, technology has not replaced the feeling of teaching in her classroom. She said her students still have the same content presented to them as they would in her classroom. For Simard, the presentation of that content lacks personality now.
“They’re doing the work. But there’s a lack of me being there for those moments of realization. The discussion isn’t happening anymore. That’s the biggest change for the students, I think. There’s a lot more individual contemplation going on now.”
Simard said she offered her accelerated English 11 students the option to work collaboratively with any other student in any of her English 11A classes on a recent assignment. She did that to foster conversation among students that surpassed a simple text message. She said most students still chose to complete the project alone.
While Simard said she has less contact with some of her students on the social side of her job, she said she’s had more contact about academic work than she previously had.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Simard’s workday ended around 2 p.m. She would go home to grade papers and create lessons until about 5 p.m., she said. Student questions would usually come in class the following day or via email in the evening.
“Before, there was a clear separation between work and home,” Simard said.
Now, though, the lines between work and home have blurred.
Simard said many of her students don’t wake up until the afternoon now. She has students asking questions at different times than they normally would.
“They’re asking questions all the time, all hours, which is good. But I feel the need to then make sure I respond as quickly as possible. The separation between work and home isn’t there anymore. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just very different than it was.”
Simard has two children who learn online now, too. She said she has had to adapt her schedule to meet their needs.
“Mornings are mine, up until about noon. Then we do lunch, and I spend about two hours working with my youngest. Around 4 or so, I’ll get back to work again for another couple of hours, usually about three. Then I’ll check in with my older son, to see how he’s doing,” Simard said. She said because her older son is independent, she doesn’t usually have to help him as much as her younger son.
Simard said she usually tries to remain optimistic, especially in the classroom, but the shifts in her daily life and routine have had a marked impact on her emotions.
“It’s a roller coaster now. I would say what happens at home affects what’s happening at work, but it’s all intertwined now,” Simard said. “I think that’s kind of a symptom of the past seven weeks—it’s just a lot of ups and downs.”
BEHIND THE PLEXIGLASS
Sarah Meyer puts on her mask and prepares to enter Wegmans, the supermarket she works at as a pharmacy technician.
Her shift begins not long after her online classes end for the day. Meyer, deemed by New York State as an essential worker, attends the University at Buffalo as a biological sciences major with a minor in public health. Meyer commutes to UB, but her classes have moved online for the duration of the semester.
Normally, Meyer works 15 hours a week between or after classes. She said that has not changed, but because of online school requirements, her classes require more piecemeal work than before.
Meyer said prior to the pandemic, sometimes she felt overwhelmed by combination of her schoolwork, extracurricular activities and work schedule. Now, though, she said going to work feels almost like a privilege.
“It’s a strange feeling when you find yourself excited to go to work, especially when you’re sort of putting yourself at risk,” she said. “I’m finding that my outlook on work and leaving the house in general has really changed. I feel grateful to have a job at all now.”
Meyer said as a commuter student, she looks forward to weekly rehearsals with her all-female a capella group as well as small outings with her friends.
“Finding that I can’t do the little things that I used to—even just going to see friends after a hard exam—has been really different and honestly, hard,” Meyer said.
These days, Meyer sees her family at home and shoppers at Wegmans. And she finds herself separated from pharmacy customers by a plexiglass window.
Meyer used to see customers interact with one another throughout the grocery store as they shopped, even if just to smile. Now, that reality has shifted, she said.
“Everyone wears a mask now for the most part. If someone coughs people give a look of fear,” Meyer said. “It’s sad, though, because before all of this, people would have just been concerned for each other, not afraid. Now everyone just focuses on themselves.”
ON THE FRONTLINE
Alanna Esposito enters Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, New York, greeted at the door by a package. The package contains personal protective equipment she needs for an overnight shift at the hospital, caring for patients infected with coronavirus.
Esposito sheds her street clothes, trading them for her disposable digs — scrubs, which she will throw out at the end of her shift, shoe covers, gloves, an N95 mask, a hair cover and a plastic shield to cover her eyes.
Esposito, a registered nurse who cared for cancer patients, hospice patients and general patients prior to the pandemic, enters her floor, which has become a coronavirus floor for the care of others’ mothers, grandfathers, sisters and friends. But their loved ones do not sit next to their beds, as they might have three months ago.
Just weeks earlier, Esposito had isolated in her bedroom, infected with the virus herself.
Even so, Esposito said, “I don’t want to change what I do because of all of this. I love helping people. It’s crazy how precious life actually is, and I definitely have a newfound appreciation for that, especially seeing so many patients coming in who are so young. This sickness can happen to anyone.”
Esposito said her shifts revolve around her coronavirus patients. She said her floor has three “pods,” similar to hallways, on it. Prior to the pandemic, Esposito said patients occupied two of the three pods on a normal day. Now, the hospital uses all three pods to hold coronavirus patients.
Taking care of these patients has not proven easy by any stretch, Esposito said. Patients’ needs vary, depending on how long they have been infected with the virus.
Esposito said not having patients’ loved ones with them has taken a toll on many patients.
“The hospital isn’t allowing anyone in to see these patients,” Esposito said. “We have tablets that are now available to each of the patients if they don’t have their own device, so that they can FaceTime if they want to do that.”
After her shift, Esposito heads back to the locker room to change back into her street clothes. She removes all her personal protective equipment and throws it away; it won’t be used again.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we would get N95 masks and use the same one for seven days straight—seven shifts. I would put it in a paper bag… Now, we are able to get a new mask every day, which has been great because, gross, who wants to wear the same mask every day?”
Once she has removed all her personal protective equipment, Esposito said she puts her street clothes on, sanitizes her shoes, washes her hands and disinfects her nametag, which cannot be disposed of. She replaces her N95 mask with a standard surgical mask, because the hospital requires a mask in every area of the hospital.
She heads down to her car, where she immediately puts hand sanitizer on her hands and her steering wheel, and drives home. She walks straight to the shower, making no stops to talk to any of her family members, touching nothing except doorknobs. She makes it a point to take a thorough shower, then sanitize the bathroom floor where her clothes laid while she showered. She then retraces her steps and sanitizes the doorknobs she touched. Esposito said she fears passing the virus to her family members.
“[The coronavirus] was the worst thing I have ever felt. I actually cried at one point because it was so painful,” Esposito said. “My joints were really hurting. I couldn’t move my eyes without them being in pain… I lost my sense of taste. I have never experienced anything like that.”
“I worried so much then, and even now, about my parents and my sister. I didn’t want to pass it to them,” said Esposito.
Esposito said once every doorknob has been wiped and her nerves about passing hospital germs to her family have subsided a bit, she finally goes to sleep.
When she wakes, she’ll drive back to the hospital and do it all again, with different people in her pods.
AN ANTI-CLIMACTIC GOODBYE
Natalie Forster won’t walk across the stage and receive her college diploma this May — at least not in person.
Instead, Forster and her family will have to celebrate her graduation from St. Bonaventure University from their home in Wind Gap, Pennsylvania.
In March, the university informed Forster and her classmates they would have to leave campus for the year. Forster said she went back to her on-campus townhouse and cried.
Forster will graduate with two majors — journalism and political science — in three years.
“I’m proud of myself for making the decision to graduate in three years with two majors, but when I realized we had to go home early, I questioned my choice,” Forster said.
Completing her degree online has felt strange and overwhelming. Forster said.
“I’ve had to change my life all around, while keeping the same expectations and adding so many more responsibilities,” Forster said.
A normal Monday on campus for Forster would have meant she left her townhouse at 9 a.m., not returning until 7 p.m. after a day of classes, work and extracurricular involvement. She said, compared to previous semesters, a 10-hour day felt short to her. She decided to focus more of her energy on job hunting and personal growth for her last semester.
From her bedroom in her home, Forster said she has tried not to change her routine.
“It’s hard to have any sense of normalcy now, but I’m trying, especially academically,” she said. “I have always had this sense of security in education, and now I don’t even have that. I’ve tried to create a routine for myself, though.”
She has no idea what will come next, despite feeling prepared for her future before the pandemic hit.
“I had applied to jobs at 20 or 30, maybe even 40, different companies, and now the whole process is just stopped,” said Forster, who had originally planned on moving to New York City after graduation to pursue a master’s degree at Pace University.
“I am so scared for the future,” she said.
Forster and her classmates missed out on exciting events like senior week and Bonaventure’s annual Spring Weekend.
Forster said she most laments the idea that she has no real sense of finality at Bonaventure.
“There will never be a sense of closure for [the class of 2020],” she said. “Everything feels completely unfinished and overwhelming. There’s no one event or thing I feel worst about missing, but having no closure is really, really hard.”
Forster has struggled with mental health issues throughout her life, and she has, since the beginning of the pandemic, realized she doesn’t walk alone.
“I have this awareness that even though I am physically isolated, I’m not alone,” she said. “And I’ve realized that I can make it through anything without having the resources of the outside world and the support systems. I have new coping mechanisms now.”
Simard, Forster, Esposito and Meyer said since the pandemic began, connection has presented itself differently than ever before in their day-to-day lives. All four said technology has become necessary for staying connected to those they love and need to speak to.
Meyer said she has Zoomed and FaceTimed with friends, and her classes have used Zoom for lectures. At work, she has become closer to her colleagues.
Simard said she relies on Zoom to talk to her students.
“I’ve had kids want to do Zoom meetings, for whatever reason, and so they’ll come out with something that’s been bothering them,” she said.
Simard said she feels glad she can still help her students, even if from a distance, but she worries about the students who have not stayed connected. She said she has students she hasn’t heard anything from, beyond turning in assignments, for seven weeks.
Esposito said having the virus made her realize that even small bits of connection can affect her day and her mood greatly. Not seeing her family while she had the virus felt difficult, but she felt thankful she could FaceTime them — even from inside the same house.
Forster said she feels her definition of connection has shifted since the beginning of the pandemic.
“I know I’m not doing the best job at connecting with the people I care about,” Forster said. “To me, though, the idea of connection is not feeling alone. It’s that ‘Oh yeah, they didn’t forget about me,’ feeling. It’s knowing you’re not completely isolated.”
FEAR OF THE PHYSICAL AND THE UNKNOWN
Fear comes and goes for most, or at least it used to.
For Esposito, though, fear has become a more common emotion than ever before. She said though she never felt fear about her job prior to the pandemic, she feels fear every time she walks into the hospital now.
“Now, fear means what’s unknown. … I don’t ever know what I’m really walking into,” she said. “My patients could be unstable. I could have to send them to the [intensive care unit]. It’s hard, especially not knowing when this is all going to end.”
For Meyer, fear has not stayed at the forefront of her mind when she walks into Wegmans for her shift.
“I think I have a healthy amount of fear,” Meyer said. “It’s not like I dread going to work, but it is a little scary for sure. … Even though there are so many safety measures in place, it’s always kind of in the back of your mind. I almost think it’s better that way, though — to be a bit fearful. It reminds you to be safe and take all the correct precautions.
Forster and Simard said their fear lies less in the physical—though they do harbor some feelings of fear about the virus itself—and more in what will come.
“I’m afraid after this subsides, we’re going to go back to negative behavior. I’m afraid we’re not going to learn our lesson,” Forster said.
Forster said the pandemic has shown exactly what can happen when people choose to be selfish rather than thinking about the communities around them. Forster hopes that behavior changes as re-openings begin, but she fears that people won’t adapt their behaviors to prevent further societal damage.
LEARNING FROM A TIME LIKE NO OTHER
With changes to daily life so prevalent throughout the world, Forster said she’s learned some important lessons since the start of the pandemic.
“I’ve learned that I am smart enough to be able to care for myself, emotionally and physically,” Forster said. “… I am smart enough to do all my assignments and juggle everything else in this crazy, hectic life while not having the same support system I normally would.”
Meyer said she learned how much she relishes the freedom she had before the coronavirus pandemic ruled her life.
“I keep to myself pretty often, and I don’t necessarily really like going out that often, but finding that I can’t do things anymore because it would be too dangerous, made me realize that freedom was a big part of life for me,” Meyer said.
Esposito said some people still need to learn one simple lesson in the midst of the pandemic.
“Seeing the virus firsthand take the lives of my patients, I can promise you this is very real,” she said. “Staying home is a small sacrifice you can make, and people should feel grateful to be able to stay home and be safe with the ones they love.”
For more information on the Coronavirus in the Greater Olean area, visit TAPinto Greater Olean's Coronavirus Updates page, which is updated continuously.
Sign Up for E-News to get top stories delivered daily to your inbox.