School Colors Bonus : Code Switch Pat Mitchell is the longtime principal of P.S. 48 – an elementary school in Jamaica, Queens. And while she cares deeply about her students and her work, she has struggled with the growing challenges faced by her school community. In this bonus episode, we look at the pandemic through the eyes of one elementary school principal, and how Covid-19 rocked education in the district – especially on the Southside.

School Colors Bonus: 'Ms. Mitchell's Pandemic Diary'

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MARK WINSTON GRIFFITH, HOST:

Peace, y'all. Before we get to the end of this season of School Colors, we need to take a bit of a detour.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: Most of this season has been about diversity in District 28. We've talked about how the District 28 diversity planning process was stopped by COVID-19, but we haven't really talked about the pandemic itself or how it affected education.

MAX FREEDMAN, HOST:

In this bonus episode, we look at the pandemic through the eyes of one elementary school principal.

Good morning. Is this Principal Mitchell?

PAT MITCHELL: It is.

FREEDMAN: Hi. This is Max Freedman from School Colors.

MITCHELL: Hi. How are you?

FREEDMAN: I am doing all right. How are you?

MITCHELL: Good. I'm overwhelmed (laughter).

FREEDMAN: You first met Pat Mitchell in Episode 6. She was a member of the District 28 diversity working group and the longtime principal of P.S. 48. The first time I talked to Ms. Mitchell was on the phone.

First, I actually would just love it if you would just tell me about your school.

MITCHELL: Oh, OK. So, yes. So our school is an amazing place to work. We're in the heart of South Jamaica in Queens, New York.

GRIFFITH: Although this has been a historically African American area, many of the new families are immigrants, and P.S. 48 is increasingly multilingual. Her scholars speak Urdu, Bengali, Hindu, Mandinka, Spanish, Haitian Creole and more.

MITCHELL: The scholars that come into our building are, for the most part, undisturbed and come from a myriad of backgrounds that include poverty at the very, very top of the list but then all of the risk factors that poverty brings with it - so chronic absenteeism, children who are undernourished or malnourished, children who have parents who are incarcerated, parents who have substance abuse problems. And the list goes on.

But what we're seeing now is a growing number of families that are in transient housing or three and four families living together because the rents are extremely high for those families who are not in public housing. You'd best believe that if they're not in public housing, they are paying astronomical amounts of rent in South Jamaica. We really try to get people to buy in to meeting everybody where they need to be. And so it's important that we know our scholars on a first-name basis, and I mean all 487 of them. That's important - and their families, too. And I think you get that sense when you walk into the building that it's a second home to our scholars.

GRIFFITH: But while school is so often a place of stability for kids and their families, COVID rocked all of that.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Breaking news - Mayor de Blasio announces he is shutting down New York City's school system, all in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus.

GRIFFITH: From the very day that schools were told to close their doors, Pat says she knew her families were in trouble.

MITCHELL: I know for a fact that P.S. 48 is the place where my scholars are able to - they know they're going to get fed. They know they're going to be cared for. And they're going to get some amazing instruction. I knew that once they went home that there would be a break in that instruction immediately. And let me tell you why. There are families in South Jamaica who don't have laptops. There are families in South Jamaica who don't have iPads at the ready to facilitate a Google Meet. There are families in South Jamaica who don't have smartphones or data plans that support the platforms that we insisted parents use. So when I tell you I was doing drive-bys, giving out laptops, going to homes - this is what I did in March.

It was a struggle because I was not just teaching scholars; we were teaching families how to make this work, trying to get them to understand the icons on an iPad when they were finally sent iPads from the DOE, just showing them what - this is what your Wi-Fi icon looks like. This is how your child shows a presentation or shares their screen. It was difficult to do that virtually.

The other thing was that I think the DOE early on assumed that if they sent out devices that those devices would be paired with people's Wi-Fi. There are lots of families who don't have it. So then they began to send out Wi-Fi-enabled devices to families because they realized that, you know, that - it was almost, like, the implicit bias working, that everyone has a Wi-Fi plan. They don't. I mean, I do. You do. But there are families that don't have that luxury. And so when we talk about equity, this fell apart because the disparities just became that much more prominent and evident and obvious during the pandemic.

GRIFFITH: As the virus spread, access to technology and even education itself took a backseat to the very real risk of illness and death. That risk was highest in Black and brown neighborhoods like South Jamaica.

MITCHELL: This community has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and will continue to be. The virus was weird in a way, in the way that it impacted families. So in the families that it did impact, there were usually at least two or more people who were impacted. So either families were devastated by this virus or, in some cases, not at all - thank God - and then there were, you know, obviously, cases where there were one or two people in the family who were affected. And when I say affected, I mean that it resulted in their death.

And so we have staff members who've had two or more people in their family pass away from COVID-19. And I don't have the numbers of families that were impacted by COVID. At some point, Max, I lost count. I went to Dollar Tree, and we bought sympathy cards. And there were so many families affected, I could not send out cards to every family. So I would say by mid-May, I probably had sent out cards to 40 or more families.

FREEDMAN: Around the same time, Pat was going through loss of her own. On May 2, 2020, her mother died of complications from lung cancer.

MITCHELL: She didn't die of COVID-19 related - she didn't have a COVID-19-related illness, but we still had to take, you know, precautions to make sure that she was OK while she lived here with me. And I set up hospice in my home for my mom. So at the same time that I'm trying to, like you said, balance the demands of a job that I love, I was also caring for a mother who made it all happen for me, who made it possible for me to be, like, an amazing, like, workaholic. You know, I carry her with me in everything I do. And when I talk to families who have experienced loss, unfortunately, I know exactly how they're feeling.

GRIFFITH: The end of that first COVID semester may have brought some semblance of relief, but educators like Pat spent the summer awaiting guidance on the specifics of how and even when schools would reopen in the fall.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The nation's largest school district is pushing back its start date.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: In a surprise announcement today, Mayor de Blasio moved the first day of New York City schools from September 10 to September 16 for remote learning and September 21 for in-school classes.

FREEDMAN: I called Pat for the first time the day after the first day of in-person school. We talked for almost an hour and a half, and it was only the first conversation of many. Over the course of that school year, the first full year of school during the pandemic, I checked in with her every few weeks as the system went through ups and downs, schools opened and closed and opened again, and the guidance kept on changing. What you're about to hear is from those phone calls.

GRIFFITH: September 22, 2020.

MITCHELL: We were not ready to open. What became a nightmare - and is still to this day - is the option that the DOE gave to parents about how they wanted their children to learn. They gave them options to engage in blended learning.

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BILL DE BLASIO: And blended learning simply means, at some points in the week, you're learning in-person in the classroom; at other points in the week, you're learning remotely. And we all know remote learning is not perfect, but we've also seen a lot of kids benefit greatly from it during these last months.

MITCHELL: There were two things that were not taken into consideration - one, that we would have the capacity to...

FREEDMAN: Actually, Pat went on to lay out many more than just two problems with blended learning. She says there were parents who chose blended who didn't really know what they were getting themselves into as far as needing child care for a schedule that would be different week to week. There were parents who didn't even know they had a choice who got placed in full remote by default. Then there was an agreement between the DOE and the teacher's union, the UFT, that all but guaranteed P.S. 48 would be short-staffed.

MITCHELL: The UFT had made it very clear that if you are an in-house teacher, you cannot be responsible for the remote learning also. So they have to essentially pick one, not because they want to but because they've been directed to do that by the DOE and the UFT. They have this agreement. It's stupid, right? It makes no sense.

FREEDMAN: And she says the DOE neither consulted principals when they came up with all this, nor let them know when things were changing.

MITCHELL: They had to know this wasn't going to work. How do I know? As late as last week, I get the news from TV, from watching TV. I'm listening to the mayor say that children whose families signed them up for blended learning are no longer guaranteed a teacher on the days that they're not in school. Every scholar should have access to a teacher each day that's going to provide synchronous instruction. And at this point, there are some scholars who are getting two or fewer hours of synchronous instruction each day. That cannot happen. I mean, do you want to see growing disparities? Yeah, put this plan into place. That's the plan we have. And I'm not happy with it.

GRIFFITH: September 29, 2020.

MITCHELL: If we'd all been remote, you could have guaranteed at least some consistency, some coherence with our parents with regard to curriculum. I can't guarantee that now. It's crazy. I don't know why parents were given the option to choose a plan that we could not bring to fruition. And that is what's so frustrating. It was just - it was a lie to tell parents that a blended learning model exists. It does not. We don't have the staff to accommodate that.

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MITCHELL: The relational trust that we built with our parents is important. It means something. It takes years - years - to accomplish that. And so we have to tell them that their children will be operating or engaged in a model of learning that we know is not going to work. It does something to you, Max. I can't even - and I can't speak for every principal. But if you're a principal whose heart is in this, yeah, it bothers you. You go to sleep with it. You wake up with it. Thank you for listening. I appreciate you so much.

FREEDMAN: Of course. Anytime.

MITCHELL: Send me a bill, OK?

FREEDMAN: (Laughter).

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Simply put, an afternoon of chaos and confusion for public school parents, teachers and students - some now scrambling for computers and childcare.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: New York City public schools will be closed tomorrow, remote only, as the average weekly positivity rate in the five boroughs hit 3% - the mayor and school chancellor making the announcement late this afternoon after Governor Cuomo insinuated that schools will be open.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: All this confusion came because the city and state use very different data to calculate positivity rates.

GRIFFITH: November 18, 2020.

MITCHELL: We, you know, keep an eye on the infection rate, and so we had a feeling this is going to come to fruition. And unfortunately, we were right. And so this sends lots of families into a frenzy, and I understand - and understandably so because we still have scholars who don't have devices. So when we say we're going fully remote, for some families, that means that these children are not going to be provided with instruction remotely. So while safety is always, you know, at the forefront of what we do, I can't help but think about the families who don't have access to technology, who don't have access to the Wi-Fi and who will suffer - right? - until we get them the hardware and the access that they need.

FREEDMAN: After all this time, you still have families who don't have devices.

MITCHELL: Absolutely. Either because for some reason they didn't get the memo that they had to request them, or they don't know how to request them. Or they have requested them, and they're still on backorder. That has been a huge issue. If every scholar doesn't have a paper and pencil when they walk into my building, they're not really ready to work, right? Cops don't show up without their Glocks, you know, like, right? Firefighters have on their apparel, you know? Doctors have their stethoscopes. If scholars are in the building or out of the building without an iPad or a device to learn, then they're not ready. So what are we doing here? Let's make sure, you know, everyone has what they need, so we can start this race. That hasn't happened.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: New York City's public schools will begin to reopen for in-person learning on December 7, starting with elementary schools for students whose parents agree to a weekly testing regimen for the novel coronavirus, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Sunday.

GRIFFITH: December 10, 2020.

MITCHELL: So again, we find out that school's reopening Dec. 7, you know, not in a respectful way - emails from parents. So the chain of communication is horrific. It's really - but aside from that, we also got a very strong email about the fact that we are not to allow students in who - whose parents did not consent to testing. And that has created a tremendous backlash with parents who don't want their kids tested. They don't want to consent to be tested. But we're supposed to refuse entry to those scholars.

FREEDMAN: For me on the outside, it seems really logical that if the goal is to keep down community spread, then you need randomized testing of kids in schools. And logistically it makes much more sense to test them on site than to rely on whatever...

MITCHELL: Outside...

FREEDMAN: ...Fragmented network of people's providers that, you know - like...

MITCHELL: Yeah.

FREEDMAN: ...That makes sense to me. So why are people upset?

MITCHELL: Well, I think that - so in the early part of the year, the test was invasive, you know? We were doing nasal swabs. The other thing is they feel like - almost like they don't want to know if their child is positive or not, believe it or not. I talked to a parent who said, you know what - if they're positive, they're positive. They're going to get over it. Really? There are people who don't want to know, you know? They just don't want - people who just do not prescribe to testing, vaccines, any of that. I get it. OK. All right. And again, these are just two parents I spoke to. I can't say they speak for everyone, clearly, but - interesting insight. I was, like, floored. Like, you don't want to know. You - oh, OK.

FREEDMAN: But there was at least one bright spot for Pat. She had started the year with a staffing crunch, in part because of the DOE's agreement with the teacher's union, which said the teachers could only teach in-person or remote, which meant kids in blended learning would have different teachers on different days. By December, many of Pat's teachers agreed with her that this was unsustainable.

MITCHELL: On the down low, my teachers have opted, in many cases, to say, listen; cohort A - I'm teaching cohort A because these kids come in on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday for this week, and on Thursday, Friday they're home. I'll still teach them, Ms. Mitchell, because it's too confusing to the parents. And I'm like, thank you, Jesus. But, essentially, they're not supposed to do that.

FREEDMAN: The city had put a lot of effort into figuring out blended learning based on the assumption that many parents would jump at the chance to send their kids to school in person, even a couple of days a week. But by the end of 2020, two-thirds of students citywide were still opting for full remote. The upside was that many school buildings had more space than they expected, which allowed P.S. 48 to do away with the cohorts and offer in-person, socially distanced learning five days a week starting in January.

GRIFFITH: February 19, 2021.

MITCHELL: It's been going well, and it's really refreshing to have more scholars in the building. And they're happy to be there. It's a little weird because we're not at full capacity, but there's some sense of normalcy back in the building. Still challenging because even though they're there, you still have to maintain social distancing with them. But that's difficult. Ever been in a room with 16 four-year-olds? Keeping masks on is a joke.

FREEDMAN: Pat had a medical accommodation, a formally recognized health reason for working remotely, but she started going into the building anyway.

MITCHELL: So, you know, there are people saying, you're going to forfeit your accommodation if - I don't give a - I don't really care. I think sometimes people need to see you, people who are in the trenches. And I use that term because, you know, you have teachers who are home and teachers who come into the building consistently every day and put - they are our essential workers putting themselves at risk to ensure these kids are educated. And I think, for me, I needed the accommodation. OK. I was granted one. But I still think people need to see that you're a team player. People just need to see that you are - you know, you're around. You're engaged. You care.

GRIFFITH: March 16, 2021.

FREEDMAN: Hey, Pat. How's it going.

MITCHELL: Jeez. The day is long and arduous, but I'm hanging in there.

FREEDMAN: How many of your kids are back in the building at this point?

MITCHELL: About 130.

FREEDMAN: Out of how many total?

MITCHELL: Five hundred and forty-seven

FREEDMAN: OK. So it's still about - what's that? - about 20%?

MITCHELL: Yeah. Yeah. Just about that. One class on each grade - it's a lot. But again, I'm not complaining. Only because you asked, it's just - it is some - it's, like, amazing. So - and I know it is overwhelming. I know that this work can take you under if you let it. So I try not to let it take me.

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FREEDMAN: By the spring, I had spent hours on the phone with Pat, but I'd never actually met her in person. So in May, we finally made plans to meet face to face on a Sunday afternoon at P.S. 48.

GRIFFITH: She was decked out head to toe in her pink and green AKA Sorority swag. There's a big park next to the school teeming with community life, so we asked her about it.

MITCHELL: This park is widely used. Soccer.

GRIFFITH: Yeah.

MITCHELL: And I like that. I like that it's used. So we have a lot of families that come. And this is, like, their recreation. They have teams - very organized. You know, they sell food. It's really nice. So I love that about the park. And it wasn't always that way. It was once a barren field. And we were like, why do we have a barren field? Why can't we do something?

GRIFFITH: Throughout our conversation, she kept running into current and former students on the street.

MITCHELL: My twins, they don't even remember who I am, with their pants hanging off his butt. Boy, pull your pants up - Ms. Mitchell. How you doing?

GRIFFITH: They were like, who is this lady yelling at us? (Laughter).

MITCHELL: Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

MITCHELL: How are you? I'm going to hug you. How you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good.

MITCHELL: I didn't realize it was you. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I know.

MITCHELL: How you doing? How's your mom?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good.

MITCHELL: Yeah?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

MITCHELL: So walking around...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hey, what are all you doing here?

MITCHELL: What's up?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Laughter).

MITCHELL: Y'all look good. I am really proud of you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you.

MITCHELL: All right. Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

MITCHELL: I don't even want to ask them how old they are. I feel really, really old.

GRIFFITH: After 29 years in the school system and 15 years at P.S. 48, Pat had decided to retire.

MITCHELL: The leadership here has to be in tune with the changing face of this community and be willing to think outside the box. And that's why I know it's time for me to go.

GRIFFITH: The pandemic had a lot to do with it.

MITCHELL: I felt like I was out of touch with my teachers and my scholars. I don't like it. It doesn't - it's not what I'm used to, and it's not what I'm comfortable with. And at this age - you know, if I was 20 years younger or maybe even 10 years younger, I could kind of roll with the punches. I don't have that in me anymore. I know what I like. I know the style of leadership that I'm accustomed to, that I've grown accustomed to and that has been effective for me - but the virtual thing, not so much.

GRIFFITH: She also had more personal reasons.

MITCHELL: Last year, my mom passed away, and my mom hated my job. She loved the work. She hated my job if that makes any sense. But when she passed away, her words kind of resonated with me. And I just thought, Mom is right. The work has to be done, but you don't have to be the one that does it. Like, spread the wealth. Like, let somebody else do it. They might do it better than you, right? That was a novel thought. Like, shit, Pat, there might be somebody out here who does it better than you. Like, get over yourself. So that was the realization that I came to.

The third thing and probably the most important thing is that I kind of prioritize, you know, my wants and needs in life and fell in love with a man I've known all of my life. And I thought, like, I've never seen you like this before (laughter). He thought the same with me, and he just made me an offer I couldn't refuse. And when that happens, when you lose someone you love or someone points out to you that - you know what? - we got more years behind us than ahead of us; let's change the course of our lives - it can kind of - it makes you think about those things that are important. It does. It changes your perspective. And so while this work is important, my happiness is even more important.

So I'm deciding to leave because I think P.S. 48 deserves to have someone in a leadership position that is like, this is my No. 1 priority. It's not mine anymore. So is my work finished? Absolutely not. But I'm not going to do the work. I'm going to let somebody else do it. But I'm looking forward to this next chapter. I don't know what I'm going to do or - don't know. But I'm looking forward to it. You guys need an assistant?

(LAUGHTER)

FREEDMAN: Oh, man.

That was May 2021. I caught up with Pat again in early January 2022. It was the height of the omicron wave, and she had just gotten COVID herself, not for the first time. But as soon as she was out of isolation, she was back at P.S. 48. She was still officially retired but volunteering three days a week because 40% of the staff was absent.

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GRIFFITH: School Colors is created, reported and written by me, Mark Winston Griffith, and Max Freedman, produced by Max Freedman with Carly Rubin and Ilana Levinson.

FREEDMAN: Our editor is Soraya Shockley. Our project managers are Soraya Shockley and Lyndsey McKenna - fact-checking and archival research by Carly Rubin, engineering by James Willetts.

GRIFFITH: Original Music by Avery R. Young and De Deacon Board, additional Music by Blue Dot Sessions.

FREEDMAN: Thank you to Leah Donnella, Steve Drummond and the entire CODE SWITCH team. Thank you to our executive producer, Yolanda Sangweni, and NPR's senior vice president of programming, Anya Grundmann.

GRIFFITH: Season 2 of School Colors was made possible by NPR, the Spencer Fellowship in Education Reporting at Columbia University and by the Brooklyn Movement Center.

FREEDMAN: Until next time.

GRIFFITH: Peace.

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