Alexandria, VA

A couple weeks ago, Jesse Mazur stopped his car outside George Washington Middle School and thought about how quickly things changed.

It’s a disorienting feeling for the 44-year-old principal who has — one way or another — been in schools most of his life, and inside the hallways are completely empty. Since March 13, Mazur and his staff have had to adapt to a new normal of remotely teaching more than 1,500 students for the remainder of the year.

“I stopped, and my wife asked me what I was doing and I just felt the need to stop and just look at it,” Mazur told ALXnow. “I’ve been going to school for 18 years of my life as a professional, and, of course, 15 years of my life as an actual student. It’s very disorienting to not be in my office.”

Mazur added, “I’ve missed the camaraderie with my team and I miss teaching and learning. I miss walking through the door of the building and seeing the students. Believe it or not, I miss lunch duty. It’s a really tough transition but what’s sustaining me personally is knowing that we rolled out a good product in terms of getting kids and teachers online, but also recognizing that there’s still opportunities to improve.”

At first, GW eighth grader Yahney-Marie Sangare was excited that school was initially closed until after spring break. Ten days later, on March 23, Governor Northam closed all schools in the state for the remainder of the year, and Sangare felt crestfallen at not being able to graduate from the eighth grade with her friends. Now she spends about four hours a day doing online learning.

“I think it was deeper than just not being in school,” the 12-year-old Sangare said. “It’s just something that challenges your perception of reality. Sometimes you wake up and you just feel like life isn’t really real and it feels like you’re never really going to get the chance to live normally again. And the prospect that things are going to change after this is over is both beautiful and terrifying.”

All students at GW received Chromebooks and instructional packets to take home, and Mazur and his staff combed through school records to reach out to families without the necessary equipment or internet access. Additionally, about 48% of students receive free and reduced lunch, and the synchronous teaching ensures that teachers maintain continual relationships with their kids throughout the shutdown.

“Yes, it’s important, of course, to get the kids engaged in their education, but we also realize for some that the education is the least of their concerns and the least of their worries,” Mazur said. “We just exhausted our internal database of phone numbers and called and called emergency emergency contacts. We did everything we could to try to track down these students and find out what is happening in their lives and how we can support them.”

Mazur conducts a weekly staff meeting every Friday, and is currently working out of the basement of his home, while his wife, a teacher at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School, teaches upstairs. They’re also the parents of a T.C. Williams High School senior and a GW eighth grader.

“It’s very, very unusual to stare at his computer screen all day, and my eyes are suffering,” Mazur said. “I love the energy of a schoolhouse. One of my favorite things to do is to go into gym class and compete with these kids while I’m there.”

Sangare said that she is concerned about the future of the country.

“The president’s actions of cutting funding to the World Health Organization is scary,” she said. “Especially for my generation, we are being affected by these choices. I think that this time to stand together and really look and reflect on our country, how we can help other countries and take what they’re doing right and what they’re doing. And we cannot be targeting anyone any minority group, anything like that. This is the time that we stand together, and we stand up for each other, especially for those who don’t have the resources like we do.”

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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