Finding Fellowship in Times of Trouble

I went to church on Sunday, something that used to be so ordinary. I hadn’t been to Saint Camillus in two years. The parking lot was nearly empty. Every other pew was roped off to keep us safely six feet apart. A video camera in the back live-streamed the mass on Facebook. A small choir began a once-familiar song. I made the sign of the cross as the priest began, searching for something that felt like community.

When my parents moved us from Louisiana to upstate New York, and then to West Virginia, the pang of leaving home behind burned into my heart each time we had to say goodbye. “You have to make your own family,” Mom said as we started over in a new place. She said I was the resilient one, the sibling who adapted most quickly to their new environment. This trait has served me well, but two years of pandemic anxiety, isolation, and uncertainty might finally have depleted my reserves.

January started with a snow storm that closed schools for two days. That was a huge relief, since omicron was infecting everyone. The week before Winter Break, none of my classes had more than 50% attendance. We couldn’t get rapid tests, PCR testing wasn’t widely available yet, and results took too long. Commercial airlines were cancelling flights all over the country because flight attendants, pilots, and crews were in quarantine.

When the two-hour snow delay was announced for January 5th, MCPS leadership was not prepared. More than 90 bus routes had no drivers. Thousands of students were waiting outside in the freezing cold for buses that never showed up. Building service teams were short-staffed and struggled to clear the parking lots and get the buildings cleaned. So many teachers were out sick that there were not enough substitutes. Only 25% of 1,500 jobs were filled. Many students who did show up for school had to sit in an auditorium where social distancing was nearly impossible.

Teachers covered for absent colleagues, giving up precious planning periods over and over and over again. With no free time during the school day to prepare lessons, teachers went home every evening exhausted, with work yet to do. The superintendent held a public meeting that was so boilerplate and tone deaf that it infuriated the entire community: parents, educators, elected officials, and students. Both the principals’ union and the teachers’ union passed a No Confidence Resolution. Parent groups blew up social media. Students staged walkouts at all the high schools.

The mandated subject-matter testing continued as if there were no pandemic. Algebra, Government, Science, English Language Arts, a four-domain WiDA test for multilingual learners, and a two-day Progress Check that did not affect student grades or fulfill any graduation requirement. If administrators are so concerned about “learning loss,” why are they okay when kids miss so much class instruction to take meaningless tests?

In all of this (madness), I’ve tried to find some fellowship. My District 5 Councilmember Tom Hucker held a virtual Town Hall to listen to members of the community. More than 5,000 people showed up. Most expressed frustration and anger at the Board of Education and MCPS leadership. The teachers’ union has held many meetings and pushed out direct communication that addresses our immediate needs. I’ve gotten more involved in the union. Maybe this is my community.

It felt restorative to step into a real church on Sunday. The piano player improvised a few songs beautifully, and a middle-aged African American woman kept the beat using a complete drum kit. I clapped my hands and swayed — not a behavior typically associated with the Catholic Church — while tears streamed down my face. It almost felt like coming home. My mother would have been proud.

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evaksullivan

Eva K. Sullivan teaches English Language Learners in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. She was an English Language Fellow with U.S. Department of State during the 2017-2018 school year, working with the Ministry of Education in Laos, Southeast Asia. She writes short stories, personal essays, and has completed a memoir about her experiences as an expat in West Africa in the 1990s.

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