When New York City’s school system shuttered last spring, the one million students who had flooded its classrooms were sent home. Tens of thousands of teachers had just a few days to prepare for online classes. But there was a vast force of essential workers who never left the city’s 1,800 school buildings.
“This is my job — we had to be here,” said Theresa DiCristi, a custodial engineer in downtown Manhattan. She and her team cleaned the school’s hallways and cafeteria until they were sparkling, and distributed masks and hand sanitizer to families who came to pick up hot lunches.
In the Bronx, Robert Williams oversaw a team of carpenters who spent weeks in vacant school gymnasiums, building coffins for the hundreds of New Yorkers dying of the virus. By the summer, Mr. Williams, who manages maintenance work for all Bronx schools, was working every night and through the weekends to make sure school buildings were safe to welcome children back in the fall.
At the Star Academy in Brooklyn, even when some students spiked fevers over 100 degrees in his office or when weekly testing in schools revealed the occasional positive case, Cam Hawkins, a school nurse, knew he had to project calm. “First of all, your child is fine,” he’d say when he called parents.
Stephen Ali, a school lunch helper in the Bronx, knows how hard it is to teach a student who hasn’t had enough to eat, so he would give them more. During the pandemic, he and the school’s cook prepared meals for anyone in the community who needed them.