When Hagan Carlin learned her assistant principal Joe Lewinger had died of coronavirus, she couldn’t fall asleep until four in the morning.
The 17-year-old junior at The Mary Louis Academy in Queens, New York, told CNN she cried much of the night – and when she wasn’t crying, she was stunned.
She didn’t know what school would look like without the goofball who felt like a dad to everyone. She didn’t know who would stop students in the halls to ask what was wrong and how he could fix it. She didn’t know who would send those inspirational emails and endless surveys.
“He made you feel like you mattered,” Carlin said. “He made me feel like I belonged.”
The coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 1,486,700 people in America. Among the at least 89,562 who have lost their lives to the virus are dozens of teachers across the country.
In addition to family and friends, they leave students – past and present – to mourn their loss.
For many students, the teachers, coaches and school administrators they lost to coronavirus imparted lessons and values beyond material in the curriculum that they will carry throughout their lives. And grieving them is an experience like none they’ve faced before.
What they lost
Katy Greiner’s first grade teacher, Susan Rokus, was there for her in the audience at her high school and college graduation. Then, when she began a teaching career of her own, Rokus sat down with her for dinner to provide guidance.
“She wants to take anyone under her wing,” Greiner said. “She helps teach you how to read and helps you stop crying because you miss your mom, and then she’s at your college graduation.”
Greiner remembers being a shy child who was taught by Rokus to look people in the eye. She remembers being encouraged every day to get up from against the wall and go play with the other students at recess.
Students described their educators as people who supported them, made them feel important and gave them direction.
Fiona Mullen knew that if she needed someone to turn to at school, Lewinger was the one who would be there for her. Every day when she walked the halls, she said, she knew Lewinger would pop out of his office to ask how he could make her day better.
And students at GW Carver Middle School in Waco, Texas, knew that they had someone dedicated to their success in their principal Philip Perry.
“He knew who had been absent the day before, who failed a test the day before, who threw a touchdown,” said Karen Hassell who worked alongside Perry.
At a high school for students who were credit deficient, Perry would bring in tattoo removal artists for a student who wanted to go into the military and find childcare for students who were mothers and had to work at night, Hassell said.
“Students will do anything for someone they know cares about them,” Hassell said. “I think the impact of that cannot be overstated.”
A new feeling for young students
When Maral Javadifar, an NFL assistant coach and former player on a basketball team coached by Lewinger, heard of his death, it felt like she lost a part of herself, she said.
The grief she felt as an adult is something many younger students are experiencing for the first time.
Paul Pack, principal of Liberty Elementary School where Rokus tutored children in reading during her retirement, said many of her students have never lost anyone before.
He sent out material to parents, explaining how to recognize grief in their children and how to discuss it so they could best process it and has counselors on standby – though the virus has made connecting with children more difficult.
“We are used to seeing the kids and talking to them,” Pack said. “Our instinct as elementary teachers and principals is to let kids share their feeling and talk about how the loss is affecting them and we haven’t been able to do that.”
And even for those who have felt grief before, Carlin said, losing educators like Lewinger is different.
“Losing my grandmother and my godmother I could go into school and I felt better there, but now when I go into school, I will be reminded every day that he is not there,” she said.
Not knowing when they can mourn
For the first time or not, navigating the grief these students are feeling is made more difficult by their isolation. Memorials have been postponed indefinitely and it isn’t clear when they will be together again. Many say it has left their closure in limbo.
“Just him passing is terrible and unthinkable, but not being able to celebrate – his death lacks closure,” said Lewinger’s former player Rachele Burriesci.
Coronavirus has disrupted so many of the rituals and norms that bring people together when someone dies, Pack said. And without them it can feel like the students aren’t getting enough of a tribute to someone who was so important to them.
Carlin said she and her friends often speak about Lewinger in their group chat, sharing memories, moments they’ve cried and questions about how and when they will be back on campus together.
“I just want to hug my best friend from school,” she said.
Carlin and all the students lost a piece of their heart when they lost their assistant principal, said Fiona’s parents Moira and Pete Mullen, and they might not feel it fully until they are back in the school hallways together.
“When the time comes and when the environment is safe, they will mourn together and until that time comes, we are all doing our best to get through this period,” Pete Mullen said.