I’m ready to move forward with construction full-steam ahead, and then my whole world changed. It’s only been a week since we closed on the property. Now, a few schools in the area have closed for sanitation due to COVID-19. No long term closures yet, but it’s coming. Day to day, I’m not sure what will come. I need to make a decision. It’s Thursday, March 12th. Schools won’t make an announcement until Sunday regarding Monday, but I have classes this weekend. For the health and safety of our students, I announce that we’ll be moving online temporarily. At this point, I figure the worst case scenario, we’ll be online for a few weeks. By Saturday, most of the schools in the area have announced closures due to COVID-19.
I scramble to put together online material. I’d been working on coding a new online learning platform for our students to use next year. It was meant to supplement their in-person classes, not replace it, and I hadn’t planned for it to be ready for beta testing until summer. I’ve been managing our school website for years, but until this past year, I’d used Weebly to manage the website. Drag-and-drop website design is a walk in the park compared to this. Earlier this year, I redesigned our website from scratch, but that was mostly static pages and blogs. Coding an online-learning platform is different. It’s dynamic. It requires user accounts and live interaction. I can post content, but how do I allow students to submit their assignments? How do I make sure the students do the assignments in the correct order? How do I post grades and allow the students to see them? How do I make sure the content is restricted so that only our students can see the assignments and responses? We’d hired an entire team of programmers to create something similar years ago. The website never worked the way it was supposed to. In the end, parents could register their kids for courses, but homework uploads and grading never worked.
This was an ominous task, but I’d used plenty of online learning systems for my own education. I wasn’t thrilled with any of the platforms. They all had issues. Moreover, using a different system subjects me to system updates that are out of my control. Many of them are designed for colleges; I work with minors. Google Classroom seems popular, but I’ve looked at it. It’s a glorified version of Google Drive. It doesn’t do half of the things I want — need — to be able to do.
I’ve never taught online classes. None of my lesson plans can simply be “plopped” online for students. Some of them need to be scrapped entirely. We can’t teach public speaking virtually. I guess we “could.” I took an online public speaking course. It was required. It was also useless. Talking to a video camera is not the same as talking to a live audience.
I work day and night to finish coding. New bugs arise, and it’s like a game of whack a mole to get them under control. Parents and students want to know what the plan is. To be honest, so do I. This mission is insane. As I integrate new functionality, I realize that I’ll also need a way for students to communicate. I’ll need a way for them to communicate with each other. I’ll need a way to grade and comment on their work. I’ll need a way to keep my classes organized. The technical needs for my website continue to grow. I feel as if I’m getting further from my goal rather than nearing the end. Creating the website is only half the mission. We also need to put up lessons for the students. I need to figure out how to teach students through a virtual learning platform.
By March 16th, we’ve launched our online classes with a brand new learning management system and freshly written lessons suitable for online learning. I send out a video tutorial to walk the students and parents through the new system, and I pray that people will be understanding during this transition. I’m exhausted, but the work is far from over. At this point, I’ve only posted enough content to get the students started. I’m not sure how long we’ll be online. How many online lessons will I need? I don’t want to waste time writing lessons we won’t need, but I also need to be prepared.
I rack my brain for other ideas. I want to do more than online classes. Our students didn’t have any notice that school was closing. The libraries closed too. What will they read? I scramble to figure out a safe socially distanced way to get library books to our students. I settle on curbside library checkouts. Order your books online, and I’ll bring them to our new location. Pull up, and I’ll put them in your trunk for you. I’m pleased with my plan.
Over the weeks, I’m disappointed by the participation in library checkouts. On any given week, I only have two or three families participate. I’m working from home. Collecting books requires visiting our school, finding the books on the shelves, checking them out, and bagging them. Then, I spend Saturday waiting for students to arrive to pick up their books. While I wait, I mow the lawn. It’s not really a lawn, I suppose. The clover I planted struggles to grow beneath the ragweed.
On March 27, 2020, I sign a contract with Sodano Contracting. I have a contractor at last, but now I’m not sure we’ll be able to proceed with construction. Each day, more businesses are forced to close. Watching the governor talk is like watching a horror movie, with me sitting at the edge of my seat in suspense wondering what he’ll close today. So far, construction can continue. I’m thankful that my contractor is still working.
We drop off the permit application. Sodano sends me a picture of my permit application sitting on a dolley outside the building department, protected by a waterproof bag. The public isn’t allowed inside. Leave the papers outside, call them, and hope that they retrieve them. I wonder why the building department can’t get a mailbox — or at least a box!
Now, we wait. Again. I do a lot of that these days.
On April 8th, I received a call from my best friend. I’ve just finished dropping off groceries for Ms. Voit. She’s barely left her home in a month. She’s sheltering in place. “Are you sitting down?” she asks. Why? Murphy just spoke again. I didn’t listen to him talk today. The anxiety made me sick; he always waited until the very end of his press conferences to get to new closures. I was about to start driving. “Don’t,” she says. Murphy has cancelled construction. I’m sure the neighbors heard me yell. I can’t breathe. He can’t cancel construction. I need this. I run back to Ms. Voit’s door. She heard my yelp. In fact, she just saw the news too. We read the news for details. My pulse begins to normalize as I realize that essential construction can continue. I’m building a school. It’s essential. Construction will go on!
It takes until April 22nd for us to receive our first sub-code review. Things are moving slowly. Very slowly. The building department is still “working,” but they’re working from home. It seems like working from home means barely working. Moreover, they’re quarantining all of the documents for several days before handing them off to the next individual. This town hasn’t gone digital. They require paper copies of everything. I feel like I’m being stonewalled. You can’t talk to anyone except the secretary; no one else is in the office. You can leave a voicemail, but who knows when they’ll check it.
Our first sub-code review is a denial for what seems like petty issues. No issues with the plans themselves, just questions for clarification. We answer this sub-code denial promptly.
On April 27th, we received a denial from the Mechanical Sub Code Official. Again, this denial doesn’t contain anything major. We respond promptly. This doesn’t seem terrible, but if it takes a week to get from one sub-code official to another, this is going to be a very slow process.
On May 14th, we received a denial from the Electrical Sub Code Official. All of the receptacles must be tamper-resistant. They will be, but nonetheless we highlight the details on the plans and send them back.
It’s around this time that I called the Department of Community Affairs. The town doesn’t have unlimited time to review a permit application. The Department of Community Affairs informs me that I should be grateful the building department is open at all; other towns have closed their building departments entirely. In another world — in regular times — perhaps they could help me.
On May 7th, I received a denial from the fire sub-code official, requesting a fire system plan. I didn’t even know I needed a fire system until this moment. My plans had sprinklers and fire exits. Did I need more? Apparently, I need pull stations for every door. Why didn’t my architect say anything? The fire system gets installed by a different company, a company hired specifically for fire systems. This company has to provide the plans. After talking with the town and my contractor, I find out that these plans are usually submitted for a separate permit, typically while you’re during construction. Not this time. They want it now. I spend days on the phone calling different companies. I have no idea what I’m looking for. I simply Google “Fire Company.” My contractor refers me to one company too. I push these companies to get me quotes within the day. By the end of the week, I have a fire system. The company kindly prepares the paperwork for the town before receiving a deposit. I trade them a deposit for the plans and then deliver them to the town.
On May 19th, I received a denial from the plumbing sub-code official, the same individual that sent the Mechanical sub-code denial. He claims that a denial was sent out on April 27th referencing this matter. I check my e-mail over and over again. I call my contractor. I call my architect. No one received anything. He says it was sent to the plumber. It’s an automated system that sends out these emails, so how would he have received it but not me? Fine. I call the plumber anyways. He never received anything. No use arguing, ‘let’s just take care of it.
We go back and forth several times. I feel as if the same questions are being asked over and over. Haven’t we answered this already?
Meanwhile, my architect has a death in the family.
Things are moving slowly. Will we ever get these permits? I start to wonder if I’ve done something to offend this sub-code official. I’ve never actually spoken to him. We’ve e-mailed, but I’ve been careful to sound sweet and grateful. Let’s not aggravate the man who holds the power!
June rolls around. I’d hoped to finish construction by now. Instead, I’m still waiting for permits. We intentionally limited the renovations to “interior renovation” to expedite the permit process. I postponed adding the vestibule to the front. Add a few square feet to the building and the permit process becomes even more grueling. This should be quick and simple, and yet it’s not.
I’m ready to start calling lawyers and politicians; I need progress.
It’s June 19th. It’s the final day of classes. I grade the students’ work. I take dozens of phone calls from parents who are struggling to understand what “last day” means for virtual learning. I receive an e-mail from the town that say’s, “We’re all good.” What does that mean? Do I have permits? I call the building department. Rather than ask for a status update, I simply ask what the permits will cost. Hooray! At last! They’ve been approved. I race to the town and drop off the checks.
Now, the next leg in my journey begins. It’s time to start construction. Despite all of the obstacles that I’ve encountered this last year, I am fully confident that we’ll finish construction on time to open in September. It helps that my contractor is confident too. I’ve done construction in less time; we gutted and renovated our current space in about a month.
This isn’t how I saw my school year ending. People have been talking a lot about missed or postponed live events — virtual graduations, canceled proms and trips to the beach, postponed weddings, and more. I haven’t attended graduation since middle school. I didn’t graduate high school; I started college early instead. I didn’t go to prom, project graduation, the senior trips to Wildwood, or even my own college graduation. I’d planned a big “good-bye” party to end our final year in HEROES’ first official home and an even bigger grand opening party to welcome everyone to our new facility. I imagined past, present, and future families gathering — a big barbeque, games for the kids, a tour of the facility, and speeches. I envisioned a big block party for our grand opening. I wanted this to be the biggest party we’ve ever thrown because, for me, this is my big life event. We started HEROES in 2007, and its roots go back even further. We’ve dreamed of buying land where we could one day offer full day programs — with enough land for a playground and grandiose events. I’ve worked day and night to get here, and it deserved a celebration. But, COVID-19 hit, and those plans came crashing down. No going away party. No grand opening.
But, at least I can say, that HEROES will still be here in September 2020 and the years to come. I made it. I have my permits, and soon I’ll have a pretty new red-brick school for my students to attend. I have the property of my dreams, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for us in our new home. I’m thankful for this, and I’m thankful for all of the parents and students who’ve been so incredibly supportive of us over the years. Most importantly, I’m thankful for Ms. Voit, my mom, who gave birth to the HEROES vision and continues to provide me with unyielding support as we continue the HEROES journey.
Read Part III