By Rachel Jason
Essential workers played influential and major roles in America and around the world this past year. The term “essential worker” includes medical workers, teachers, transportation workers, grocery store workers, and many others. They have risked their physical, social, and mental health to keep our society stable.
Keith Layman and Miriam Jason are two of the thousands of essential workers that represent our nation. Keith Layman, also known as Mr. Layman, is a teacher at Garnet Valley High School for the past 19 years. He is a social studies teacher and the social studies department coordinator. Miriam Jason is working in a hospital in New York City as a nurse practitioner in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
Prior to the peak of COVID-19, Miriam Jason was a NICU nurse for 2 years and worked outside the city in a hospital that became the epicenter of COVID-19 where the first coronavirus case in the United States occurred. One day, the hospital management announced that the maternity unit will be closed and that she and her coworkers would be placed on the COVID floor due to the sudden influx of patients. “We went in every day not knowing what to expect,” Jason says.
When COVID-19 began, the instruction modality of Garnet Valley became online asynchronous. It was a new experience for students, administrators, and teachers.“It was very difficult and keeping everyone motivated and together was not an easy task,” Layman remembers.
Both essential workers had their own challenges. As a NICU nurse working with adult patients, Miriam was faced with several challenges. “It was difficult seeing so many people by themselves in the last moments of their lives. And it was stressful not knowing if I was providing adequate medical care. On top of that there was not enough ‘human care’ and emotional support,” Jason reports.
From the perspective of a teacher, Mr. Layman found the transition difficult as he adjusted his teaching methods to the online environment. “It was difficult to keep students engaged with the online format. There was a big learning curve for all teachers using zoom and breakout rooms in a way that was familiar to us,” Layman explains.
Although both essential workers worked during the peak of COVID-19, when society did not know what to expect, there were similarities and differences in their emotions during that time. “My mental health was non-existent,” Jason laughs, “For everyone, I worked with, it was a shared trauma. When we were at work we were busy, so after work, we were trying to process what we saw and did… seeing so many people die in such a short amount of time was unbelievably overwhelming and nothing prepared me for that.”
Like Miriam, Mr. Layman has experienced a variety of emotions.
“I feel very fortunate to be able to continue to work and do my job. It feels more stressful this year because we are expected to do our job. We are expected to be as good as we have been. We are expected to track down our students when they disappear. We are expected to help them achieve what they have achieved in previous years,” Layman says. He believes that everyone is stressed, not only teachers but parents and students. However, from his own experience, he has definitely become more stressed.
Throughout this life-changing experience, Miriam and Mr. Layman experienced moments that they will never forget.
As Miriam looked beyond her experience in the hospital, she focused on her community’s reaction to the pandemic and the healthcare workers. “It felt like New York City was taking it seriously even when the rest of the country might not have been. They supported us in ways that they could and ways that we didn’t know we needed, like donating masks that they had made out of whatever fabric they could find, or donating meals to the nurses,” Jason notes.
On a personal level, Miriam reflected that the experience has changed her perspective. “Especially during the beginning of COVID-19, there wasn’t a real treatment. So being able to offer human compassion brought home the fact that it was such an important part of the art of nursing and being in health care. Something that is easy to forget.”
Mr. Layman, recalls how this monumental experience changed him as a teacher and person. “This experience has illuminated the gap between what resources people have or lack whether it is family, technology, or other necessities,” Layman says. He continued to acknowledge the positive outcomes of his experiences. “It has given me a great appreciation for the fact that there is a need in Garnet Valley and around the country for us to be more sympathetic to students who don’t have the same resources that others do. Also, it has given me an appreciation for what’s important in education. It has required me to focus on why I am teaching what I am teaching,” Layman believes.
The pandemic impacted both essential workers and helped them discover new beliefs and opinions about their surroundings. With a long sigh, Miriam recalled her growth as a person and nurse throughout COVID. “It was a stark reminder that my patients needed to be cared for not only in a physical way but also on an emotional level.”
She recognized other events, such as the Black Lives Matter Movement, that occurred alongside COVID-19 and how it affected her as a nurse.“Especially regarding the BLM movement, it went hand in hand with COVID and made me realize that each patient faces hardships other than their actual medical diagnosis. Racial, financial, and other kinds of personal problems also affect their health. So as a health care worker, I had to think about the whole person beyond their health.”
Mr. Layman proceeded to share his message to his students, specifically sympathizing with the Class of 2021. “My heart goes out to them for everything they were not able to experience this year. The class of 2021 will always be remembered for what they sacrificed.” Furthermore addressing all students, he added, “You did what you had to do to get through this year and all of you have made sacrifices.” He ends by encouraging his students to look into the future with the hope of going back to normal.
Before Miriam finished the interview, she reminded society to do their part. “Wear a mask and social distance. Everyone should get the vaccine when they are eligible.”