Graduating High School in Birmingham, Alabama during Covid-19 (Emma Goldberg)

This article appeared in the New York Times, June 23, 2020

Growing up, Ashley Reynolds grew accustomed to marking rites of passage in the shadow of her older brother’s ghost.  
Her brother, Jeff Jr., named for their father, was shot at a house party when he was 18 and Reynolds was 3. On every birthday and holiday since, Reynolds has felt a sense of grief mingling with her joy, because she knows her parents wish that Jeff Jr. could be there to celebrate too. (He would have now been 33.)
But high school graduation was supposed to be Reynolds’s day alone. She would be the first of her mother’s children to cross that stage. She imagined that her parents would be cheering, and she might start to cry. She started counting down the days at the start of her senior year. Then coronavirus came to Birmingham, Ala. — and just like that, her graduation ceremony was in jeopardy.  
“You ever just feel like giving up?” Reynolds, 18, said, in an interview in early May. “I feel like I’m letting my family down by not walking across the stage because my brother never got a chance to.”   Reynolds is one of the 3.7 million members of the class of Covid-19, America’s high school seniors who saw much of their season of festivities canceled because of the coronavirus. Throughout the early months of the pandemic, she was also one of the country’s 24 million front-line workers.

More than half of the essential work force is female, and more than a third is African-American, like Reynolds. While Reynolds’s senior year was upended, her daily shift as a fast food worker at McDonald’s, working 30 hours a week, remained.    

When the stay-at-home order took effect in Alabama, Reynolds watched with disappointment as events were taken off her calendar. School turned to remote learning. Prom was up in the air. The course she was taking to become a certified nursing assistant was suspended.   But because she was deemed an essential worker, she could not quarantine, like most of her friends and classmates. She commuted daily for her shift at McDonald’s, sanitizing her hands in the car and showering the minute she got home.

The McDonald’s was at a truck stop, primarily serving drivers making deliveries throughout the state — 300 customers a day during the height of the shutdown and 700 per day as businesses began to reopen.   The normal stresses of work — irritable customers, messy co-workers — were all amplified during the pandemic, she said. And many of Reynolds’s customers refused to follow social-distancing guidelines. They came close to Reynolds when ordering, and some of them entered without wearing masks. “They’re not understanding how serious this is,” she said. “Customers do not want to follow directions. They don’t believe in the six-feet rules.”    

She was paid $8.25 an hour and was not given hazard pay. “I felt we needed a raise working under the coronavirus,” Reynolds said. “But they didn’t give it to us.”     In April, one of Reynolds’s co-workers fell ill and left work early. The facility was closed for the day and sanitized. But Reynolds felt a pit in her stomach all day. She worried that she, too, could get sick and expose her mother, father or younger half sister, who is 7. Reynolds was relieved when she was told her co-worker did not have Covid-19.  

Reynolds worries for her parents, because their essential jobs also bring them out of their homes daily, risking their health. Her father is a car salesman, which is classified as essential work. Her mother works as a janitor at a day care system. As the virus was beginning to spread, one facility where Reynolds’s mom works her day job had to close because of a coronavirus case. “She puts her life on the line,” Reynolds said.    

Reynolds has closely followed the news on the spread of Covid-19 and its disproportionate impact on senior citizens and black people. Before her nursing course was canceled, she volunteered weekly at a local nursing home, helping the residents bathe and listening to their stories. She worries for them now as the coronavirus sweeps through the country’s nursing homes. In Alabama, 35 percent of the state’s death toll is made up of residents in long-term care facilities.    

In a happy twist, Reynolds is back to caring for the elderly: This week she began a new job, making $10.71 an hour as a nursing assistant at the home where she used to volunteer, providing comfort to the elderly who cannot receive family visits because of Covid-19.   “It’s horrible for the elders,” Reynolds said. “I can talk to my grandma tonight and if she steps outside tomorrow she can get sick.”    

And another unexpected twist: Reynolds did get a graduation after all. As Alabama began to reopen in late May, her school held a ceremony, smaller than originally planned. “It wasn’t the best thing but it was something,” she said. And she did get to celebrate with her family.     “Every child deserves a chance to be able to feel celebrated in their accomplishment,” she said.    

Now, Reynolds keeps her eyes trained on a post-pandemic future, hoping to tart classes on campus at Talladega College in the fall. She is hellbent on saving money so she can be financially independent, and buy new clothes and dorm furniture for her freshman year. She plans to study social work.   But the uncertainty still looms: whether her classes will be remote and whether that will make them tougher because she won’t be able to easily ask teachers questions about challenging material.                                              

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