Community Responses to COVID-19 and Changing Lives


Leadership, PE and Directed Studies teacher Toby Swanson had his first child in quarantine. Photo courtesy Toby Swanson

The Islander Staff

The MIHS Islander prompted and compiled responses from Mercer Island community members (students, teachers, administrators, parents, etc.) on what it is like to live through the COVID-19 pandemic.

On mourning canceled events

Katherine Gregory (junior)

I am heartbroken that COVID-19 has caused the cancellation of so many performing arts events including my show Rent. I love each and every one of the cast members for being such talented, hardworking, humble and kind human beings who helped me survive junior year this far. Canceling this show emphasized my gratefulness that art exists in this world.

I am lucky to have had the opportunity to perform the character Mimi for an audience at least once (thank you Youth Theatre Northwest). She taught me the importance of living in the present. During this time when I feel scared, sad, confused, frustrated and anxious she reminds me to keep my head high and not dwell on the past or future, but to take one step at a time.

Another thing Rent taught me is the power of community. I am grateful for the actions Jay Inslee has taken to flatten the curve in this community.

I miss learning in a classroom with my peers. I miss getting together with my friends. I miss working at Starbucks. I miss not having to worry about washing my hands. But I am thankful to be surrounded by a community who values continuing my learning outside the classroom, a community who wants to keep me safe and most importantly a community that loves and supports me. I trust this community will do everything it can do to make this virus go away.

Stay safe everyone and please donate to your local art institutes. Sending love to all artists out there! We can get through this together!

Dino Annest (AP Comp Gov)

I am crushed that our seniors will miss their prom and spring season and graduation, and I am hell-bent on making sure they have a live graduation celebration that is sanctioned by the district.

Kimberly Griggs (Material Science, Horticulture)

I am very sad about the many events that have been cancelled, especially the graduations. This year’s MIHS class was my first class I taught at MI when I taught Freshman Honors Chemistry 4 years ago. I was really looking forward to seeing these students graduate as I have special bond with them since I have taught several of them in many science classes, from Honors Chem 1, Horticulture, Material Science,  and as a Web mentor over the last 4 years. 

Jane Stafford (English teacher)

The daily routine is the tradition I miss the most. I feel sad about the graduation and prom and sports things, too because they are such a rite. But if I’m honest, I don’t recall enjoying my own prom experience and I can’t remember one thing about my high school graduation–not even where it was.

Jamie Robertson (Social Studies)

Graduation and the last couple of weeks of school. It’s so rewarding watching my senior students at the ceremony and it’s the highlight of my school year. I definitely got a little teary when I found out that physical school is done for the year.  I really like my students for who they are; they have a lot of character and are fundamentally good humans at their core. The thought of not being able to say a proper goodbye is a tough one to swallow. I miss seeing them at school.

Gavin Cree (PE)

I feel terrible for our spring sports athletes, coaches and parents.  As a winter coach, we finished our season just in the nick of time.  Athletes work and dream their whole lives for the opportunity to compete, especially as seniors.  Losing the season unexpectedly is truly tragic for all those involved. 

On routines being completely upended and creating new ones

Natalie Smith (senior)

My sleep schedule has significantly changed as a result of schools being shut down. I used to go to sleep at 12 and wake up at 7 and now I go to sleep at 1:30 and wake up at 10. It’s been hard to figure out what is the most important thing to be doing at this time. I’ve been studying for AP tests, watching the college board AP review videos, spending time with family, working out, watching Netflix, and writing, but I still am often bored. Every time I’m doing schoolwork or study I feel like I should be doing something more profound or significant and every time I’m not studying I feel like I should be in order to be prepared for AP exams. Balancing time spent studying with family time has been a new challenge, but one that gets easier the more time spent in quarantine.

Jamie Robertson (Social Studies)

Tough at first. Liberating at times and frustrating at other times.

Laura Totten (Photography)

I recently read an article that referred to this time as The Great Pause. I have a lot of guilt because I’m in a relatively good place for this quarantine: stable income, cozy home in a neighborhood where I can walk to multiple grocery stores and Alki, a solid circle of friends, and everyone I know is healthy. It’s definitely difficult for me to be cut off from my students and friends, but otherwise I’m able to create healthy routines during this Great Pause. I’m learning new skills, investing time on creative projects, eating healthy and exercising more. I hope that those of us in the pool of having being in a relatively good place with time to reflect on our routines can create the life we’ve wanted “if only we had the time.” 

On the uncertainty of the future 

Rachel Senn (freshman)

With everything there is going on with the coronavirus, I have two main feelings. The first is the obvious level of fear that someone gets when there is a international pandemic going on. The second is a giant sense of confusion. There is so much false information and uncertainty about what is going to happen. No one is able to give a definitive answer of something in the future, whether it is about school or jobs or health, or anything really. To me, this confusion makes it possible for so much more fear from simply not being able to find any actual and definite facts

Michael Hughes (Computer Science and Engineering)

I am looking forward to changes that this event will bring to society in a forceful way, instead of the slow and methodical process that’s traditional. Events like these always act as a catalyst of some sort pushing cultures forward.

Renee White (junior)

With all the summer camps and internships closing, applying to colleges will be so much different than past years. If schools decide to change this semester’s grades to pass/fail, how will colleges distinguish between students who excel in difficult classes and those who barely pass? If SATs and ACTs are being postponed and are no longer necessary for acceptance at many universities and colleges, how will the application process change? With canceled extracurriculars and limited volunteering opportunities because of COVID-19, how will we distinguish ourselves?  All of these questions are up in the air and are most likely concerning MIHS’s whole junior class. 

Dinno Annest (AP Comp Gov)

“It’s a new world, Golde.”

Greg Smiley (English)

Knowing I have 192 rolls of toilet paper in the garage.

Jen McClellan (International Entrepreneurship) 

Planning.  Thinking in terms of projects the ‘might be’ help me with living in the present.  One such happy spot in my life is the work my class is doing with other various Mercer Island groups (MI Community Fund, MI Schools Foundation, MI Chamber of Commerce, MIYFS) to create a campaign for Coronavirus 19 relief (see attached file).

Diane Nielsen (Science)

I try to keep the fear down. As a single mom with no nearby family, my biggest fear is needing to go to the hospital with Covid-19, and no one to care for my son, since he would be infectious. My main emergency friend that I’ve relied on in the past is very high risk. He wouldn’t be able to take a flight to be with family, due to being infected too. I know my local friends would step up, but it still worries me. Also, I am all my son has, since he doesn’t have a father.

 I try not to focus on this. So, I try to control the things I can–like how often I go grocery shopping, etc. 

I also feel hopeful that we will come out of this wanting to change how we operate in the US. From tying health care to our jobs, to allowing our air to be polluted. This pandemic might show us that there’s a better way. We could put a lot of people back to work with a Green New Deal. 

Vicki Puckett (Principal)

Since I am leaving MIHS,  I may not get a chance to say goodbye to the students and especially to the staff in person. I want to thank them for the wonderful 8 years I have had as the students’ Principal. Mercer Island is a very special place with special people who care about education and changing the world to be a better place. I will remember that about Mercer Island HS. Thanks for the great opportunity to serve MIHS!  Go Islanders!

On learning or working through Zoom… 

Lara Fitzgerald (Spanish teacher)

I think we can make the most of it. However, I desperately miss the personal interactions with the students. We will most likely lose so much of the humor present in our classrooms. Today something reminded me of a story and I didn´t really feel like it would go over the same telling it over Zoom when I can´t see them. Just different.

Jasper Geer (Senior)

My experience with online education and Zoom has varied drastically from teacher to teacher. Some of my best experiences this week have been with teachers adapting their teaching to the the capabilities of online tools and especially the mental state of students. Carefully choosing parts of the curriculum to emphasize and using a gradually increasing workload really helped me feel on top of things during yet another major change. Conversely, classes that have resumed immediately as they left off in an effort to adapt online tools to an existing curriculum have left me confused and even anxious.

On living through a defining moment in history

Kimberly Griggs (Material Science, Horticulture)

I would say this is my second defining moment in history that I am living through, the first being 9/11. Both events are having a tremendous impact on how we are living our lives. This pandemic however is different  because I can’t morn this event with people because of social distancing and shelter in place orders. 

Jessica Shideler (Drawing and Painting, Glass, Graphic Design, and AP Drawing)

I think that I will look back on it with feelings of loss and hope. When things happen out of your control, natural disaster, loved ones dying, a pandemic, you have no sense of self because it isn’t you that created it. However, all you can do is control your own actions, and help influence the good of others. Even then, I think there will be fear mixed in with the memories of doing lessons in my pjs and being close to my loved ones in isolation. This is a moment that will last forever, that will shape how we go about everything in the future. That should be on the top of lists for CEO’s and business to help prevent this and accommodate others when it does happen again. 

John Stafford (AP US History, AP Comparative Government)

I will remember the global magnitude of the crisis. I will remember the shockingly inept and dishonest (and hence tragic) approach to dealing with it from the nation’s top leadership.

Evelyn Jimenez (Spanish)

Fue un momento significativo que marcó vidas para siempre, con miedo e incertidumbre, pero también con crecimiento y aprecio. It was a significant moment that permanently affected lives, with fear and uncertainty, but also with growth and appreciation.

Toby Swanson (Leadership, PE, Directed Studies)

On April 3rd, In the middle of this pandemic my wife gave birth to our first child. While it has been a struggle dealing with fear of the virus and isolation from family, getting this time at home with my wife and baby will be something I always remember.

Joe Bryant (Broadcast Media, Marketing)

I always assumed 9/11 would be the defining moment in History for my life but this is definitely more impactful. I can’t say how I will remember it yet because we have quite a ways to go. But my hope is I will remember it as a time when the world was thrown this massive curve ball but we all came together to take care of each other and combine our resources and knowledge to persevere. I hope I will be able to look back and say I did my best to help out and contribute in some way. But frankly “living through” are the key words here. I would just love to be around to tell my future grandkids about the absolutely crazy Spring of 2020.

Larry Bencivengo (Biology)

I hope that we will look back on this as a time when everyone in the world came together and made sacrifices in their personal life in order to benefit other people.  In the history of the world so far, the only thing we have ever been able to do together on a world-wide scale is kill each other – this could be the first opportunity to change that dynamic. And I hope that it won’t be the last, because, just like we don’t need to wait for weddings and funerals to get in touch with friends and family, we don’t have to wait for a crisis to find ways to work together for the common good.

Laura Totten (Photography)

I hope this is a time of growth for me: learning new skills, implementing healthy habits, authentically and regularly practicing gratitude. But I’m really struggling with the anxiety and helplessness I feel about the layered complications of all of this for others. I’m still processing the impact of this on humanity, and so still countless unknowns. I go between feeling optimistic and sobbing. So… not balanced with this yet, but trying to let go of the anxiety of the unknown.

On coming together and maintaining community

Jen McClellan (International Entrepreneurship) 

I have been reminded how lucky I am to have such a close-knit family and community.  Nothing new, in terms of relationships, but a reliance on established ones.

Becca Nitz (Spanish)

I live about 2,000 miles away from my family and a lot of my closest friends, so I’m used to having to rely on technology to connect with them. However, now that I’m not talking to my students and coworkers every day I feel like I need more social contact in the way I talk to my friends and family. All of a sudden we have the time to make video calls despite the 3 hour time change, and my friends and I have been doing virtual game nights on the weekends and I’ve been talking with my parents (and their cute puppy) on FaceTime regularly.  I’m actually talking to them more now than I did before, and I’m really grateful for that. 

Laura Totten (Photography)

I live in a small-ish condo building, and I’m on the HOA board. I bought a white board for the entry way and have written info to get in touch if neighbors need me to shop for them. My next door neighbor is 90, has diabetes, and recovering from cancer. We have a special relationship and I’m so happy to be able to help her. We don’t visit face to face, but I bring her flowers and cards, and we talk on the phone regularly. 

On appreciating the good and missing the good

Jane Stafford (English teacher)

I’m grateful for about everything, but health & safety & love are pretty high up there. I don’t know if I have new perspective, and even if I did, I don’t know if it would last very long. I am inconvenienced, stir crazy, self-conscious, and disappointed, but so far I haven’t had to suffer/I’m still employed and I’m not sick. I always knew I liked an active society–I like bookstores and coffee shops and movies and restaurants and parks and public transportation. And I think if all that starts spinning again, I’ll jump on board.

Jamie Robertson (Social Studies)

Living in a state where we take science seriously and especially as we have experts in infectious diseases and global health who were able to influence elected officials to make the right decisions quickly. I told students at the outset of this that we are probably better positioned than other states because of these factors. Five weeks later our rates of infections are lower than many other states despite the fact that we were the original hub for COVID-19 in the country.

Joe Bryant (Broadcast Media, Marketing)

People always talk about appreciation for the “little things” and there are now so many of those I miss. I miss eating at my local diner, being able to choose from many brands of toilet paper and simply shaking a hand. Those are little things I never even thought about a month ago.

Laura Totten (Photography)

I’m so grateful for my job- I freakin’ love my students and feel so lucky to teach my passion. I’m grateful for my health and the cool neighborhood I live in because I can walk to stores, Alki, and go on socially-distanced walks with friends. I’m also grateful that I have all the resources I need to stay connected and entertained: laptop, phone, TV with multiple subscriptions, wifi, speakers and a turntable. Really, the gratitude list is endless.

On maintaining a healthy well-being

Chantel Torrey (Visual Arts) 

Well. I gotta admit, being a lifetime sufferer of anxiety and depression, I was built for this. I’m used to an overwhelming, ever-present feeling of doom so I have many of the skills already to deal with it, persist, and get the job done. It is interesting to watch some of my more neurotypical friends and colleagues really struggle with this whole thing. I make sure to get outside at least once a day for a walk, cook my own food and make sure I eat regularly throughout the day. I write, I draw, I pet my kitty cats. When I do start to feel low, I remind myself to be kind above all else and that my productivity in quarantine is not a measure of my worth. 

Share an image of a person, project or something else that has giving you joy during the school closure…