The past week marks three years since the pandemic slammed doors shut on schools, workplaces and support services in the Merrimack Valley and beyond.

In the oral history “Covid Conversations: Voices from Lawrence & Lowell,” teachers, students and advocates for people in need tell of the confusion and dismay felt in two of the state’s most densely populated and poorest cities.

They also speak to the collective grit the cities summoned to contend with the disaster, as well as the pride in meeting challenges posed by isolation and accessing food and shelter and medical needs.

“We are not curling up, you know, we are here, we have a commitment to our membership and making sure they are OK,” says Tom Coppinger, who directs the Point After Club, a Lawrence rehabilitation center for people with mental illness.

Coppinger tells this to two Phillips Andover Academy students interviewing him a month and a half after the club’s routines were thrown into disarray on St. Patrick’s Day, 2020.

Later, over the course of the pandemic, the club, located at the Everett Mills, would make and deliver more than 30,000 meals. They were more than meals. They were social lifelines and showed the recipients that people cared about them.

The book’s voices, collected in interviews and online diaries edited by the Lawrence History Center’s Susan Grabski and Amita Kiley and UMass Lowell’s Susan Tripathy, document the times and suggest strategies for responding to future calamities.

The voices do despair.

“This quarantine is killing me slowly,” says a 14-year-old Central Catholic High School student, in a diary entry from Nov. 19, 2020. “As each day passes by I feel the motivation to do less and less. All I really want to do at this point is collapse face first into my bed and let the world pass by.”

On April 16, a 17-year-old Lawrence student with Cambodian roots worries for her parents’ health — working long hours building hospital machines — and is saddened when people stare warily at them in public, suspecting they are infected with the virus because they appear Asian.

Another student at the school, a senior from Lawrence, wrote on Oct. 5, 2020 that after classes shifted to online learning he increased his part-time work to full time at Market Basket. He gave his parents half his earnings to make up for wages they lost due to pandemic cuts.

Bianca Anonas, then a Lawrence High history teacher, said she and other faculty despaired of not knowing how students were coping, sequestered in their homes.

The district has 13,000 students. Monitoring their well being and progress via laptops and cell phones was hard to do.

“I know teachers are finding so many different ways to reach out to their students, even if it’s calling them from home, emailing them, downloading reminder apps, Google Classroom and all of those things just to make sure that they’re just okay,” she says.

Anonas especially worried about the English Language Learners, immigrant students whose language skills slip when not exercised daily or reinforced through English as a Second Language lessons.

John Breen Elementary School teacher Cristie Galindez said the young children had a difficult time sitting still for Zoom lessons.

Teachers’ long-term lesson planning — a casualty of the pandemic’s inherent uncertainty — was replaced by daily efforts, more suitable for pivoting after the invariable complications. Plus, no one knew, early on, how long schools would be closed.

People got acquainted, then familiar, with odd concepts including mandatory masking, flattening the curve, social distancing and sheltering in place.

People learned to communicate face-to-face over the internet. Housing, food and healthcare took on greater urgency amid what would become the worst public health crisis in American history.

To date, in this country, the contagious disease has killed almost 1.2 million people. That is almost twice as many deaths as those claimed by the influenza pandemic of 1918-19.

Marienela Rivera, a self-described radical activist and organizer, interviewed in May 2021 by two Phillips Andover students, was a physical therapist in the Peabody school system at the outset of the pandemic.

She found herself getting burned out by the changes wrought during the pandemic. This and concerns about transmitting the virus to her mother, led her to a new job, Public Education Organizer for Massachusetts Jobs for Justice.

“My community, my hometown means the world to me, it means everything to me,” she says in her interview. “So if I can shine a light on a problem and try to use the gifts of education that were given to me, use my privilege as an educated Latina to help find the root causes to solve the issues to address these systemic issues through effective policy, that is what I need to do to help my people.”

“Covid Conversations,” presented in English, translates individuals’ remarks, where necessary. Some 41% of the city’s population was foreign born, between 2017-21, according to the Census.

Phillips Andover students in Spanish teacher Mark Cutler’s classes typically interview Lawrencians in the spring for an annual oral history project through the Lawrence History Center.

In the spring of 2020, people knew the times were historic and the History Center felt compelled to document the times for future generations.

Meanwhile, over in Lowell, students of Tripathy, a sociology department professor, were also collecting oral histories. Lowell and Lawrence have much in common, both as planned manufacturing cities, homes to immigrants and possessors of proud labor heritages.

So the History Center and UMass Lowell joined forces for the project, published by Loom Press in Amesbury.

Ashley Rosario, of Lawrence, was a UMass-Lowell graphic design senior when she created the cover design.

Her design shows people outside and together but distanced, the Ayer Mill clock tower part of a masked face in profile.

The book is dedicated to those who made it through and those who died due to the pandemic.

Book narrators also including Sara Morin Barth hosted a panel discussion on March 9 at El Taller Cafe and Bookstore in Lawrence, 275 Essex St.

A second panel discussion will be hosted Thursday, April 20, at 6 p.m., at lala books in Lowell, at 189 Market St.

The book is for sale at both bookstores.

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