Annie Tan told her students that the shelter-in-place order was just a drill. Tan, 32, teaches fourth- and fifth-grade special education at an elementary school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and just hours earlier had passed through the subway station where an unidentified man opened fire on commuters Tuesday morning. The students thought the drill seemed suspiciously long, she said. Finally, knowing that her students would notice that the subway was closed, she told them that the trains weren’t running because of a police investigation.
“Immediately a student asked if it was a shooting.” Tan recalled. “That just broke my heart.” She told them that “everyone is alive, no one was killed, you will find out from your families what happened, and we will talk about it tomorrow.”
But, Tan adds, “Right now I’m not sure what I’m going to say tomorrow.”
At first, many New Yorkers feared that the shooting was a terrorist attack. But authorities soon announced that they were not treating it as a terrorism investigation, and that of the at least 29 people injured in the attack, none had life-threatening injuries. Still, the gunman remained at large, forcing local schools to implement shelter-in-place orders that only deepened the sense of unease.
In interviews, New York parents described a day of dread that ping-ponged between the heightened fear in the aftermath of 9/11, the logistical anxiety of COVID-19, the renewed alarm about subway crime after years of relative safety, and the stomach-dropping terror of school shootings. By the afternoon, most schools outside the immediate vicinity had lifted the shelter-in-place order, but the unease persisted.
When she heard the news of the shooting, Lynn Harris knew that her family was all OK: her husband had already started his bike ride to Manhattan, her teenage kids were accounted for, the family’s housekeeper was safe and in touch. But even so, Tuesday morning’s shooting at a subway station not far from her Brooklyn home had rattled her more than she expected.
“Everyone that I spoke to is scared when New York is scared,” said Harris, 53, the founder of a comedy company. She said the morning reminded her of other moments where New York has been in crisis, from 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy. “It’s the atmosphere—it’s the sound of the sirens, the sound of the helicopters, the ‘are you OK?’ texts, that’s what’s triggering and traumatizing for a lot of New Yorkers. We know this mode, we hate this mode.”
“It’s been pretty scary and unsettling to say the least,” says Jessie Bukewicz, a 38-year-old project manager for an interior-design firm. Both her 6-year-old and her 3-year-old were sheltering in place at school, although she’s grateful her kids’ teachers didn’t fully explain what was happening, to avoid upsetting the kids. Their after-school programs were canceled, so Bukewicz hosted several of her daughters’ classmates at her home until their parents could pick them up.
“It was really scary to get the letter from the DOE hearing the kids are sheltering in place,” she said. “Especially since the gunman is still on the loose.”
Bukewicz, a native New Yorker, said she’s never had concerns about riding the subway, but lately she’s been rethinking that stance. “Since the pandemic I don’t feel as comfortable riding the subway,” she said. Besides, the fear of terrorism was unsettling. “As someone who lived through 9/11 too, it puts you in a weird place and it’s scary.”
Other parents said they were dismayed that they hadn’t heard more from their children’s schools. Jennifer Arnett, a 48-year-old who works at a Brooklyn nonprofit, said she was upset she hadn’t heard anything from her daughter’s Coney Island high school until she got a recorded robocall at 2 p.m. She said her daughter hadn’t heard about the shooting until she texted her. “This isn’t very good for New York City,” she said. “We can’t look to government to protect us or give us updates to let us know what’s going on. It’s like we have to rely on our own common sense.”
Tan took the ferry home, since the subways were closed. She’s still thinking about how to talk to her students about what happened without scaring them. “They’ve heard about other shootings in other places, but they haven’t heard about it in NYC,” she said, mentioning the Las Vegas shooting and the Parkland shooting. “It’s very different that this happened right by us, by a station that they use.”
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