By Ashleigh Garrison, originally published in Chalkbeat New York
During his 22-year tenure at a Brooklyn elementary and middle school, principal Larry Lord was known as “Superman,” a leader who stood outside of P.S. 235 every day to make sure he knew all 1,200 of its students.
But someone else will lead the high-performing Flatbush school next year. Lord was struck by coronavirus and spent about 80 days in the hospital. He’s headed to a rehab center next week but will be retiring, a sad development for a school community that has grown to rely on his leadership.
“He puts in just every effort to make the community that much stronger,” said P.S. 235 teacher Lee Eisen, who worked with Lord for two decades. “It’s been a tough road but at the same time, we have…each other to lean on and that’s something that Larry always put in place.” ”
Lord was hospitalized the day after New York city public schools officially began remote learning, leaving the rest of his staff to support each other emotionally and professionally during an unprecedented time. But while the school sent a letter in March informing the community that someone who worked there had the coronavirus, parents and students wouldn’t know it was Lord for weeks and were surprised to learn of his retirement on May 21.
Though the circumstances of Lord’s illness and recovery are unique, across New York City many principals may be worried about returning to their school buildings in the coming months. More than a quarter of principals in New York public schools are over the age of 55, according to a recent report from the American Enterprise Institute, based on federal data from 2017-18. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines those 65 and older as highest risk for coronavirus. Other analyses show that those in their 50s and 60s are at higher risk than younger adults. Compounding concerns, many school leaders might live with high-risk family members.
One principal and one assistant principal have died from the coronavirus, according to the union representing school administrators.
Lord, who rose through the ranks from assistant principal to principal eight years ago, entered Staten Island University Hospital on March 24 when his wife, Jeanette, called an ambulance because he was having trouble breathing. He was intubated the night he was admitted to the hospital and remained on a ventilator until May 27, when doctors determined he was strong enough to breathe on his own. Still weak and unable to speak or read, Lord is expected to be released next week into a rehabilitation center.
Before he went on the ventilator, Lord told his wife that he wished to retire after he came out of the hospital, she said. She knew he would no longer be able to put in his 70-hour work weeks, so with the assistance of a lawyer, she became his legal guardian and retired him.
While P.S. 235 grappled with the principal’s absence, Lord’s entire family was battling the illness. The couple’s two daughters were ill, with their youngest in bed with a fever for three and a half days. While Jeanette Lord cared for them and fought to keep her husband alive, she feared for her own life, suffering from painful headaches and weight loss.
After a relative revealed the reason for Lord’s retirement on his Facebook page earlier this month, the school community showed its support by flooding Lord’s Facebook account with messages and organizing a birthday drive-by. While the principal was still in the hospital, dozens of cars drove to his Staten Island home to support his wife and his daughters.
Michelle Frederick, whose daughters Ashley, 13, and Kylie, 10, attend the school, said she cried when she learned of his illness. “My daughter Kylie and I actually broke down and cried.”
Frederick described Lord as a fair person who genuinely cared for all the kids as if they were his own, so much so that she suspected he was ill after he didn’t immediately reply to her messages about the transition to remote learning.
“I think that he respected the faculty and staff and in turn they respected him,” Jeanette said. “So it wasn’t just the school — it was his family.”
Lord’s absence was also felt over the past few weeks as the P.S. 235 community grappled with the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and the resulting protests.
“I miss his text messages and his message to the whole staff and how he would be supporting us right now,” said Eisen, who recalled that Lord ended his text messages with the word “smile.” “Because he’s just a true believer, not just accepting people of all kinds but celebrating people of all different kinds.”
Paula Bey, a paraprofessional living near Lord in Staten Island, had been taking two buses, a train, and the ferry to work before Lord insisted on driving her. That arrangement lasted 20 years.
She worried about whether he would recover, as well as who would fill his shoes. She recalled how students would tell her they were going to the bathroom, but instead use that time to visit Lord’s office.
“He knew that they would go to him because he would calm them down, talk with them and then send them back on their way. That’s the way he was,” she said.
While traveling with a coworker to Lord’s car parade, Bey received a text message from Jeanette Lord. She and the other school employees in the car pulled over and then cried and screamed with joy at the message “awake”— signaling that he was conscious for the first time in weeks.
“I prayed every single day and every night for him,” Bey said. “It is bittersweet with his retirement, and I’m actually happy…But I’m going to miss him. He’s been a very good friend to me.”
CORRECTION: Larry Lord was intubated on the day he was hospitalized. An earlier version of this article said he was intubated several days later.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.