To mark the third anniversary of the initial COVID-19 lockdown that Illinois entered on March 21, 2020, the RoundTable asked Evanstonians from various walks of life to share a few words and photos illustrating their pandemic experiences.

Here are the stories they shared with us.

Mike Roche, photographer and retired teacher:
Sharing images of outdoor enjoyment

  • The day dawns at the Arrington Lagoon at the lakefront on April 8, 2020.
  • April 28, 2020 at a residence on Lincoln Street: Thanks mail carriers, and Mom, who is a nurse!
  • April 12, 2020 on Asbury Ave. along the North Shore Channel: Social distancing with neighbors behind chain link.
  • April 12, 2020 in the Sculpture Garden at Northwestern's Block Museum of Art: Put on your PPE carefully!
  • If you can't locate a mask... April 12, 2020 at Lakeshore Blvd., adjacent to the Dempster Beach House.
  • April 12, 2020 at a residence just south of downtown Evanston: Sure I trust you...leave it right there! Thanks.
  • April 27, 2020 at Northwestern, on the bridge linking the campus to the Lakefill: Sport endures.
  • May 12, 2020 on the southern tip of the Lakefill looking south toward Evanston downtown: Blue Angels pay homage to Evanston health care workers.

I’m a retired Evanston teacher and I walk around the city every day. In April 2020, when it was mostly deserted, I noticed some people “out and about” safely and happily enjoying the outdoors. I wanted to capture that feeling and setting with my Nikon and encourage folks to safely enjoy the community. I built a web photo gallery from the results.

Tawana Stiff, Nichols Middle School teacher:
Facing challenges with grace and empathy

Images from remote learning during the height of the pandemic. Credit: Tawana Stiff

When I reflect on the first quarter of the 2020 school year, I recall hearing and reading about this spreading coronavirus and the rising number of cases as it gradually made its way across the globe. At no point would I have ever guessed that life as we once knew it was about to change.

I recall that during our lunch periods, colleagues and I would discuss the latest coronavirus trends as we tried to wrap our minds around the magnitude of this virus. As the world around us began to set guidelines and restrictions, we’d go back and forth, convincing ourselves that a shutdown would never come to fruition because we could not imagine a world that could function without access to public spaces on which people heavily rely (e.g., schools). 

The whole notion of instructing students online during this time period felt very surreal. Going from seeing your students every day to not seeing some of your students at all because they never logged into remote sessions was unprecedented. How do you hold students accountable for not being able to keep up with something (online learning) that most adults were also grappling to understand themselves? How do you ensure that your students are receiving a high caliber of instruction?

How do you stay connected with students and continue to build rapport via remote learning? How do you even stay connected with anyone outside of your household at this point, when you can no longer share smiles with strangers in passing because everyone’s face is buried under a mask? These were the types of questions I asked myself as I tried to make sense of this new remote learning reality I was in. 

GRACE. Have grace toward yourself and have grace toward others, as this is new and uncharted territory for all of us. I remember both sending and receiving many correspondences that referenced grace.

That word held so much weight because it served as a reminder that no matter what adversities each of us faced as individuals during the peak of the pandemic, we all were in a position where we were compelled toward empathy. When a colleague struggled with instructional technology tools, we came together to compile resources that would be helpful for various aspects of our work as remote educators. If one of us found an online tool that could somehow enhance our instruction, we didn’t keep it for ourselves, but we shared it with others.

Of course, going into the fall of 2020 was much easier than the remote learning initiated that spring, because we had more knowledge, tools and experience under our belts. However, the grace that my colleagues and I exhibited toward one another was the sustaining force that kept us going during every chapter of the remote journey. 

Eric Chehab, orthopedic surgeon:
Learning lessons from the pandemic

Orthopedic surgeon Eric Chehab (right) clad in PPE alongside colleagues Greg Portland (left) and Lee Weidenbacher (center). Credit: Submitted

Reflecting on the pandemic and how it is has changed my medical practice brings to mind an old saying, “the more things change, the more things stay the same …”

My orthopedic practice remained surprisingly similar to pre-pandemic times. I conducted over 6,000 office visits annually during the pandemic, and hundreds of surgeries, with very little change except for mask wearing and pre-procedure testing. In general, the pandemic fast forwarded very beneficial trends in telehealth, walk-in care and outpatient joint replacement surgeries. The pandemic also shined a much-needed spotlight on health care disparities. However, those disparities remain, and many patients deferred much needed urgent care, resulting in worse outcomes. In addition, staff shortages were ubiquitous.

Chehab with wife Lynn and sons Will and JJ at Lincoln Park Zoo Lights in December 2022. Credit: Submitted

The pandemic also provided an opportunity for some patients to perform a “health reset,” with more time to exercise and eat well. Yet a larger proportion of patients suffered from being sedentary, isolated and depressed. How to unwind this presents our next public health challenge.

We can only hope that hard lessons have been learned and that we are better equipped to handle the next pandemic – with more unity and less division; and with more trust in our political and medical leadership. This uncertainty I find the most unsettling, more than any future mutation in the virus.

Christine Wolf, writer:
Documenting memories as world shifted

In February of 2020, I’d just opened Writers’ Haven Evanston, a workspace for writers in my Victorian row house. And then, one month into operations, the pandemic forced me to close. 

In the months that followed, I fought panic and loneliness, wondering if and when in-person connections would ever resume. As I filled my time finishing my latest book and craving the company of others, I picked up part-time work as a 2020 Census enumerator, then took on a full-time, remote position as a COVID-19 Contact Tracer during the Thanksgiving surge of 2020. At night, I updated my author website and crossed my fingers as I offered services like editing and writing coaching – things I hadn’t yet done professionally but always dreamed of. I figured if I didn’t have the skills to help someone with a project, I’d find someone who could.

Christine Wolf Credit: Lynn Trautmann

In December of 2020, requests flooded in from people looking for help writing their memoirs and nonfiction projects. Each message shared a sense of urgency, and two things surprised me: 1) no one focused on the pandemic itself, and 2) nearly everyone shared a story involving a traumatic experience or a period of significant upheaval. As a trauma survivor and fan of memoir, each message resonated deeply. The uncertainty of the pandemic, it seems, inspired people everywhere to document their lives, and by making my skills and interests known, we found our way to each other in an upside-down world. 

By March of 2021, I’d become a full-time memoir coach. I now spend my days wearing many hats – instructor, confidante and literary cheerleader, supporting writers as they reflect on life experiences and bring them to the page. It seems the pandemic inspired my career as a memoir coach before I’d even started writing a memoir of my own.  

Since the pandemic, one of the biggest professional shifts I’ve made is to build in time for self-care. The first real trip I took as the world began “opening up” was to a wellness resort where I spent a few days writing, meditating, and quieting my mind. This May, I’ll go back to that place, but this time, I’ll host a five-day Write-To-Heal retreat, blending expressive writing and wellness experiences to help attendees move through painful emotions and difficult memories to improve physical, emotional and interpersonal health.

And, as for my shuttered writers’ workspace? The doors to Writers’ Haven are once again open.

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Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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