Thirty thousand lights spelling out “HOPE” shined a spotlight in March on the number of New York City lives lost to COVID-19, thanks to one of the recipients of this year’s UFT Career and Technical Education Awards. The “Let Hope Light the Way” initiative of the Urban Assembly School of Emergency Management illuminated the school’s Manhattan baseball field from March 12 to March 14, the city’s Day of Remembrance marking the pandemic’s first anniversary.
Teacher and project coordinator Sal Puglisi, a former emergency medical technician who received a 2021 CTE Educator Award, is a 9/11 survivor who arrived at the Twin Towers before the second plane struck and narrowly escaped.
Puglisi, who now teaches introduction to emergency management and an emergency medical technician class at the school, said he saw parallels in the emotions triggered by 9/11 and by the pandemic. “I saw it in the kids,” he said. “It was like their 9/11. It wasn’t planned, it was sudden and their whole lives were reshaped.”
In discussions about COVID, Puglisi said, everyone heard the numbers but still couldn’t grasp the enormity and seriousness of the pandemic.
So he and his students set out to create a visual representation of the lives lost — one light for each life. Open to any student who wanted to participate, the project took 20 hours to plan and 26 hours to build with the help of a drone. The letters H, P and E were 50 feet high by 30 feet wide, crafted from 19,000 white lights. The letter O was 40 feet by 30 feet, constructed of 11,000 red, white and blue lights programmed to depict an American flag.
Students used the Incident Command System and emergency management concepts they learned in school to divide up responsibilities.
“If you keep the kids at the center of a project and it’s genuine,” Puglisi said, “it’s a learning experience and it’s always going to work.”
There was a social-emotional component as well, giving students — especially the handful who had suffered personal losses — a chance to have a voice and do something productive.
During a planning session, the students considered what would symbolize the things they were going through. ”We discussed looking forward as opposed to looking back,” Puglisi said. “That’s where ‘HOPE’ came from. With a vaccine and high schools coming back, we’re all hoping this is the turning point.”