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Lesson of the Day: ‘U.S. Surpasses 500,000 Deaths, a Staggering Loss’ – The New York Times

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In this lesson, students will read about those we have lost and consider ways they can commemorate and mourn this tragic milestone.
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Featured Article: “A Ripple Effect of Loss: U.S. Covid Deaths Approach 500,000” by Julie Bosman
The United States has surpassed half a million deaths from the coronavirus, over twice the number some experts predicted when the pandemic first took hold less than a year ago. “Each death has left untold numbers of mourners, a ripple effect of loss that has swept over towns and cities,” Julie Bosman writes in the featured article.
In this lesson, you will read the stories behind some of those deaths and hear from the family and friends they left behind. Then you will consider ways we as a nation and individuals can commemorate and mourn this tragic milestone.
A graphic on Sunday’s front page of The New York Times depicts the totality of Covid-19’s devastation in the United States: nearly 500,000 deaths, each represented by a single dot.
Spend a few minutes closely studying the graphic above. You can find another version that you can enlarge here.
Then respond to these questions:
What do you notice about the graphic?
What do you wonder?
What thoughts and emotions does it evoke for you?
What do you think of The Times’s decision to mark the grim milestone of almost 500,000 deaths this way? What message does it convey about this moment in the pandemic?
Read the article, then answer the following questions:
1. Julie Bosman, the writer, describes each of the nearly 500,000 Covid deaths at that moment as having “a ripple effect of loss.” What does she mean by that? Give one example from the article that illustrates this “ripple effect.”
2. Much of this article focuses on the physical spaces left empty by those who have died. Why do you think so many of the anecdotes in this article focus on that particular detail? What does it tell us about what it is like to lose someone to Covid-19? Give one example from the article to support your point.
3. The section titled “A staggering toll” includes the story of a man known as Mr. Bob. Why do you think the author chose to include this specific story? What point does it make about the “staggering toll” the coronavirus has had?
4. In addition to physical loss, people are feeling “a psychological and spiritual void,” says Paddy Lynch, a funeral director in Michigan. What might be contributing to that feeling, according to Mr. Lynch? Do you agree with this assessment? In what other ways might people be experiencing psychological and spiritual loss right now?
5. The article quotes Dr. Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, who said: “This will be a sad day in our history. … Our grandchildren and future generations will look back at us and blame us for the biggest failure in facing a pandemic, in the country that’s the richest country in the world.” Do you agree? What do 500,000 deaths mean to you? What does this milestone say about the United States? What do you think we should learn from the toll this pandemic has taken?
6. Media literacy. What role do the photographs play in this article? How do they help illustrate the main ideas and themes discussed?
7. Media literacy. How does reading this article, and the individual stories in it, compare to viewing the front-page graphic you analyzed in the warm-up activity? How do they portray the reality of 500,000 deaths differently? Do you think one is more effective than the other? Or are they meant to complement each other? Why?
When Covid deaths in the United States reached 100,000 last May, The Times acknowledged the toll with a front page full of names of those we had lost. In September, as that number approached 200,000, an artist in Texas filled his lawn with a small flag for every life lost to the virus in his state. In January, on the night before his inauguration, President Biden led a national mourning, standing in front of the Reflecting Pool, which was surrounded by 400 lights meant to signify the 400,000 people who have died from Covid-19.
Discuss with your classmates or reflect on your own in writing:
What is the importance of noting these milestones? Why do we do it?
Do you think, on a national level, that the United States has appropriately acknowledged and reckoned with this national tragedy? Why or why not? How else might we as a nation commemorate and mourn the 500,000 lives that have been lost?
In what ways have you and your community recognized the toll of the pandemic, if at all? What more do you think you could do?
If you have more time …
Consider some ways you could honor those who have lost their lives. Here are a few ideas:
You could create a graphic, such as the one at the top of this post, or some other art installation that illustrates the sheer number of those who have died.
As a class, you might read about those we’ve lost to the pandemic and create a collage, a digital bulletin board profile or a social media project that remembers the victims, perhaps modeling them on a Times feature like the Portraits of Grief series, which profiled those lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Or think about acts of service you can offer to recognize, honor and celebrate those who have died. Brainstorm ways you may be able to offer condolences to families who have lost loved ones, or do a related service learning project that grows out of your thoughts and feelings about the pandemic, the victims’ lives, or actions you can take to prevent tragedies like this in the future.
If your family or community has lost loved ones to Covid, you might do your own reporting on the “ripple effect” it has had where you live, modeled after the article. Who might you interview? Where would you take photos? What stories would you tell about the people who died and the holes they left behind?
Whatever you choose to do or create, write a short paragraph that explains your thinking behind the project and how it honors the 500,000 people who have lost their lives.
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