When fire trucks or ambulances race past Roberta Cordeau’s kindergarten classroom in Sunset Park with sirens blaring, she stops teaching and waits for the noise to fade. 

This morning, it never stopped.

“I kept hearing sirens, sirens to the point where I couldn’t hear my kids,” said Cordeau. “They were non-stop. Then we heard the helicopters, and I was like ‘What is going on?’”

Cordeau had just begun class at PS 516 on Fourth Avenue and 43rd Street when police flooded the streets around the 36th Street subway station, where a gunman set off a smoke grenade and opened fire on N train riders.

“We were just finally starting to get life back to normal when this happened,” said Roberta Cordeau, a teacher at nearby PS 516 who also lives in Sunset Park, site of the subway attack that shocked the city.

“Inside, I was freaking out,” said Cordeau. “I was very upset. But on the outside I kept it together because I was in a room with a bunch of kids, all these other people’s children. That’s a huge responsibility.” 

“There’s no conversation that I won’t have with students,” Cordeau said.

Teachers were alerted about the active-shooter situation. The school seven blocks from the 36th Street station—along with others in nearby neighborhoodswas ordered to have everyone shelter in place.

All they could do was carry on with the day’s lessons.

Cordeau, 35, has been a teacher for seven years. During the day, she connected with students’ families through Remind, an app that allows teachers to message parents and guardians. Some parents wanted to pick up their kids but that became impossible under the orders to stay put. 

School staffers and teachers “stepped up because there had to be people guarding the doors,” said Cordeau. “The building response team couldn’t do what they normally do, so people filled in for lunch duty and people filled in to help out. And people stepped out of their classrooms so that they could help other people.”

The pandemic hit Sunset Park hard from the start. In recent months, the availability of vaccines for children and the end of mask mandates seemed to signal better days ahead. 

“We were just finally starting to get life back to normal when this happened,” said Cordeau, who lives in the neighborhood. “The mask mandate in schools was lifted and it’s Ramadan, and it’s Passover. We’re going on spring break this week and just to have something like this happen, it just blows you back.”

By last night, police had identified Frank James, 62,  as a “person of interest” in the subway incident, in which 10 were shot and two dozen others were injured. Cordeau worries about how her students and other children at the school will fare in the coming days as news coverage continues.

“They didn’t really know what was going on today,” she said. “But now they’re going to start finding out more and more because they’re going to go home and there’s older kids there, they’re going to have access to social media and their parents are going to have the news [on].” 

With all of that in mind, Cordeau is clear-eyed about the need to find ways to address the incident with her students.

“There’s no conversation that I won’t have with students,” she said. “I have explained 9/11 to kids. I will always talk about what they need to talk about—in a developmentally appropriate way. But it’s tiring to talk about really hard stuff because the pandemic was full of those moments.”