The Eerie Stillness of Empty Schoolyards

Before Covid-19 hit the San Francisco Bay Area, photojournalist Justin Sullivan could upload a raw file to Getty Images in a few seconds. Now, it can take several minutes. “Between the hours of 2 and 6 pm, the internet just flatlines,” Sullivan says. “Everyone’s on Zoom calls and watching movies or whatever.”

That “whatever” includes homework. Since March 17, when six local counties enacted a shelter-in-place order to slow the spread of coronavirus, schools have been closed and education moved online. Google Classroom and other platforms let kids take quizzes, submit assignments, and video chat with teachers and friends—even as IRL classrooms remain empty for the rest of the academic year.

Sullivan found a unique angle on the closures when he spotted a surprisingly colorful schoolyard on Google Maps. He scanned satellite views for more and set off to photograph the very coolest with his DJI Mavic II Pro drone. It’s been his primary tool for documenting the changes in San Francisco, from a storage lot backlogged with new cars to a line of customers wrapping around a Costco. “It provides a level of context that people need to see to really understand how enormous this crisis is,” he says.

From 200 feet up, the playgrounds morph into abstraction, their shapes and squiggles straight out of a Joan Miró painting. But what sticks out the most is the eerie quiet of a place once packed with rambunctious kids playing tag, hopscotch, and jump rope. Now their vast reserves of energy are channeled into Nintendo Switches and GoNoodle sessions—nothing to connect them but the fiber and copper wires threading through their walls.

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