S04 E08: School in the Time of COVID

Pod Squad

Sylvia Tanguma Sylvia Tanguma President | McAllen American Federation of Teachers & Teacher | James Bonham Elementar @sylviatangumas

Our Host

Photo of Vanessa N. Gonzalez Vanessa N. Gonzalez Executive Vice President of Field | The Leadership Conference @VNGinDC

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For all inquiries related to Pod For The Cause, please contact Evan Hartung. ([email protected]).

Episode Transcript



Vanessa: Welcome to “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund where we expand the conversation on the critical civil and human rights issues of our day. I’m your host, Vanessa Gonzalez, coming to you from Washington D.C. Today, we’re going to do things a little different. We’re going to talk to a hero for many of us during this tough time, a teacher. I am so excited to have our special guest on. She is president of the McAllen American Federation of Teachers but still manages to balance leading a union of educational professionals while teaching in the classroom at James Bonham Elementary in McAllen, Texas. Please give a warm welcome to Sylvia Tanguma. Hey, Sylvia.

Sylvia: Hi. Thank you so much for that warm welcome. That’s very sweet. Thank you.

Vanessa: It’s all true. Thank you so much for everything that you do. Before we jump in, as usual, I want to set the stage with some quick statistics. In the United States, by this time in the fall last year, the number of children being homeschooled had spiked, 11.1% of households with school-aged children reported homeschooling in the September 30th to October 12th U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey. The Census Bureau says that figure is twice the number of households that were homeschooling at the start of the 2019 school year.

While many of us who are parents have had to learn the art of homeschooling and some of us have definitely failed at it. We can’t remove that from the conversation of systemic racism that we typically talk about here on “Pod for the Cause.” So while black students only make up 16% of public school enrollment, they account for 42% of all students who have been suspended multiple times. Black students also represent 31% of school-related arrests. And back in 2016, Hispanic or Latino students represent nearly a quarter of students enrolled in American public schools, which are now 49.7% non-white. So as we think about how we are homeschooling our own kiddos, it’s important to remember the system in which they’re coming out of and the system in which they’re going to go back to. And these realities may get worse as we move out of COVID.

So, Sylvia, you work in a very unique setting along the Texas border of McAllen where there are over 350 students quarantining and over 100 positive COVID cases. There’s so many different issues impacting families, including the almost 85% of those who identify as Hispanic. So in a rough year with limited access to vaccines, some failing infrastructure, and many students who are English language learners, how does this make your work that much harder?

Sylvia: When we were all quarantine and we were all staying home, we had 100% of our kids doing virtual and, you know, 100% of the teachers working from home. That was extremely hard because you ran across the first issue which was the technology. Not just not having access to it because our district was really good in the sense that they paired up with the city and gave everyone a hotspot so that they could, you know, connect with the school district, but that in itself had issues because, you know, technology doesn’t work when you need it to work, right? So that was very hard just to start off. But you have a lot of veteran teachers that are not tech-savvy, you know? These are the teachers that have been here teaching and know their curriculum. They don’t even need the book because they know what they need to do to get the kids to learn. And you have a lot of those teachers that are not tech-savvy. So that in itself was very hard. And we saw the frustration.

The other thing that we were dealing with is the, “Turn on your camera, turn off your mic.” So trying to teach while managing the technology aspect of it was very hard, you know, because we had to do that from one day to the next back in March when this started because we went on a one-week spring break and then an extended spring break. So we said two weeks, which was when everything shut down, and so we were not expecting to not go back to school. And we literally had to turn our work from book, and paper, and pencil to Zoom. And a lot of us were pulling our hair off. We didn’t know what to do, but we managed. Somehow we managed, you know, and we helped each other out. And, you know, we tried to help everybody, but it was just a very difficult time, you know, technology-wise and trying to reach the kids because that’s the hardest thing. To me, it was reaching the kids because when you’re in person, you’re with them, and you’re seeing what they’re doing and, you know, you’re telling them like, “Show me your work.” And so they’re like this, you know? And you’re like, “Wait, wait, stop,” you know? And so that’s what we were trying to deal with. And at the same time, you have all the rest of them logged in just waiting their turn. So you’re going through this for each one. And so, for me, it was easier to teach them how to take a picture and how to upload it so that I could see their work.

Vanessa: Wow, that is something else. And to think it’s not just little squares on the screen. These are little humans and little minds who are still showing up and wanting to learn.

Sylvia: Yes, and then they wouldn’t want to get off the Zoom. This was the only interaction they had. And so, you know, we got smart and we started thinking, “Okay, so you know what? You want Zoom time with your friends. Okay, well, you’ve got to do this and this and this if you want free Zoom time with your friends. And so we would just leave, like, Zoom on and we’re there, but we’re letting them talk to each other and converse.

Vanessa: Just to have a little bit of that community back again.

Sylvia: Yes, yes. Exactly.

Vanessa: Oh, this is so sad but I’m so thankful you all are thinking about how to do this. You know, you talked about some teachers who are old school and they know their curriculum. They just know it. They’ve been teaching it for so long. Can you tell us what is it like to know that so well, you have your class schedule, you have your plan for how you’re going to teach each section, and then you have to pivot, like you said, to online and to Zoom? How do you do that? Do you just have to make some sacrifices and say, “You know what? They’re not going to get this piece. We’re not going to do this activity, but overall we’re still going to provide the education”?

Sylvia: So what we did is we tried to do as much as we could, and what we couldn’t do we either saved it so that when we went back to in-person, we could teach it, or what a lot of us did was make copies of it and then how to upload it. And we would put it there in hopes that the kids would see it and do it. And we would always assign it. Even though maybe we didn’t take the same amount of time that we would have on a regular school year, we would put it out there without cutting. You know, we tried not to cut.

Vanessa: Not to sacrifice, like, the lessons.

Sylvia: Yes, because everything is pretty much necessary because they build upon each other, right? So in order to get this, you need this. So it’s just the ladder that you’re building and going up. And so it’s very hard to try and cut. You know, you really cannot cut or sacrifice. Like you said, you cannot sacrifice anything. And when it comes time to the standardized testing that they take at the end of the year, we have so much that we need to teach in one school year, and we don’t know what they’re going to test them over.

Vanessa: Well, and that doesn’t feel right, because we have children who are so different across the board who learn differently, who need that special attention. And so what is that conversation like when, as teachers, you are the day to day and you have the state administrators or the state education agency saying, “We’re still going to go ahead and do the standardized testing”? What is that conversation like?

Sylvia: You know, it’s very aggravating because teachers may follow what an administrator says because the administrator is being told by their administration what they need to say to the staff. But I don’t believe that there is one teacher that believes that standardized testing is necessary, especially like we saw now during a pandemic. If we have all this stuff to teach them in this little time, which is the school year, are we really doing them justice, you know? We’re trying to do this much instead of getting that one thing that they need and thoroughly teach it because that’s what we see. You know, Juanito didn’t have time to learn his multiplication facts, but you know what? Learn it at home, Juanito, because I’ve got to move on. You know, I can’t stay behind. And so it’s not just statewide; it’s nationwide.

Vanessa: It is nationwide, yeah.

Sylvia: If we could just teach to teach the kids so that they learn because you need them to know their facts so that they can divide. Because if they don’t learn their facts, then they’re going to have trouble dividing. And then what’s going to happen? Well, yeah, they may pass just barely because of all the retesting that you do and all the re-teaching that you do. And so they’re going to barely pass. And then what’s going to happen? When they go to fractions, well, they’re going to be having trouble with fractions because they needed their multiplication facts over here. And so the rest of their educational career is going to be just barely passing and not really grasping the knowledge that they need, that base that needs to be a strong base is not there. We’re not giving time for kids to truly learn what they need to learn.

Vanessa: So let’s talk a little bit about that care model that you alluded to earlier in some of the issues from the state versus what the teachers are seeing. How can we stop policing children in schools and shift towards a care model that takes into account their mental health, their home life status? For some of these kiddos, working. I think that’s a reality we have to acknowledge. So how do we do that? And we start to look at removing discriminatory dress codes, eliminating school-based law enforcement, suspensions, punishments that, again, really impact black and brown kiddos. And in particular, because you work in a place that is almost 90% Latino students, you know, how can we start really looking at the community and the children’s needs and start changing what education is going to be coming out of the pandemic?

Sylvia: So the one thing that I feel as teachers that we do is we get to know our kids. We see what impacts them. You know, what is it at home and how can we help? That’s what we do on a regular basis in a regular year, not in a pandemic year. You know, in order to reach our kids, we need to know them and we need to know what is it that triggers them, right? Now, coming out of the pandemic, I really think that we’re going to need a lot more staff on campus that’s going to help us because we’re not going to be able to reach all the kids at the level that we want.

Vanessa: And do you mean teachers, paraprofessionals, all of them?

Sylvia: I mean everyone because we all play a role down to the custodians because you’d be surprised. A child that I may not reach that custodian may reach because they have a connection, you know, because somehow somewhere that custodian, that cafeteria worker will have a connection with the child. We see it here a lot at least, right?

And so I’m speaking of counselors. You know, you need more counselors on campuses because right now, you know, depending on the size of the campus, you will have one counselor, you know, and I don’t know the numbers to be honest. I want to say it’s one counselor for every 500 and some kids. So if we have one counselor, that’s not going to cut it, because guess what. That counselor is not just used for counseling at a campus, that counselor is used for testing, for leadership, for duties, for everything. So counseling is actually now at the back burner, right? So we are really looking at needing more counselors, more paraprofessionals because paraprofessionals, it depends on the district, but they’re really only used for PE and for pre-K classrooms.

Vanessa: Oh, really? For folks to be aware, exactly what is a paraprofessional?I realized I threw that out and some people may not know what that is.

Sylvia: So a paraprofessional is like an aide, like a teacher’s aide. It would be a teacher’s aide so it’s someone that may not have their bachelor’s degree yet, is working on getting it but they don’t have it yet, or sometimes there’s not enough teaching positions that are available and they’ll just take a paraprofessional job just to get their foot in the door and be there, right?

But I really think that going back, we need more teachers because what districts do is they will get a waiver from the state so that you can have more kids in one classroom. When you have a Lat population, which is a Hispanic population, you know, which is a low socioeconomic population, the last thing that you want to do is put more kids in one classroom. Those are harder to teach and you need more time to teach. And so you should be looking at putting more teachers to have less kids so that you can reach every child because that’s what we want. We want to reach every child, not stick them all in like sardines, and just say, “Oh, they’re in school.”

But what’s really happening in school? Because now it becomes a classroom management issue instead of, “Let me sit here and teach you. Let me get to know you. Let me see what Johnny really needs.” It’s more of a, “Sit down, listen, pay attention. Don’t talk. Put your phone away.” So are we going to do that or are we going to be teaching?

Vanessa: We have a lot of conversations on “Pod for the Cause” about what does it mean to value communities and value lives. And in this case, it very much feels like to get to that sense of a care model in school, we have to stop. And before we totally get back in there, we have to really add value and recognize the value of our teachers’ pieces, where the system is working, where it’s not working, and ultimately value these little brains and these children and make sure that they are coming out with everything that we, I think, as a society, expect them to be coming out with but don’t actually realize what the status of our education system is in the classroom.

So I hope that is one thing that COVID has shown parents who should be some of the teachers’ biggest advocates. You know, I want to talk a bit about, as you’re coming back into the classroom, how are you thinking about reintegration back into school or how is the district planning to do it? Is everybody coming back at once? Do people have voluntary options to come back? And are teachers’ voices being heard in these conversations?

Sylvia: If you recall, I’m in Texas. So Texas is full at 100%, and we actually went back to the classroom in November, okay? We were in November through December through Christmas break, and we were very vocal. We did social media. We did everything that we could. We got the community involved to sign because what we were afraid is that we were still at a high number when we went back in November, but we were being very, very careful. Of course, everyone had to wear a mask, you know, and we had plastic around our desk and the students’ desks, six feet apart. And so that’s how we went back.

Vanessa: And how hard to teach through that, too.

Sylvia: We might as well have been at home. All we did though was help parents. And so I understand that because parents needed to go back to work. So we helped in that sense that we had the kids there on campus, but everything was done through Zoom because we still had kids at home that they did not have to come back, but we still had to teach them. So we were teaching both, the Zoomies and the roomies, right, how they called it, the ones that were at home and then the ones that were in the classroom in the room.

So we went back, like I said, November and December. Highly advocated to not go back and give us some time off after we were supposed to come back in January because of the high numbers. And so luckily, you know, our school board heard us and our area here was high COVID cases, right? And I want to say we went back after—I cannot remember—maybe February 22nd. I don’t recall the exact date that we went back to in-person but we went back. And so we’ve been back in the classroom since February.

Vanessa: Wow, I think people would be really shocked to know that. You did talk about one thing though that I think is really interesting about recognizing that parents had to go back to work. And so at least having the students in the building in the classroom allowed you all to help out. But, again, you know, teachers aren’t babysitters. And so while you’re still trying to teach and the difficulties of that, is anything going to change since you have been fully back since February, you said?

Sylvia: Honestly, I don’t know if anything’s going to change. I mean, we went back in February and a lot of districts started going back. We were one of the first ones. My district was one of the first ones to go back. And a lot of the surrounding districts had different models of going back. So they would alternate. Not everybody was on campus at the same time. Eventually, everybody went back, and we did have some people that were on leave, working from home with permission using ADA, but that finished in March.

So it was after spring break. I don’t remember the date, but it was after spring break when the district cut off ADA and said, “You either come back to the classroom or you lose your job.” So what that did was a lot of teachers retired. A lot of teachers that were not planning on retiring so soon, they retired. And we’ve seen the highest numbers of teachers retire this school year.

Vanessa: And you just said you already don’t have enough teachers as it is. You’re painting a really vivid picture, I think, of what not only teachers are going through individually, but the systems and then the pressures. You know, I don’t want to end on a scary note on a dark note. I think the reality is extremely important for people to understand this is what this looks like, and this is what we are still coming back to, that things have not changed.

Now, I will say, in some school districts, it’s a very different experience for students and parents, depending upon zip codes, you know, all of that stuff we always talk about anyway. But I do, again, want to really emphasize the fact that you are teaching almost 90% Latino kids in that community, that you have these intersections where there’s not been access to the vaccine, where we know the border area has crumbling infrastructure, all of these things. You know, it would seem to make sense that folks would listen and that they would give you what you need. And it’s really saddening to hear that that is not necessarily the case, but that’s also why I think we are so happy to have heroes like yourself who you said you all were vocal. You were on social media. You were organizing. You were doing it all.

Sylvia: We were. We really were. And honestly, we have a school board that was listening to us. Thankfully they listened to us. So what our board did is they started trying to think innovatively and what can we do to make sure that parents feel safe sending their kids, that teachers and staff feel safe coming back, right? So PPE was provided, but our board also decided to clean the air. It’s part of the HVAC like a purifier. And I know that I asked the grant from the National AFT, and I got $15,000 from National and then $10,000 from my state from Texas AFT. And so together I donated $25,000 to my district. I was thinking the filtering for the HVACs, right? I was like, “Hey, even if for one month we can have clean air, you know, it might help with the spread,” but that got them thinking.

And so what they did is now district-wide they’re putting in these purifiers. And so that money went into that instead of into getting filters for one month. Now we’re going to have these systems in place that purify the air that are not just going to help with COVID, but they’re going to help with the regular cold. We were so happy. We were very pleased with that. So thank God for that. And so that’s what is happening right now. And so going back in August, we’re looking at these purifying systems being in place already because that’s happening right now.

Vanessa: That’s a big deal. See, again, thankful for you and your voice. I just have one final kind of closing question. What has happened in this though that still gives you hope to stay teaching?

Sylvia: When you see the kids and you see that they need you, you think to yourself like, “How can I not?” I guess when you’re a teacher, it’s just in you. Seeing the kids, and saying bye to the kids, and knowing how much they need makes it all worth it and lets you know you need to go back.

Vanessa: Oh, thank you so much for that. I am so appreciative. I so appreciate you. In America, there is expected to be about 3.7 million teachers in fall. I feel like that still feels like a small number for the number of children and for the cracks that we’ve seen in our education system. And as you said, we need more help. So 3.7 doesn’t feel quite enough, right? I’m pretty surprised by that.

Sylvia: Not for the U.S. No. I mean, how many children do we have in schools?

Vanessa: Yeah, we need to look up that stat, too. So, again, I want to say thank you, thank you, thank you to Ms. Silvia. Tanguma. Again, she is and now we totally understand why you’re president of the McAllen American Federation of Teachers and is also an amazing teacher and professional in the classroom at James Bonham Elementary school in the beautiful McAllen, Texas community. So thank you so much, Sylvia, for your time. We appreciate you so much. We appreciate all your effort. And thank you for spending some time on “Pod for the Cause.”

Sylvia: Thank you. I appreciate that. Thank you.

Vanessa: Thank you for listening to “Pod for the Cause,” the official podcast of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund. For more information, please visit civilrights.org. And to connect with us, hit us up on Instagram and Twitter @PodForTheCause. You can also text us now. Text Civil Rights, that’s two words, Civil Rights to 40649 to keep up with our latest updates. Be sure to subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast app and leave a five-star review. Until next time. I’m Vanessa Gonzalez. Thanks for listening to “Pod for the Cause.”