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In Times of Emergency, Trauma Follows… We Need to Be Ready.

By Hjamil A. Martínez-Vázquez

After many conversations with Francisco about his journey and his new life, he said: “Aquí, en la escuela uno puede hacer todo, comer, jugar, leer muchos libros y aprender sin miedo a que te pase algo. Me gusta mucho y me siento seguro, no como antes.” (“Here, at school you can do everything, eat, play, read many books and learn without fear that something may happen. I really like it and feel safe, not like before.”) Francisco and his siblings came to the United States with their mom from Honduras, escaping violence and poverty. From a quiet kid he flourished into an outgoing and funny child, full of friends. During our morning circle time he not only shared his story, but also his pain and trauma, because he saw our 5th grade class as his safe space, como una familia. He is now a member of mi familia, especially as I think about the trauma he is experiencing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With our country at a complete halt and schools closed, students like Francisco are experiencing high levels of emotional stress. Schools are a safe haven for them; they are spaces where they get meals and can play and learn. This new reality creates disruptions, stress, and trauma in the life of students that manifest in different forms. While we are just beginning to address the repercussions of this emergency, we must do everything we can to lessen its effects on students.

The trauma for students like Francisco can manifest itself in many ways. Many students have parents whose jobs are at risk, they may lack adult supervision, or have family members considered high-risk. There is confusion and fear for the future, compounded with loved ones’ immigration statuses and ability to seek medical assistance.

Teachers like me have a responsibility that goes beyond academic support; that responsibility has never been more evident to me than now, when we’re in the midst of a health crisis. When students come back to our classrooms after schools reopen, we will doubtlessly encounter even more trauma. It is therefore even more valuable that the state legislature passed a requirement in 2019, which is part of House Bill 18 and Senate Bill 11, that teachers receive training in trauma-informed practices so that we’re prepared and can address all of our students’ needs.

If teachers are taught to identify trauma, we can more easily refer students to our school counselor or offer other much-needed help, based on training and science. When our schools have counselors who are focused on students’ mental and emotional needs, our students become more successful. We need to address our students’ trauma with every tool available, including bringing social workers and psychologists into our schools. District leaders need to move in these areas sooner rather than later, as we continue to offer support to our students in our quest of becoming a verdadera familia. Without this training, our work will be hindered, and students will suffer.

In the meantime and through virtual classroom experience, I am continuing to build a classroom culture, where students like Francisco can bring their questions, stress, and pain forward. Teachers need to show and model vulnerability as a first step for building una familia, where students are valued and feel empathy. I am afraid right now and stressed about the situation, and I don’t hide it. When we share our fears with our students, they realize they are not alone. So, when Francisco and other students share their fears of something like this happening again, I will share that I am also scared, but we will take care of each other, como una familia.

Hjamil A. Martínez-Vázquez teaches 5th grade at the ACE Demonstration and Design Lab at Hargrave Elementary in Crowley ISD in Forth Worth. He is a 2019–20 Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellow.

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