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In Her Words: Teachers On the Front Lines

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In Her Words: Teachers On the Front Lines
Jardy Santana holds tight to the passion that drew her to the classroom.
A selfie of Jardy Santana at her school in the Bronx.

“You don’t just have to talk about academics, you can share how you’re feeling.”

— Jardy Santana, the Bronx, New York

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Today we continue our look at how teachers are managing in the Covid era. For more, see: What It’s Like to Be a Teacher in 2020 America.

Jardy Santana, 34, teaches English at Mott Haven Academy Charter School, a school predominantly serving families involved in the child welfare system in the Bronx, which is run in partnership with the New York Foundling. She has been teaching for 12 years, including 10 at Mott Haven, and this year has been her hardest.

For her, the onset of remote learning last spring brought a weighty realization: Each student has very different needs in the virtual classroom. She began checking in individually with her fourth-grade pupils. Some needed help accessing food. Some needed a shoulder to cry on (virtually) when their family members were sick. Some needed individualized help with their reading.

Ms. Santana joined the school’s food program, distributing meals to families so she could see her pupils and offer them air hugs at a distance. She kept an eye out for those who missed class, and texted them to say they could rely on her for emotional support.

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“I said, ‘If you’re feeling sick, if a family member is sick, I’m here. You don’t just have to call me to talk about academics, you can share how you’re feeling.’”

One of Ms. Santana’s students didn’t have internet access at home and relied on New York’s public Wi-Fi booths. It was clear the student was worried about her classroom performance suffering, Ms. Santana explained, so they worked out an arrangement: When getting internet was tough, the student could call Ms. Santana and dictate writing exercises to her over the phone. These phone calls tightened their bond emotionally, too. They discovered they had the same birthday, so they celebrated remotely.

Ms. Santana was intent on countering the gloom around them — especially the incessant noise of sirens — by bringing levity into the virtual classroom. One afternoon they had a dance party instead of a lesson. “It was extremely hard on the kids to not see each other, not have their friends, not have their teachers around,” she said.

Ms. Santana was relieved to see her students’ moods lighten on spirit days. She celebrated “Crazy Hair Day” with them on Zoom by designing a makeshift headband, and “Crazy Accessories Day” by digging out an old pair of glasses from her dresser. One morning, they were prompted to send a photo of something in their home that was providing them with emotional support. Ms. Santana sent a picture with her Kitchen-Aid, because baking Dominican cakes with her children has brought her joy on particularly high-stress days.

Over the summer, Mott Haven Academy wrestled with whether to stay virtual or go to a hybrid model in the fall, like so many New York City schools. But its surrounding neighborhood in the Bronx was one of the hardest hit by the pandemic: 2,804 Covid-19 cases and 253 deaths per 100,000 people. The school decided to remain virtual until the neighborhood’s daily infection rate went below the 3 percent threshold identified by the city as critical for school reopening.

When classes commenced this fall, Ms. Santana woke up at 5:30 in the morning with nervous energy. Her son, a third grader at Mott Haven Academy, was equally excited for the first day of school, even though his reunion with friends would be limited to video. He proudly showed off his apartment work space, with his mom in the background greeting her own class.

More than a decade into her career, Ms. Santana holds tight to the passion that drew her to the classroom. She decided she wanted to be a teacher in first grade. She had immigrated from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. when she was six, and neither of her parents spoke English. They bought her a chalkboard, and when she came home from school each day, she taught them the same lessons that she had received from her endlessly patient first-grade teacher, Mrs. Iglesias.

Helping her parents puzzle through foreign words felt challenging — but not compared with her long days during the pandemic, paired with long evenings of child care. “I’ve never worked this hard and put in this many hours,” she said.

But as the new semester begins, she is learning to set boundaries and focus on her own family as well. “Sometimes I have to say, you did your job as a teacher, now you’ve got your mom hat on,” she said. “This is Ms. Santana time, this is Jardy time.”

What else is happening

Here are three articles from The Times you may have missed.

Lauren Fleshman, left, checks in with each athlete during practice.Leah Nash for The New York Times
  • “If the scale moved in the wrong direction, it would haunt me.” Lauren Fleshman believes she never reached her full potential as an athlete, due, in part, to focusing too much on body size. Now she is coaching an all-female running team to make sure others don’t suffer the same fate. [Read the story]
  • “I was just, like, horrified and embarrassed.” If women defeat Trump, it will be because of all he’s done to defeat them, writes the columnist Michelle Goldberg. [Read in Opinion]
  • “The scale of the case is really unprecedented.” A retired French surgeon faces 312 pedophilia and abuse charges. Most of the accusers were 15 or younger. [Read the story]

In Her Words is edited by Francesca Donner. Our art director is Catherine Gilmore-Barnes, and our photo editor is Sandra Stevenson.

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