By Karen Reyes
AUSTIN — One year ago, when my Austin Independent School District campus closed down, I didn’t have time to explain the situation to my class of deaf and hard-of-hearing kindergarteners or tell them we might not see each other again for a while. We were there one day and gone the next. I had also started feeling sick that day, and would soon have a 102-degree fever, shortness of breath and loss of sense of taste and smell—the telltale signs of COVID.
Still, I worked through my recovery, scrambling to secure iPads for my students and inventing virtual workarounds for their special needs. But the challenges didn’t end there. Now we’re back in school, but Texas Governor Greg Abbott ended our state’s mask mandate just as highly contagious virus variants have started to spread. My colleagues and I are worried and working overtime. The burnout is real.
Today, 28 percent of educators say COVID has made them more likely to leave teaching or retire early, according to a recent survey by the National Education Association. I can empathize, but I also know this professional exodus would devastate our schools. That’s why we must secure permanent legal status for 2,000 Texas teachers, including me, who are at risk of deportation. We are DREAMers who were brought to this country as children and have been able to live and work here legally under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. But the last administration spent four years trying to end our protections, and a Texas federal judge could still do so. If that happened, we’d be forced back to countries we barely remember—and taken from the students who need us.
But there’s hope. Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Dream and Promise Act, which would give 1.2 million DREAMers a pathway to citizenship. Now we need our Senators to sign on and get this bill to the President’s desk. The legislation would ensure that scores of young adults, who feel American to the core, would have the security to build stable and productive careers here. This includes over half a million essential workers, according to the nonprofit New American Economy (NAE). Industries from healthcare to the food supply chain rely on their contributions, as does every American who weathered the pandemic.
The Dream and Promise Act would be particularly impactful for education. Even before COVID, the country had a teacher shortage of more than 100,000 full-time teachers. This is particularly true for bilingual teachers like me. In Texas, limited-English speakers grew by almost 50 percent between 2006 and 2016, while the number of bilingual teachers dropped by 20 percent during that time. DREAMers provide a huge untapped resource. Already about 20,000 of us work in education nationwide and many more could be eligible to teach if the Dream and Promise Act passed, accelerating the timeline of when children can return to the classroom full-time.
But returning to the classroom is only the first step. Students are suffering, and it will take time and effort to recover from the trauma of the past year. Some students at my school couldn’t attend class because a parent was in the hospital or they had to care for siblings. Many families are struggling to pay the bills, especially undocumented parents who pay federal and state taxes but don’t qualify for stimulus assistance. While I’m of course concerned about students’ learning and academic progress during this time, I’m mainly worried about their mental health. Being able to communicate with them and their families in Spanish helps me understand what they’re going through and can make all the difference. A bilingual education also helps prepare them for the future: a 2017 NAE report found that demand for bilingual workers more than doubled over the previous five years.
When we undervalue teachers, everyone suffers. Let’s give our students and educators the resources they need to manage this crisis: let Dreamers stay here permanently. This isn’t a partisan issue, as 74 percent of Americans —both Republicans and Democrats— support permanent legal protections for us. As more schools reopen, we’re risking our lives every day to show up for our students. Now it’s time our leaders showed up for us.
Karen Reyes is a special education teacher and DACA recipient in Austin, TX.