“It’s not my first rodeo with quarantine”

Jackie Flach teaches special education to kindergarten-fifth grade at Bonner Elementary School.

Jackie Flach displays all of best qualities of an educator. She has a broad smile and friendly voice. She is savvy about all things Google Classroom, she communicates with parents and she creates customized assignments.

Within the first minutes we met, however, it was clear that Jackie’s skills extend beyond her solid training. Her personal experience during El Salvador’s civil war and as a newcomer to the United States in her teens was deeply influenced by skillful, compassionate teachers in Dallas Independent School District. Those pivotal years impact her teaching today and make her uniquely equipped to stay calm and hopeful during life with COVID-19. Here is Jackie’s story, edited for clarity and length.

“My name is Jackie Flach. I work with students with learning disabilities at Bonner Elementary in Tyler ISD. This is my fifth year at Bonner. I have taught public school for 17 years. I love it. Most of the kids I work with have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or dyslexia or specific learning disabilities. They are great kids, phenomenal.

It’s not my first rodeo with quarantine. Growing up in El Salvador, in a town called Santa Tecla, I caught the whooping cough. I was six. I had to be quarantined for two weeks in the hospital.

Then, in 1989, before we moved to the United States, I was in El Salvador during the war, and we had to have martial law from sunup until sundown. We had to lock ourselves up at home and be very quiet. I have a younger brother, and everything scared him. I would have to hold him all the time and encourage him. This went on for two months. We were very poor. We had to go into the forest and forage for plants and for food. I was 13, 14. We collected coffee in the coffee plantations and traded favors. I would take the corn to the mill to make masa for the tortilla lady, and she would pay me in tortillas so we could eat. We did it to survive in that time. It was really rough. We didn’t have electricity because the light posts would get blown up. We had to start a fire every day to cook. My husband thinks it’s great that I had to start a fire to cook. He says, ‘If society collapses, I’m just going to stick with you.’

In January 2020, Jackie was awarded a $5,000 grant from Tyler ISD Foundation.

I feel a little déjà vu [right now], but not really. I have a home, I have my husband, my daughter, my dogs. They’re all safe. We’re gonna be okay, just fine. This, too, shall pass. We’re gonna make it.

Right before spring break, we made plans to take a benchmark test. I even went and bought a couple of pairs of sandals and a couple of dresses to be more comfortable for spring. I was looking forward to the weather change and trying to be ready for what was coming the next week. I was really hoping that [COVID-19] wasn’t going to make it here, that it wasn’t going to make a huge impact. I was comparing it to the other viruses: the swine flu, the bird flu. It didn’t reach us. So, I thought maybe there’s hope. I didn’t want to be negative. 

We were still on spring break when Dallas and other districts started announcing their plans. Dallas is so close to my heart, it’s my second home, so I look up to Dallas ISD and what they do. I went to school there and learned English there. Dallas ISD took care of me.

We [Tyler ISD] got notice the Friday of spring break. Our principal sent an email and said, ‘This is the plan so far, and this is what you’re gonna do.’ From the special education perspective, they said, ‘If you have resource students who are lower functioning and need more help, prepare their assignments for a week and email them independently.’

The principal was very supportive. She immediately turned into our top cheerleader and said, ‘We can do this. We’ve got this.’ And she has been in touch every single day. She’s been messaging us, checking on us, trying to make it not so weird for us to be doing this.

I have to work with most teachers. I have to communicate with all of them, mainly first through fifth grades. As soon as they gave us our list of to-dos, we started texting, calling, splitting up some of the work. I have never texted so much in my life. I’m gonna get carpal tunnel. But it didn’t feel bad or negative or like this was a chore. Those teachers are phenomenal. We have come together to reach the kids. We’re going to come out better after this. It’s been really neat to see that they care so much. They are trying so hard. They are making every effort they can to reach the parents and the kids.

Depending on their disability, [my students] need more support than others. Each student has an individual plan. I have 42 students. [I needed to] find out whether they have internet and a device to work online, whether they needed a paper packet. They created a route for buses to deliver the paper packets to their homes. Twenty-five of my 42 students needed a paper packet. The rest could work online.

I’ve been having office hours on Zoom, and it was incredibly easy to use. I’m doing that two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. And some of the kids, I’m so surprised, they have reached out for help. ‘I don’t know how to do this problem. I don’t understand it.’ I walk them through it. I really like that I’ve been able to reach them that way. I do a mass text every morning and afternoon to remind the parents, ‘I’m here.’

I’ve been texting and trying to call. I have a few that haven’t responded. They don’t have internet. I have some parents who don’t know how to use the smartphone properly. That’s been a major obstacle for us, to get to that child.

Some parents are home with their students, and they are teaching them. They get on Zoom, and they say, ‘Ms. Flach, I don’t know how to do this!’ It makes me feel good in the middle of all of this, that parents are taking it seriously. There are some parents who are still working. They are taking their students to work with them, depending on what their job might be. 

Jackie receives a grant for “Google Expeditions” for Bonner Elementary School in January 2020.

I found out [that Gov. Abbott waived the STAAR test] on Facebook on the TEA (Texas Education Agency) page and in the Dallas Morning News. That’s when the tone changed for me, and I knew it was more serious. It was somehow a relief, but at the same time, it was real. ‘When am I going to see the kids again?’ I feel like they need me so much. I need them, too. They make me feel like I’m doing something right.

At Bonner, we’re all afraid to say [how long this may last]. We don’t want to jinx it. So, we don’t talk about it. We just encourage each other and stay positive. It’s like Voldemort; we don’t mention it. We just go one day at a time. It gives me anxiety to start thinking about because I worry about the kids who have to stay home so much. Some of our kids, school is their safe place. Some of them have very rough home situations, and we worry.

The fifth graders, I won’t see them because they will go to sixth grade, and that’s a big deal for me. Some of them I’ve had since first grade. They are like my babies, my kids. I’ve been their constant. I try to prepare. ‘Oh they’re going to middle school, I’ve got to send them on.’ [I’ll] buy a little gift, something to encourage them to do well, make sure they have my contact information if they need me. How am I going to do all of that now?

I haven’t really spoken about it with anybody out loud, but yes, in the middle of the night, I think about them. How am I going to prepare them for middle school? Most of them are going to Moore. It’s a giant campus. The social skills, navigating the campus. I try to prep them as much as I can so it’s not a total shock for them. [Now], I can’t do that. 

I’m hoping that parents are at home with their children. I hope they are staying together and staying put. I worry that a lot of parents have lost their jobs, and they are home right now without a job, no income. They are sitting at home worried. The good thing is that they are home with their kids. Parents are spending time with their kids that they never had a chance to. They can get to know their children better and their academic needs. This is an opportunity to know their kids more in depth, academically, and what the kids can do and what they need help with.

We still don’t know if we’re going to make up the time — what’s going to happen in July, what TEA will decide to do. That is uncertain for me. Are they going to want us to work all summer?

Me, personally, I probably would adapt. That’s all I’ve been doing my whole life, is adapting to different things. To me, adapting is normal. I expect things to change. It’s not something new. If I’ve done it before. I’m okay. I’ve survived that once, I can do it again. I have plumbing, and I have gas. I worry about other people who are not that way. Some [teachers] that I know really well, I know they have been panicking. I try to encourage them, to ease the tension and crack a joke, but they don’t want to be funny because they are too stressed out.

I have a student in fourth grade. She works really hard. Her dad managed to buy a laptop for her and for her siblings to continue learning [at home]. Her dad pushes a cart full of popsicles all around town [for his family’s livelihood], and how tired he must be every day. He managed to get this for his kids. So, parents are making sacrifices. It’s tough on everybody. So, I really hope we get this over with and go back.”

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Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop and storytelling director of Out of the Loop: True Stories about Tyler and East Texas. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and attends Sam Houston State University remotely, where she studies sociology. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She is a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former teacher of French at Robert E. Lee High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories. Jane and her husband Don have four children.