Corpus Christi’s schools were supposed to start the new semester on Monday, but instead of preparing to welcome a crop of excited youngsters streaming into class on a balmy Texas morning, Nancy Vera spent the day rushing to coordinate teachers and students in the midst of a disaster zone. That night, in the dark at home, stained with gasoline from wrestling with her emergency generator, Vera spoke on a spotty line about Harvey’s lessons for a city under political and ecological siege.
Although the school buildings are thought to be mostly structurally safe, it’s unclear when schools will be fully operating. As head of the local branch of American Federation of Teachers, Vera has been coordinating relief efforts and tracking evacuees in the school community. Hopefully electricity will be fully restored soon and classes can resume by the week after Labor Day. But it will be a while before normalcy resumes for the district. Though Corpus Christi was spared the worst of Harvey’s flooding, the damage is significant, and with many families in limbo after evacuating flooded areas across the state’s coastal region, local schools are working to bring in students displaced from devastated neighboring areas like the flood-drenched town of Rockport.
Teachers, who were short-staffed before the disaster, must now marshal extra classroom space and social supports for struggling storm refugees.
“A lot of people say, everyone evacuated,” she says. “But honestly, the poverty-stricken children, who are children highly at risk, probably didn’t evacuate…. So they are going to be traumatized, and we just have to ensure that we have all the psychiatrists and psychologists and school personnel ready to be able to deal with those issues when the children come back.”
The teachers’ union has been coordinating basic resources for the whole community, including serving as a hub to connect people with relief resources, providing teachers and students with emergency supplies, and distributing food.
“We’re going to try and help in every possible way, working with others in the community…to make our schools havens…to provide the services that our children need at this time,” Vera said. “And we do it well because that’s our business.”
The disruptions to the school year are aggravated by underlying tensions that have escalated under Trump, especially with harsh Immigration and Customs Enforcement crackdowns that have terrified the state’s massive immigrant population. The state’s right-wing legislature, aligned with the White House, has imposed one of the country’s most extreme anti-immigrant laws, SB 4, which would outlaw so-called sanctuary cities, barring municipal governments from seeking to restrict public agencies from cooperating with federal immigration-law enforcement. Corpus Christi, a working-class, mostly Latino city, where per capita income is around $25,000 a year, and over a quarter of kids live in poverty, is tasked with aiding displaced residents and protecting immigrant families from expulsion.
Many children who hunkered down in storm shelters are also bracing for a legal doomsday, with the administration’s pending decision on the repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which offered tens of thousands of undocumented youth in the region temporary reprieve from deportation.
Local children with families at risk of deportation “are in the most fear,” Vera says, “and they’re going to be silent because they’re afraid that they’re going to be deported because of the threat by the president and our governor and the attitude that they have toward undocumented children and immigrants. I think that it is a travesty, a sin and shameful that, as human beings, we’re not taking care of our children, whether they be undocumented or not, to be able to help them feel safe.”
Montserrat Garibay, an elementary-school teacher and vice president of the Austin AFT, says local teachers have been mobilizing to provide aid to immigrant families and help them learn to protect themselves from anti-immigrant policies. Teachers, who operate under a policy of making schools “safe spaces,” have been coordinating Know Your Rights training sessions to help communities protect themselves and connect with immigrant advocates in the area. Families can learn, for example, to ensure that two caregivers are available if one parent is detained, and to deal with confrontational scenarios: “‘If we’re driving to school and we get stopped and the police officer asks me for my papers,’ what are some of the things that they need to do?”
Some teachers also face losing their DACA protection. “They’re just feeling very stressed and worried about what’s going to happen with the status of DACA. And then on top of that we had the hurricane…. It’s been overwhelming,” Garibay says. “But we understand that as educators and as a union, we have to remain strong and just try to do the best that we can to be a support system for DACAmented teachers, but for the community as well.”
While Corpus Christi keeps its doors open for Harvey’s refugees, Vera isn’t so sure about welcoming President Trump’s visit to the city this week. To her community, Trump represents exactly the kinds of political forces that have controlled Texas for years and made the public more vulnerable nature’s fury, by letting corporate-driven urban development sprawl, while local infrastructure crumbled.
As Corpus Christi works to rebuild, Vera says, the consequences of years of disinvestment in public education will surface. “Unfortunately because the state of Texas doesn’t prioritize education,” and has been reducing funding for years, “it’s difficult to say that we have adequate resources and person power to be able to service all the children.” School districts were, right up until Harvey made landfall, absorbing the latest round of slashes to state educational aid through cutbacks to operational budgets, or by curbing other public spending, such as infrastructure funds.
“I think it’s times like these when we really have to take pause when we think about education in Texas and in the United States,” Vera says. Despite these barriers, the core of the solution lies in the same communities that are now on the front lines of the disaster. Immigrants make up a large portion of the construction workforce helping with the recovery. Spanish-speaking children and educators from immigrant families will be a critical bridge for communication when connecting people to services. Going forward, many youth have become increasingly concerned about climate-change issues, in contrast with those legislators in the statehouse who, Vera says, “need to stop that nonsense.”
Back on the streets of Corpus Christi, she sees former local students who, as grown-ups, are mobilizing to help their neighborhoods recover. Though the president might have overlooked such scenes while posing for photo ops on his visit, the lesson on good citizenship isn’t lost on the folks who’ll still be here when the floodwaters recede.
“As human beings, as much negativity as we’ve seen, we have the capability and the human spirit to do the right thing and to do things with love and in a positive way…. I have seen people helping others without taking a dime.”
While the crisis pushes local immigrant communities to break their silence and reach out to neighbors with mutual aid, Vera says, “this is a prime example of how we can do better as a society, as a community, to say that we’re going to help every human being we can.”