In this new phase of Covid, what constituted safety was still up for debate, leading to a vague sense of disquiet among the teachers. But Crespo, who has asthma and a combination of other undiagnosed conditions that limit her respiratory capacity, felt adamant that Covid was still serious. In fact, I’d met her through a parent at another school whose campaign to make and distribute air filters across the district she had supported. Crespo was a popular campus figure who often served as an intermediary between the school administration and parents, especially Spanish speakers. She was born and raised in Central Los Angeles; her parents were Salvadorans who fled civil war. Accordingly, she was sympathetic to her students’ stories. Like most of them, she grew up poor and frequently changed homes. When she was a child in Los Angeles public schools, she felt that some of her teachers couldn’t relate to, or even understand, their students’ hunger or financial struggles. She wanted to be the kind of teacher she needed as a child, so she noticed when a student seemed morose or agitated, and she’d pull them aside to ask what was going on at home. At the beginning of the pandemic, when her students’ relatives were sick and dying, and they could hardly even log on to virtual school, it was clear that the children needed to know they were not alone.
Many parents were still stressed about Covid, Crespo told me, and asked her to make sure their kids were wearing masks. She texted and called frequently to check in on their home lives or update them on campus events. Parents were grateful; almost weekly, a mother sends her child to school with homemade baleadas; others send tamales. When I was at the school, a chatty girl or two often trailed behind her as she walked campus during recess; a gaggle usually ate lunch in her classroom.
In December, Crespo brought me to her desk, which was strewn with hot-chocolate packets from the class’s winter party earlier that morning. She wanted to show me a Google form she’d had students fill out so she could get a better sense of their mental health ahead of the holiday break. Crespo herself had never much liked Christmas, because she associated the holiday with stress; growing up, she couldn’t understand why people would spend precious rent money on a dead pine tree. On the form, she asked what the fifth graders found enjoyable and difficult about the season, and six said they missed dead loved ones. Crespo started sending mental-health surveys to students at the beginning of the pandemic, and the results spoke to the immensity of suffering in their community. In total, 17 of her students had a loved one die during the pandemic’s first year.
Later that day, she learned that a student had acted up during recess, and she sat with him in the back corner of the classroom while his classmates were working independently. As they talked quietly, he revealed that his parents had died when he was young; the loss became especially haunting during the holidays. Crespo sent him to the classroom of O’Brien, the psychiatric social worker, where printouts of candles, meant to honor loved ones who had died, were stapled to a board. Scrawled children’s handwriting on some candles read “granddad,” “cousins,” “my rabbit.” O’Brien told me she noticed that children had become extremely vulnerable to emotional triggers in the wake of the pandemic. A teacher would be talking about, say, a hamburger, maybe in the context of a counting lesson, and suddenly a kid would burst into tears at the memory of someone in their life who used to cook hamburgers.
Once the student left, Crespo told the rest of the class to notify her if a peer seemed upset. “As you’re going through your day,” she said, “please remember to treat everyone with respect, to be patient with everyone. Just remember: You don’t know what somebody’s going through.” That same day, when Crespo was introducing a lesson on water and rivers to a separate class of English-language learners, a girl confided that she had lost five people to Covid. Crespo and the girl spoke in Spanish at the side of the room as classmates worked on their own. The girl unspooled a complex story, about not just the pandemic but also the violence she witnessed in Honduras before moving to Los Angeles. Crespo told me that kids came to her because they felt they had no one else to turn to.