Cristine Jasso, 35
Position: Fifth-grade teacher, Houston Gateway Academy
Started: August 2016
Quit: August 17, 2020
Salary: $57,000 per year
As told to Edwin Rios
I did have my worries throughout the summer. I was kind of having anxiety upon coming back. Then my dad ended up catching COVID in June.
He was basically the head of custodians. If something broke in your school, he was the go-to guy. I had even talked prior to him getting sick and told him: “You can quit your job, you’re always in pain. We will take care of you.” We almost had him until they told him, “You can come to work, and we’ll give you overtime.” And once he heard overtime, he ended up going back to work. That was him.
He was just this really strong-headed guy. He was working all the time. I mean, he was always in pain. He had multiple shoulder surgeries, his meniscus replaced. But he still worked hard for my mom, for us, to get anything that we needed. He was the “give you the shirt off his back” kind of person.
And no sooner than he went back to work, it was just like, oh, he got sick. We’re not going to say he got sick at school. I don’t think he got it from there. He was the one who did everything—the one going grocery shopping, the one going out and making sure we had all the stuff we needed. So if anything he may have caught it at the grocery store. Unfortunately, you know, he got exposed. How? We’ll never know.
He told his boss he felt sick, and they told him to go home and get better, and he never did. He ended up going to the hospital. I happened to be there because I was having dehydration issues unrelated to COVID. But to see him, it was like night and day. I have never seen him that weak in my whole entire life. He looked like some old man hunched over in this wheelchair. And he told me, “I don’t know what’s wrong, and I feel like shit, I’m hurting.” I was helping him, and I was massaging him, and I’m just like, oh my god, like it’s a reality—he may not make it.
His case was so severe that he had to only be on his belly. He was saying: “I can’t breathe. I can’t. I’m tired. I can’t catch my breath. I don’t feel right.” They tried plasma. They tried the experimental drugs, and that didn’t work. I even asked the nurse. I’m like, “Is there anything we can do?” And she’s just like, “No, the most we can do is just make him comfortable.” Even when she said that, it doesn’t hit me. It hit me that he was going to die, and I had to be the one there to see if they let me in.
They kept resuscitating him because he wanted to be resuscitated. The doctors kept calling me and my mom screaming, “We can’t keep doing this.” Once I got there, I had to be the one to tell them to stop. And I struggle with that. I told them to kill him. We did the right thing, but it doesn’t make me feel better.
It feels like we’re all lost because he was always in charge. He knew what to do.
That’s why I’m so upset about my school. If you don’t know, you’ll never know. And for you to be willing to put anybody and everybody through it? You don’t know what it felt to be the one who has to call my whole entire family and be like, Dad passed. I’ve already lost four people in my family—my cousin and my aunt, they passed away from COVID—in not even two months. It’s just, boom, boom, boom.
So on August 17, I went to my classroom at Houston Gateway Academy to see how the next school year would go. The school’s philosophy was that people go to an office to work, so we had to be at school for the virtual meeting. My room was bare except for the Hello Kitty decorations I left up on the wall near the end of the school year. We welcomed students with pink bows for girls and blue bows for boys, with their names on the Hello Kitty faces.
I called them with concerns like, “Hey, this is close to home. I’m very concerned about my safety. Obviously this is nothing to mess around with. It has killed somebody in my family. This is very alarming. So what are you going to do about our safety?” And so, I had called my principal, and I asked her, “What are y’all doing as far as gear, like PPE?” I said, “Because nurses and doctors have gowns, booties, face shields, masks, like everything, and they’re still getting sick. So what are you doing for us?” “Oh, well, I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that question right now.”
Doctors and nurses are doing everything they can to try to mitigate the spread. You’re just saying, “Oh, you’ll be fine.” Just wearing a mask is not going to be enough. I have diabetes. I’m a little overweight. You have a plan in place, but you’re saying only that you are mandating masks, and that’s it.
You already had COVID cases during the summer. You’re asking for us to not only come in as a hybrid, but you’re asking us to stay for like 10 hours a day. Our charter school goes from 7:45 in the morning till about 5:30 in the afternoon, with a mandatory after-school program, which is intended to help students succeed on state assessment exams. So not only are you mandating us to stay until 5:30, but you’re also mandating the kids in our classrooms to be here until 5:30. So you’re having this in an enclosed space for more than 10 hours with literally just a mask. With nurses, they are at least rotating through patients, but they’re still getting a cold and getting sick.
I’m just like, look, they’re offering children the option that once they get exposed they can switch to virtual. Okay, if you’re giving the option to a child, why don’t we teachers also have that option if we were to be exposed? We should have the choice on whether or not we want to do hybrid. To them that one is a non-negotiable, it doesn’t matter what my opinion is. It’s really like, you either work or you go. That’s what you’ve got to be telling us—that we’re expendable. But not children. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying children are expendable. Nobody should be. We all matter. We should all have the options to still function and make money. You’re asking teachers to not only take that risk but to potentially be in the hospital—accruing that much money in debt. It’s like, you want me to risk my life, for nothing, like you’re not even going to pay me nothing. But a child gets to have that option. To me, it’s not entirely fair. I love children. I wouldn’t be a teacher if I didn’t. But I should not be a pawn in a game, just for them to have money coming in based on the head of a child and not an employee. At the end of the day, it all boils down to funding. The more children they can have to come to the school, the more money they get. So an employee is expendable. You know, that’s basically what you’re telling me.
For me to be in that situation, with going to work and being exposed and bringing that to my mother—I can’t lose both my parents. I can’t do that.
All this together made me realize, this is not worth it. I understand we all have a job to do. I know that nurses are taking a huge risk to take care of patients. But as a teacher, I signed up to teach you. This is my job. It’s not to be someone who has to be exposed all the time. We can do it safely. There are ways to do it.
There was absolutely no way I could, in good conscience, go into school with just a mask. You know, give me the option to wear at least a facial shield or something. They told me, “We don’t want to scare children.” I understand you don’t want to scare children. But this is a very serious situation. They shouldn’t be scared, but I’m scared. The rest of my colleagues are scared. Last year, honest to God, I had an upper respiratory infection five times. How the hell are you going to tell me that by wearing a mask and having hand sanitizer that I’m not going to get anything at all? I wiped everything down. I had sprays and hand sanitizer in my room.
I’m hoping that their plan does work. Because at the end of the day, I don’t want kids to die. I don’t want adults to die. But to me, it just did not seem enough because if nurses and doctors are wearing all of this whole protection, and they’re still getting sick, you’re not even offering that. That was my question: Can I wear a gown, a hair net, gloves, booties, anything that would at least give me a layer of protection so that I’m not taking particles home with me and introducing them into a whole new atmosphere? And their response was, well, we don’t want to scare children.
After the meeting, I got my work computer and my work phone and stuck them in my backpack. I was furious. I got into my car, went home, and tried my best to clear everything before giving it back to them. My principal was blowing me up. I said, “I am clearing my computer, and I’m clearing my phone, and I’m bringing them to you.” She’s just like, “Okay,” and she hung up on me. I went to the front office and asked for the HR person because I was not going to leave there without my service records showing that I had spent four years there. I met with HR, and my literal last words were, “I quit because four people in my family passed away, and I’m not about to be the next one.” And I left and literally walked out the building. As soon as I walked out, I felt a huge load just drop. I literally felt freedom. Not once did they try to stop me. They didn’t say like, “Oh, we need you.” Nothing.
I went home and told my mom and sister I’d quit. My mom was asking me what happened, and I let them hear the recording of the meeting. And that’s when I asked, “Did I make the right decision?” And they both were just like, “Fuck yeah, you did. Listen to them. They’re laughing at you. Look at the responses you’re getting—the anonymous messages. Of course you did the right thing.”
I have no regrets.
My father Luis was a little pain in the ass, but he was a good pain in the ass. He was very direct. I got a lot of that from him. We would always butt heads. He and my mom were very open-minded. They raised me to be very independent. I would always work with my dad, and do a little bit of construction. He was the genius who could look at a room and know how much square footage It was. The dude could build and do great, amazing work. He was an artist in his own right. He could make beautiful things.
He had just turned 60 in February, you know. I thought it would be really cool to have like a ’60s theme party. I researched because I didn’t want to culturally appropriate. We had a lot of decorations, afro centerpieces, photo frames with marijuana leaves, a DJ, and a tie-dye cake with a smiley face on it. It was a surprise party for him. For me, it was something that I really, truly wanted to do for him because he never, never wanted parties.
I just remember looking at him. He was sitting with my grandparents, my mom, and my aunt. They were just talking, and he actually said that, for the first time in a long time, he’d had a beer. He was relaxed, and his face was full of joy. And it meant a lot. He didn’t really say too much, but I knew in my heart of hearts, he loved it. It was a really good memory to be left with.