Teachers are returning to the classroom with mixed feelings of excitement and anxiety as they ease students back into classrooms after 17 months of distance learning, according to a panel of educators during an EdSource Roundtable Discussion, the second in a new series.
They say they have their work cut out for them this year as they address the social anxiety that many students are now feeling, the technology burnout students face and as they balance academic curriculum with social-emotional learning.
Jose Rivas, who teaches physics and engineering to grades 10–12 at Lennox Mathematics, Science and Technology Academy in southwestern Los Angeles County, said his students were eager to return to the classroom, where they could “get their hands dirty” building things. But, he said, many felt anxious about being back in the classroom. One of his students became physically ill because she felt overwhelmed being in a room with so many people. Rivas said all he could do was give the student some space until she felt better.
Gwendolyn Delgado, a bilingual 6-12 teacher at La Mesa Junior High School, said social anxiety was clearly apparent among students in her ethnic studies class, where she frequently has students turn to their partners to have conversations. Despite being excited to come back to school, the students struggle to spark conversations while wearing masks and following the school’s other safety protocols. They ask a lot of questions about what they are and aren’t allowed to do.
“The kids are very hesitant,” Delgado said. “Part of it is because of all the guidelines and restrictions that we have in the classroom. But, also, they’ve been isolated and been on their own and now to have these social interactions with all these restrictions, they don’t know what to do.”
Delgado said one of the things she does to bring down students’ anxiety is to sanitize the classroom and materials, such as art supplies. It’s not required at her school, she said, but it makes students feel more secure.
Rivas and Delgado are part of EdSource’s Teacher Advisory Committee.
In order to make students comfortable participating in the class, Rivas said building relationships and community is key. Panelists spoke to the importance of social-emotional learning: education based on helping students develop emotional skills like self-awareness and navigating healthy relationships vital to success in school and life. Some examples include meditation and mindfulness exercises and communication and collaboration skills.
“For me, academic curriculum is on the backburner,” Rivas said. “These kids just want to talk, they want someone to say, ‘Hey I noticed that you like anime, let’s talk about it.’ It’s not pushing the curriculum on them, they’re going to get through the stuff, and we’re going to learn, but that interpersonal relationship building with the teacher and the other students is critical.”
When students get to the point of feeling comfortable with their teacher and classmates, they’re more willing to share how they are feeling that day, or troubles they may have in their lives, he said.
“That’s why we’re here, right? It’s not just to shove curriculum into their minds, but to understand that they are people, and they need to be heard and they need to be safe,” he said.
Despite teachers’ best efforts, there will still likely be students who just won’t want to participate, Delgado said.
“You can’t push it on them right now, you can’t force them,” Delgado said. “You’re just going to have to respect that they need that individual space, and maybe talk to them after class and say ‘Hey is everything OK? I just wanted to check in with you, maybe we can try again tomorrow, and if you need support let me know.’”
In order to gauge where students are at academically going into the new school year, Rivas said he takes an “individualized approach” to each of his students. He has an individualized education plan for all of his more than 130 students. Individualized education plans, or IEPs, are typically developed for students with special needs. They outline what that student needs to learn in a specified period of time and what special services need to be provided based on the student’s ability.
Rivas said he incorporates social emotional learning into his student’s IEPs.
Something the roundtable panelists have in common is that their students are feeling burnt out on technology. Some said students complain when they have to use the computer. They would rather do art, use pencil and paper, and do more hands-on activities, which they lacked during distance learning.
“I felt the burnout amongst our students, and myself as well,” Delgado said. “I needed to unplug just for my own wellbeing as well as being an educator. I find that my students are enjoying (unplugging). It’s pushing them to be more creative on their own and come up with thoughts on their own instead of just Googling a thought.”
Delgado said she will continue to integrate technology in her classes — especially for students who are shy in order to get them to participate more.
Larry Ferlazzo, an English and social studies teacher at Luther Burbank High in Sacramento, said he plans to give students the option of doing projects or activities using either pen and paper or something like Google Slides. He said it’s important to keep in mind that students and classes may go into quarantine, so having an online option for schoolwork may be necessary.
For more on this EdSource Roundtable topic, please watch the video above.
There are reminders of José Luis Ruiz Arévalos everywhere in the three-bedroom trailer where his wife and four children live in the small Central Valley city of Los Banos: the family photos along the hallway, the triple bunk bed he built to accommodate a growing family, the fence he installed out front.
But Ruiz Arévalos isn’t there. After he was forced to stay in Mexico two years ago, the college plans for the three oldest children have unraveled. The oldest dropped out of college and joined the U.S. Army Reserve. The second oldest is prioritizing work while studying. And their younger brother, a senior in high school, caught the eye of Harvard recruiters but instead is considering vocational school closer to home.
“There’s like this space where he used to be, but he’s not there anymore,” said Nathan Gutierrez Ramirez, 19. “And like, every time you come home, you’re just like, ‘Oh, I feel like something’s missing.’ You always feel that someone’s missing, that he’s missing.”
In May 2019, Ruiz Arévalos — also known as José, Dad, or Papa, depending on whom you ask — went to Mexico for what he thought would be the final step to apply for his green card: an interview at the U.S. Consulate.
His family, who are all U.S. citizens, and he expected he would be able to come back in a week or two.
But he was unexpectedly refused a green card when U.S. Consulate officials decided that under Trump administration guidance he was likely to become a “public charge,” dependent on government services.
Unable to return to the U.S., he remains in Hermosillo, Sonora, a thousand miles from his family, while he tries to appeal the decision.
Former President Donald Trump’s changes to the “public charge” immigration policy made headlines the year of Ruiz Arévalos’ green card interview in 2019. What was less publicized is that in January 2018, the Trump administration had already made changes to the public charge policy at consulates outside the country.
The changes gave consulate officers more discretion to scrutinize applicants’ age, education, job skills, health insurance, and whether they or their family members received any type of public benefits.
Between Oct. 1, 2018, and Sept. 30, 2019, consulate officials refused almost 21,000 people applying for immigrant visas based on the revised public charge policy. That was seven times as many people as had been refused under the same policy two years before.
The changes that were made have now been reversed under President Joe Biden. But the effects still remain, not only for immigrants, but also for their spouses and children. When Ruiz Arévalos couldn’t return home, it triggered economic hardship and emotional grief for his wife and children.
It also disrupted the education of his oldest stepchild, Elena Gutierrez Ramirez.
Elena, 21, dropped out of the University of California, Merced so she could work to support the family. The decision was gut-wrenching and scary. Elena thought she might never return to college.
Ruiz Arévalos had been helping her pay for her college expenses not covered by financial aid with his income as a handyman. Without his help, not only could she not afford to stay in school, but she also needed to help the rest of her family.
Her mother, Armanda Ruiz, has a full-time job taking care of her little sister, Priscila Ruiz Ramirez, 11, who was born prematurely and has had four surgeries and multiple health issues her entire life.
She has developmental delays and is under continuous medical care with speech, occupational and physical therapy. Her other two siblings, Ignacio and Nathan, were still in high school at the time Ruiz Arévalos was told he could not return from Mexico. Nathan had been struggling with severe depression. Elena felt she had no other choice but to drop out.
“Counselors usually advised me to, like, try to stay in school, but they didn’t really understand that I was the only one that was able to work,” Elena said.
There was one other thing motivating her decision. If she stayed in college, she reasoned, the burden to support the family would fall on her younger siblings. She wanted them to follow their dreams.
The oldest three have always excelled in school. Nathan, 19, got A’s and B’s at Merced College last year. Ignacio, 17, just finished his junior year at Los Banos High School with a 4.6 grade point average — all A’s, including four in Advanced Placement classes. He recently received a letter from Harvard, encouraging him to apply.
“Right now I just want to provide for my family and keep ourselves from sinking into debt,” Elena said. “With my dad out of the country and with no family but ourselves, I don’t want the lack of money to be the reason why my siblings don’t go where they want to go and get their degree in what they want.”
So Elena applied for dozens of jobs. She worked at a tomato-packing plant, at Big 5 Sporting Goods as a cashier, and with the U.S. Census Bureau for the 2020 census.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit California, and work became even harder to find. Determined to continue toward a college degree, she began taking classes at Merced College. As the months dragged on and the family continued to struggle financially, she became increasingly worried.
In Mexico, Ruiz Arévalos felt that his world had broken into a million pieces. He has been part of this blended family for 12 years. When he first met his wife, Armanda Ramirez, her name before she married him, her daughter Elena was 8. Nathan was 6, and Ignacio was 5. The children have their father’s last name and their mother’s maiden name: Gutierrez Ramirez. Later the couple had Priscila together.
When he talks about his children, his voice becomes soft with love as he recalls each of their personalities. Little Priscila is his treasure, his spoiled baby. Elena is loving and noble, he said, a “super daughter.” Nathan is both tough and affectionate. Ignacio, he said, could do anything he wants — studying comes easily to him.
“And the worst thing is that my kids really put their heart into their studies,” he said in Spanish. “I feel like I am clipping their wings.”
Ruiz Arévalos had been living in the U.S. without immigration papers since his parents brought him in the early ’90s, when he was 17. Since 1996, immigration law makes it difficult for anyone who crossed the border illegally and stayed in the U.S. for more than a year to get a green card, even if they are married to a U.S. citizen. They have to leave the country to apply, and if they lived here without immigration papers, they are banned from re-entering the country for 10 years.
There is one way around the 10-year ban: you can apply for a waiver if you can prove that being forced to stay outside the U.S. would cause “extreme hardship” for a U.S. citizen spouse or parent.
Before going to his interview appointment in Ciudad Juarez, Ruiz Arévalos applied for a waiver, arguing that his absence would cause severe hardship for his wife. In the documents they submitted, they detailed how hard it would be for her to be left alone to care for their four children, including Priscila, with her medical issues and developmental delays, and Nathan, with severe depression and panic attacks.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved the waiver. The couple believed they had all their paperwork in order. They secured a fiscal sponsor — a family friend who agreed to support Ruiz Arévalos and his family. The sponsor made far more than the minimum income required by federal regulations, which is 125% of the federal poverty level.
But when Ruiz Arévalos showed up for his appointment, the consulate official questioned whether his fiscal sponsor would actually support the family if needed and asked Ruiz Arévalos whether his family had used welfare. Priscila has received Supplemental Security Income — provided to low-income disabled people — since she was born.
The other children in the family had received food stamps. The consulate told him he would need an additional fiscal sponsor to prove he wouldn’t become dependent on the government.
But instead of waiting for him to turn in the new paperwork, the consulate told him he was inadmissible to the U.S. because he was likely to become a public charge, and canceled his waiver of the 10-year ban.
The U. S. State Department declined to say how many other applicants for green cards had their waivers revoked because of the new public charge policy that was in place from 2018 to 2020. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said the data was not available.
Erin Quinn, senior staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said likely thousands of the people denied entry under “public charge” in 2018 and 2019 had previously lived in the U.S. and had waivers to show that being separated from their families would cause extreme hardship, like Ruiz Arévalos.
“After that guidance came out, officers had clearly gotten marching orders to go on this fishing expedition, as a way to begin denying cases that were otherwise clearly eligible for their permanent resident status,” Quinn said. “They can overcome the public charge issue by turning in the information requested, but the damage was already done, because the real harm for families like this one is those years of separation that can’t be undone.”
Ruiz Arévalos submitted the names of three different fiscal sponsors to the consulate. But the process slowed almost to a halt because of the pandemic. While he waited, he tried his best to stay connected to his family across the border. They do regular video calls so the kids can talk with their dad. Ignacio even calls Ruiz Arévalos for help when he has to fix something at home — how to change the oil in the car, how to unclog the toilet, how to fix the fence.
A few months before Ruiz Arévalos went to Mexico, the Gutierrez Ramirez kids’ biological father died. They didn’t have much contact with him the last few years he was alive, but when they found out he died, it was painful.
“I had a dad, and I didn’t get along very well with him. We had problems. Then I get another dad, and they take him away,” Nathan told Ruiz Arévalos recently. “It’s not fair. I want my dad.”
“It hit us all very hard that he wasn’t able to come back,” Ruiz said. She said Priscila especially didn’t understand why her dad was in Mexico. “Why is my dad over there?” Ruiz said she would ask. “Why doesn’t he come here? Why doesn’t he sleep here with us?”
Ruiz Arévalos wasn’t there to see Nathan’s graduation from high school, or Priscila’s ceremony for “reclassification” to show she is no longer considered an English learner at school.
He’s missed two years of birthdays and movie watching and countless dance sessions in the family living room. He wasn’t there to see them all stuff eggshells with confetti for Easter, or to watch how they made distance learning work, with all five of them learning from home — Elena and Nathan in college classes, Ignacio in high school, Priscila in special education, and their mother taking an English class.
“Sometimes it feels different not having a father figure,” Ignacio said. “’Cause you know, there’s a different kind of relationship with your dad than your mother, I’d say, if you’re a guy, ’cause like, you know, guys just understand each other. Like you don’t even have to say something, you already know.”
A few months ago, Elena met with a college counselor and decided to join the Army Reserve. She went to basic training in July and will be there until November, so she won’t be able to attend college classes in the fall. She’s hoping she can return to college in the spring.
“During this time of uncertainty, at least the Army will bring some form of certainty,” Elena said. “In addition, if something were to happen to my mom, I will be the one taking care of my siblings, and without a stable job, I can’t guarantee that. That’s why the Army sounds like a good deal.”
There may finally be some hope in Ruiz Arévalos’ case. In July 2020, a U.S. District Court in New York issued a temporary injunction requiring consulates to stop using the new guidance on public charge.
In March 2021, under Biden, the State Department restored the public charge policy in place before 2018.
This summer, Ruiz Arévalos received another letter in the mail from the consulate in Ciudad Juarez, the first in months. For the first time, there was no mention of “public charge.” The letter said he could now apply again for a waiver. The process could take months.
In June, Ruiz and the kids went to visit Ruiz Arévalos in Mexico, the last family trip before Elena headed to basic training.
They went to the beach — a first for some of the children — and waded into the ocean, playing in the waves. From the sand, Ruiz watched and took a video with her phone — her husband, with her children, walking toward the horizon. They jumped over wave after wave coming at them. For the moment, they were all together.
For Gov. Gavin Newsom and anyone else promoting college savings accounts for low-income children, Oral Lee Brown has some advice:
“It’s not about the money.”
Brown, an Oakland real estate agent now in her 70s, has been promoting the same idea since 1987, when she “adopted” a class of first graders from Brookfield Elementary School in East Oakland, promising to pay their college costs if they stayed in school.
Of that original class of 23, one went to work, two died of gunshot wounds, one went to culinary school and 19 went to college — a college-going rate that rivals the highest-achieving districts in California. At the time, Brown’s students vastly outperformed their peers. In the 1990s Oakland Unified had some of the lowest test scores and highest dropout rates in California.
Since then, Brown has ushered more than 120 low-income Black and Latino students through school, with 80-90% graduating from college debt-free. And as philanthropies, cities and states — including California, with its forthcoming CalKids program — rush to create similar programs, Brown is eager to share her reflections.
Namely, that money alone does not guarantee a child’s success in school, especially if that child faces a gauntlet of other obstacles related to poverty and generational trauma.
“To me, the money is the least of it,” Brown said during a recent interview at her 99th Avenue office, where she’s run her real estate business for 42 years. “Kids need guidance, support, someone to talk to. … That’s why my kids succeed. They never say, ‘Ms. Brown, thanks for the money.’ They say thanks for the love and support.”
Brown didn’t realize that in 1987, however. Initially, Brown thought she was making a straightforward financial commitment, a promise to put $10,000 a year into a bank account for future tuition payments.
But as she got to know the children, and they started asking her for things like food and shoes and occasionally a bed to sleep on, she realized the need was far greater and far more complicated.
Her college tuition promise turned into a 24-hour-a-day vocation, which she embraced even as she raised her own two daughters and ran her business.
She hired tutors to keep her students on track academically, took them to ride the cable cars in San Francisco and see the Monterey Bay Aquarium, flew them across the country to tour colleges, drove them to and from school when they needed rides, bought them Christmas presents and answered her phone at all hours if they just needed to talk.
Her former students, who call her “Mama Brown,” say her commitment to them was nothing short of life-saving.
“Honestly, if it wasn’t for Mama Brown, I’d be behind bars or under dirt,” said Jeffery Toney, 40, an Oakland writer and musician who was among Brown’s first class of first graders. “Mama Brown is my real-life angel.”
. . .
Poised and sharply dressed, Brown seems like a typical busy, successful real estate agent. Her office, on a corner of Oakland known as Deep East, is immaculate and orderly, with walls covered in framed awards and photos.
Among them are honorary degrees, photos of Brown and her students with celebrities, news clippings about Brown’s work, including a 2002 Woman of the Year spread in Glamour magazine and dozens of graduation photos.
But the poverty and hardship are never far from her mind. A native of Batesville, Mississippi, Brown grew up on a cotton farm, one of 12 children sharing a two-bedroom house with no electricity or running water. She walked 3 miles each way to school. When she wasn’t studying, she picked cotton and corn and tended to the family’s hogs.
Jim Crow segregation laws were in full effect, impacting nearly all aspects of life for Black people. Brown remembers walking down the sidewalk with her mother and having to step into the street to let a white person pass. One day, when Brown hesitated, her mother said, “We need to get you out of here or you’ll get us all killed.”
Even at a young age, Brown was eager to get out.
“I can remember standing in a cotton field saying, ‘God, get me out of Mississippi. I will do whatever you want me to do. Just get me out,’” Brown recalled.
When she was a teenager, her parents sent her to live with an older sister in Newburgh, New York, where she graduated from high school. From there, she visited a brother who had moved to Oakland, and she never left.
She got married, went to community college and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of San Francisco while raising her two daughters.
One day in 1987, she was walking to the corner store on 94th Avenue to buy a Pepsi and a bag of peanuts, like she did every day, and a girl asked her for money. Brown said she’d buy her a treat, but the girl picked out a loaf of bread, cheese and bologna.
“We walked out, and I said, ‘Where is your mother?’ She said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Do you go to school?’ She said, ‘Sometimes.’ And she almost, like, froze. So I didn’t say another word to her. We crossed the street. She made a right and went down 94th Avenue, and I went back to my office,” Brown said. “But I kept thinking about her.”
A few days later Brown tried to find her at the local elementary school. After meeting the principal, Brown visited a few classrooms but never found the girl. But she was struck by the scale of the need. All the children seemed just as impoverished as the girl she met outside the corner store.
Somewhat spontaneously, she promised to pay for the college education of every student in a class of first graders that the principal said was the most disadvantaged. She agreed to put aside $10,000 a year — a quarter of her income— for the purpose.
And then, after that class graduated, she adopted another group of students. She’s now on her third cohort. A nonprofit, the Oral Lee Brown Foundation, now handles the fundraising and day-to-day operations, while Brown keeps up with her students and alumni. She never misses a college graduation.
“The one thing I felt I could give these kids, that would last them a lifetime, was an education,” she said. “Money doesn’t always last, but no one can take an education away from you. With an education, you can make decisions. You can get a good job. You can have a voice.”
LaQueta White, 38, was among the first crop of Brown’s students in 1987. At the time, White was living with her four sisters and her mother in East Oakland, and money was almost nonexistent.
White was a good student and wanted to go to college, but without Brown’s help and encouragement it probably would have been impossible, she said. Her friends who had to borrow money and work throughout their college years struggled, and some never graduated or were saddled with debt. With Brown paying her college bills, White was spared those hardships.
“Without her, life would have been a lot more difficult for me,” White said. “My whole family is so appreciative of everything she did for me. All of us, we love and adore her.”
White graduated from San Jose State University and now works as a supervisor in a maternal and fetal medicine department for Kaiser Permanente.
She has a 9-month-old son, and still considers Brown a role model.
Like White, Daishar Young, 31, was also a motivated student, but college seemed far-fetched. His mother died of complications related to asthma when Young was 13, and he moved in with a godmother in North Richmond.
Every day for five years, he took the train and bus for 1½ hours each way to school and see Brown in Oakland.
“Ms. Brown was like another parent for me,” Young said. “She gave us a lot more than money. It was her energy, her love, that got me through. … When you have your head down, she gives you a reason to lift your head up.”
Young went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s in education from the University of Michigan. He’s now building a business promoting bicycle transportation.
Cherrish Cook, 19, a sophomore at Sacramento State, joined Brown’s program when she was in middle school, after Brown expanded eligibility to second through seventh graders.
Although Cook always wanted to go to college, Brown’s encouragement and support helped her stay focused and keep her grades up.
But more important than academic guidance was Brown’s influence as a role model, Cook said. One day Brown was describing her childhood in Mississippi to some students and broke down in tears.
“It was like she was saying, here are my tears. Crying is a way of releasing,” Cook said. “I thought, wow, I am in the presence of a Black woman who’s strong and independent and not afraid to be vulnerable. For me, that meant a lot.”
Cook hopes to someday go to law school and give back to her community in East Oakland as Brown has.
“She gave me a sense of direction. She made me believe I can accomplish anything with my life,” Cook said. “I cherish her. She is a light for me.”
Nekita Noel-Ikulala, 40, can pinpoint the exact moment Brown changed her life trajectory. Noel-Ikulala, who grew up in public housing in East Oakland, felt like she had conquered the world when she headed off to Chico State University as a freshman — but within two hours of arriving on campus, she was desperate to come home.
As one of only a few hundred Black students at the school, Brown felt the lack of diversity and cultural differences were too difficult to navigate, she said.
“It was absolutely the wrong school for me. I was ready to give up,” Noel-Ikulala said. “I wanted my mom to come get me. I called Mama Brown and she said, ‘You can do this. You got this.’ And she told my mom to leave me there.”
Without that push, Noel-Ikulala is certain she would have left Chico and probably abandoned her college plans. Instead, she stayed for two years and then transferred to Sacramento State, where she earned a bachelor’s degree.
Since then, she’s earned two master’s degrees and now works as a social worker in Sacramento.
“Ms. Brown kept me on track,” she said. “She was literally always there for me when I needed her.”
Jeffery Toney’s story is a little different from Brown’s other students. He was not particularly motivated to go to college, he said. Although he had decent grades, he spent much of his adolescence selling drugs and committing other crimes — what he felt he needed to do to survive. Homeless as a teenager, he needed money for food, clothing, bus fare, school supplies. College was not on his radar.
But Brown pushed him hard toward college. She took him to Atlanta to visit Morehouse, a top historically Black college, and other elite East Coast schools.
At her urging, he applied and was accepted to Columbia College in Chicago. He graduated with a degree in business management and then earned a certificate in music business through UCLA Extension. A writer and musician, he now runs a recording studio and clothing line in Oakland and has a 5-year-old daughter.
“The lifestyle I was living, I was going to end up dead or in jail,” he said. “But she snatched me up. She never lost faith in me. And I embraced that, 100 percent.”
Brown hopes to retire from real estate next year, but she has no plans to give up her work with young people. She still answers her phone day and night, offering advice and encouragement and just listening.
Sometimes, students call her who aren’t even in her program. One day a girl in Texas called, asking for Brown’s support for college. Brown demurred, explaining that she had to set some limits. After all, the foundation’s resources are not infinite.
But then Brown changed her mind.
“When a child knocks on your door, and they have good grades, and they want to go to college, who am I to say no?” she said. “Who am I to say no to a child who wants an education? To me, it’s a no-brainer.”
California community college adjuncts who helped the system switch to online classes during the pandemic are getting differing amounts of federal Covid aid for the extra work.
Across California's community colleges, students are receiving varying amounts of emergency financial aid grants.