Students and families aren’t the only ones whose lives have been upended by the pandemic. Teachers, too, have had to adjust to an entirely new education landscape — one marked by uncertainty, frustration and seemingly endless hours on Zoom.
Since September, EdSource has been tracking families throughout California as they navigate a school year like no other. We’ve chronicled families’ fears that their children are falling behind, their struggles to juggle distance learning with work and other responsibilities, and the occasional triumphs and joys during quarantine.
For this installment we’re focusing on the teachers, who have been trying to engage their students academically while providing some sense of normalcy amid a chaotic time.
Most say their greatest frustration is that they feel some students are slipping away from school entirely — not turning in assignments, turning their cameras off, not logging on for class.
“I think that the biggest challenge is being able to provide the support that the kids need. I feel like I can only do so much,” said Jessica Charton, a 6th-grade teacher at a charter school in Los Angeles County. “And there’s something about, you know, going next to a student and helping them at their desk. There’s just nothing like that. And I think we’ve all taken that for granted, and we miss that.”
Some have gone to extraordinary lengths to engage students who might be struggling, not just with school, but in their personal lives as well. Many students have seen their parents lose work due to the pandemic, or seen family members become sick or die from the coronavirus. Other students are depressed or overly anxious, as they’ve been apart from their friends for so long.
Kirsten Wright, a K-3 teacher on the Hoopa reservation in far Northern California, has been making weekly in-person visits to her students’ homes to help parents with distance learning and check to see if families have everything they need. Monica Vu, an English teacher at Skyline High School in Oakland, gave students her cellphone number, encouraging them to text or call or video chat, “just to say hello.”
Zachary Lauchli, a middle school music teacher at College Connection Academy in San Jose, arranged for each of his students to get a ukulele. Not only do they get to learn music, but they get to have fun — something in short supply for many households this year.
Some teachers noted that distance learning has had some surprising upsides. Some students have thrived without the social pressures and distractions of in-person school, and teachers have discovered new and creative ways to engage students through technology. As schools transition to in-person learning, many say they’ll retain some form of online instruction for students who prefer it.
Most teachers, though, say they can’t wait to see their students in person.
“Myself and most teachers I know, we want to get back to the classroom as soon as possible. When they make vaccines available, I’ll be the first in line,” said Caroline Jackson, a special education teacher in San Diego Unified. “And I think the kids will be very motivated when they get back. And appreciative.”
— Carolyn Jones
Kirsten Wright has seen firsthand how seemingly impossible distance learning can be when the conditions just aren’t right. Though she has a small class of just seven students, including 2nd-grader Re-wah Myers and 1st-grader Sregon Myers, many live miles up and down the Klamath River in far Northern California where they don’t have access at home to steady internet service, and in some cases, electricity.
A K-3rd grade teacher at Weitchpec Yurok Elementary in the Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District, Wright is one of only a handful of teachers across the state to teach from a one-room schoolhouse. Hers serves primarily families of the Yurok tribal lands. Because technology is so unreliable on the rural coast where her students live, she mostly connects with her students and their families via phone calls and weekly home visits where she hand-delivers paper packets filled with lessons and activities to keep kids’ brains busy while school buildings are closed.
“My role has shifted from teaching children every day to really supporting families,” said Wright, who is in her second year teaching at Weitchpec. Previously, she worked for eight years as a special education teacher for the district. “It’s just like working with anybody who is new to teaching. Over time, you learn teaching strategies and ways of working with students, and I find myself passing on a lot of those techniques with families.”
On one recent visit, she helped a parent of a 1st-grade student learn how to teach using phonics by breaking down words into sounds and segments. Even reading books with kids can benefit from a few expert tips, she said.
“You don’t just hand the kid the book,” said Wright, adding that she will often first have students look through illustrations in a book, then read it to them, then read it all together. “Some parents don’t understand that and are concerned that their child is behind and can’t read, so there’s a lot of explaining that goes on.”
Wright’s teaching strategy this year has involved supporting parents emotionally and allowing for maximum flexibility with assignments and due dates. She’s also encouraging families to continue learning through cultural activities (like building a sweathouse, which Re-wah and Sregon helped do this year) and getting outside as much as possible. Part of that comes from having a high school student of her own in distance learning, and watching how difficult online learning was for her son.
“The isolation of being home, not with friends, and being on Zoom all day created a lot of tension in our household,” said Wright. “I really try to work with the families so that they feel supported. I don’t want them to fear punishments because they aren’t getting work done. We just need to survive the pandemic.”
Now that Wright has the Covid-19 vaccine, she is optimistic about returning to her physical class sometime soon. Over the past year, one bright spot has been going through cabinets at school and rediscovering activities such as a Yurok language curriculum that she now plans to use with students.
But it’s still unclear how soon that might happen in person. The school district had plans to bring in some of the youngest learners for in-person instruction, but in late February, a local Covid-19 outbreak caused the district to put those plans on hold.
“Our communities are small and very tight-knit. People are nervous that what happened on the Navajo reservation could happen here,” said Wright, referring to how the Navajo Nation was hit particularly hard last year by Covid-19 by both the virus and food insecurity.
When students do eventually come back, Wright knows that each student will have unique needs and areas they need extra help with. Speaking to her background in special education, she expects it to be like “everyone has an individualized education plan,” she said.
“It’s okay for kids to pick up where they left off. I don’t approach learning like everyone has to be in the same place at the same time. I’m comfortable meeting students where they are, and when we go back face to face, I’ll really need to do that.”
— Sydney Johnson
For Monica Vu, an English teacher at Oakland’s Skyline High School, the biggest challenge of the last year of remote learning has been gauging how her students are doing — both “academically and emotionally.”
That’s obviously challenging when students “just don’t show up to school,” she said, in which case she reaches out, calls home, sends emails and tries to schedule home visits. But even for the students who do show up consistently, it’s also challenging to truly connect with them across a computer screen, she said.
“When we were in person, I would see a kid, and you could just pick up on how they were feeling and their energy just by looking at them,” Vu said. “But now that I’m looking at them through a computer screen, sometimes they don’t have their cameras on, and it’s hard to just gauge where students are at.”
She summed up her experience teaching remotely last year as “trial and error”: She experimented with different lesson plans and approaches to engage and support students, and flexed her “creativity muscle” to keep students feeling like they were still in community, she said. She gave her students her cellphone number, and they’ll often text or FaceTime her “just to say hello.”
With classes ranging from 28 to 35 students, Vu said attendance was “inconsistent” at first, but as the months went on students showed up to class more regularly. Now she has maybe two or three absences a class.
Among Vu’s students is Jessica Ramos, a senior student and a participant in EdSource’s series on how families and students are coping with Covid, said she and Vu “check in” with each other at least once a month.
“She’s my rock, I’ll never forget her and will always be in touch with her,” Ramos said, a student leader and activist. “She’s been so supportive and whenever I need anything, or I take initiative, she’s the one who puts out the resources and finds a way we can make a change.”
Ramos also plans on becoming a teacher after college, and said Vu’s enthusiasm for teaching, ability to “go with the flow” given the circumstances, and attention to students’ emotions, inspires her.
A bright spot for Vu last year has been seeing some students thrive with distance learning. Some seem less distracted by the “drama” that’s typically prevalent on a high school campus.
Vu said she has “mixed feelings” about returning to the classroom. Though Oakland Unified plans to bring kindergarten and elementary school students back to classrooms in small groups starting March 30, it’s unclear when high school students will return. She has received her Covid vaccine, and wants to be back with her students, but feels apprehensive that the proposed safety protocols won’t go far enough to prevent the spread of the virus, which has disproportionately impacted Black and brown neighborhoods in Oakland.
“To be honest, I worry about whether systems, structures and protocols will be in place to really guarantee safety,” Vu said. “Truth be told, there were days on campus where students didn’t have soap, or paper towels or toilet paper. I know that if we were to go back class sizes would be much smaller and masks would be enforced, but I have a level of skepticism.”
— Ali Tadayon
Zachary Lauchli’s 7th and 8th grade music classes have always balanced College Connection Academy’s academic rigors with some right-brain enjoyment. Making music is particularly important this year with students trapped at home, needing a diversion and an outlet.
But distance learning also posed challenges for the fourth-year music teacher at the accelerated program in East San Jose, which starts with two years in middle school and ends with a high school diploma and a community college associate’s degree. Covid put the kibosh on choir practices, and the school doesn’t have enough guitars and keyboards for every student to take home.
Enter the underappreciated ukulele, an instrument associated with vaudeville and luaus. It’s portable, affordable enough to supply one for every student and easy enough “to start making a decent sound very quickly,” Lauchli said.
“I get questions about it quite often, like, ‘Oh, the ukulele as if it’s kind of a toy.’ But there are amazing musicians that play really only the ukulele. It’s a rich instrument,” he said.
Seventh-grader Karyn Tran has taken to it and to Lauchli, who has worn goofy costumes during spirit week and likes to joke in class. “Don’t complain to your parents that your fingers are bleeding from practicing,” she recalled him saying. Karyn and her family are among the families being followed this year in EdSource’s project to track how Covid is affecting learning this year.
Lauchli also lets students suggest songs for the ukulele — K-pop comes up a lot — and he transcribes tunes from Disney movies: “Let it Go” from “Frozen” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” from “The Lion King.” Karyn’s favorite so far is “Fly Me to the Moon,” not the Sinatra version, but the one from an animation film by the same name.
“If we did a concert where one of our songs was ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,’ that would be just fine,” Lauchli said. “However, I want to keep the students feeling a little bit of coolness about what they play.”
Lauchli studied music composition, cello and guitar at UC Davis and then, for his master’s degree, at Sacramento State. The ukulele, which he plays, is a gateway instrument for guitar, which students can learn next year.
Lauchli has studied various genres — world, classical, Romantic — but also hip-hop and mariachi. His goal, he said, is for students “to be able to learn without me” — to research and read music and get to the point where they could play an instrument on their own.
Because music is an elective, Lauchli said he eases up on homework and can spend “a lot of my time on social, emotional learning, letting the kids get a chance to just talk and, you know, express what’s going on in their lives,” he said. “I have timelines and course standards, but I do hope that they look forward to a small reprieve from bookwork.”
Lauchli senses Karyn does. “I’ll see Karyn making faces at me, she shows life and personality, and she has a little bit more fun. I get the sense that she is probably working extremely hard in all of her classes with a smile, you know, even if she doesn’t feel good some days.”
There is no date yet for reopening school in the Franklin-McKinley School District, which the academy is part of. East San Jose has among the highest Covid infection rates in the Bay Area. Lauchli’s goal, if students do return, would to record a virtual recital at the end of the year.
“It would mean many hours of editing and some good recordings from the students,” he said. “We’re trying our best.”
In the meantime, Lauchli is looking forward to returning to his school.
“I want to hear them playing their instrument every day at lunch, they would normally come into my room and I would just hear guitars, ukuleles and pianos all the time. I really missed that,” he said. “I miss all of the other things, the daily life of interacting with the students, the stuff that makes it feel like not just schools, it’s a place to make connections with people.”
— John Fensterwald
Claire Ballard gets Aidan Tran’s sense of humor — and lets him express it. Like “goofy riddles” he’s been putting in chat at the start of class.
A recent one went like this: “If a dinosaur flies down into the roof with its neck and gets its ear stuck in an apple, what is the square root of bacon. True or false?”
There’s no answer, but “the kids were really loving it,” Ballard said. And Aidan, who was distracted throughout the first semester, is finally enjoying University Preparatory Academy and doing much better, too, at the charter middle and high school in San Jose.
Ballard, who has been teaching middle school English at UPA for eight years, is one reason. The other is that the school has figured out Aidan, too.
Aidan and his family are part of an EdSource project on how students and families are coping during this Covid year.
More so than his more disciplined twin sister, Karyn, who attends another school, Aidan has had a hard time adjusting to distance learning. He was easily diverted by YouTube, games and chat. He did the minimum work and often sent his work in late, if at all.
Aidan, his mother Kathy said, needs to be around people. Plus this was a new school for him. It was hard to meet people, and kids were silent in breakout rooms. He was miserable.
His new school had a solution: bring Aidan to school for distance learning, where he and eight or so 7th-graders are under the watchful eye of a teacher who kept them on track and provided occasional help. With Horton Connection, named after the auditorium that UPA rents from a church, “the kids are invited based on various needs, Aidan’s being that he needed a little bit more structure so that his mind could focus,” Ballard said. The students sit socially distanced and work separately. But there is friend time, too, and last week, Shauna Yelnick, the teacher, brought in doughnuts. Seventh grade is a time for students to figure things, partly by watching and “mirroring” other kids. Distance learning prevents that. “Many 7th-graders this year not doing well because they can’t see what others are doing,” Ballard said. “They get confused and are too shy to say, What?”
Aidan, she said, “loves to work through something verbally with his teacher.” And jokes aside, he can be serious. He told her that he read an assigned book, “The Giver,” a 1993 young adult dystopian novel, three times.
Since the start of second semester, Aidan’s English grade has risen from a C to a B. What’s stood out, she said, are the number of assignments done on time. “Aidan and I have always had a positive relationship. However, I believe being on Horton Connect has made him more successful. It’s a good cycle to be in: feeling good, hearing good feedback from your teachers and wanting to do well. It has been a positive experience for him.”
Being in school helps him “focus way better,” said Aidan mostly because he doesn’t have the distractions that he has at home of computer games and going online. “There’s always a person monitoring us who comes around.”
Later this month, his school will phase in a return to classrooms, starting with one grade in a hybrid model. Students will alternate weeks between in-person instruction and distance learning. The 7th grade is going first. Aidan says he’s looking forward to being with his friends again.
— John Fensterwald
What Jeff Stepro misses most about teaching in person is the interaction with his students.
Stepro teaches precalculus and integrated math to juniors and seniors at Los Banos High School in the Central Valley. After a year of distance learning, the school might soon return to some in-person classes some time in April.
Stepro has gotten his first vaccine shot and is feeling confident about returning. Having conversations with his students, getting to know them, and motivating them, has been hard over the internet, Stepro said. Some students who live on farms or ranches outside town have trouble with spotty Wi-Fi. Others just have a lot of distractions at home.
“I have students that they’ll turn on their camera, and they’re making a sandwich for their siblings. Or I’ll have a student say in the chat that they have to go help their brother or sister with online connectivity issues for another class. Or I’ve had a brother and sister both online at the same table. I’ve had some students that will do their online learning in a closet, because it’s quiet,” Stepro said.
Stepro said some of his high school students have flourished in distance learning. His precalculus student Ignacio Gutierrez Ramirez, 17, is a junior who, with his family, is part of an EdSource project on how students and families are coping with learning during the pandemic. He lives in Los Banos with his mom and three siblings. His dad died two years ago, and soon after that, his stepdad went to Mexico to try to apply for a green card but was denied and had to stay there. The family has been struggling to get by during the pandemic, with both older siblings working to support the family while also taking college courses. Despite the difficulties, Ignacio is getting all A’s, including in four Advanced Placement classes. He also plays clarinet in the band and has started running for in-person track again.
“AP courses with distance learning have become a little bit more difficult, but that’s not a challenge for me, because I’ve always been in AP courses, and I’ve pretty much spent more time on AP courses because of distance learning,” said Gutierrez Ramirez, who currently has a 4.6 weighted grade-point average. “It’s made it a little harder to learn certain topics, but my teachers are all amazing. And they have shown me how to go through all these rough times.”
Helping students who are struggling with depression can be difficult for teachers, Stepro said. In some cases students are depressed because they aren’t in the classroom. “Normally, when you have that, you’re face to face with a student, and you can break through some of those barriers that they put up. And you can have a conversation with them.”
Stepro has tried to get to know his students online by asking a “question of the day” to start conversations. He’s also spent more time than ever before following up with students about why they didn’t do assignments.
“And that’s asking them, ‘What are they going to do to do that? Are they going to do it? Or they’re not going to do it? You know, what’s the plan here?’ And so I’ve talked to students over and over and over again about their missing assignments. It’s like whack-a-mole with the assignments. So that’s been very challenging,” Stepro said. As a result, he’s seen some students’ grades improve.
He believes it’s important to understand why students aren’t doing assignments, especially during the pandemic. “I’ve had kids taking care of their parents that have Covid. So as far as, like, missing assignments, you have to give more leniency,” Stepro said.
— Zaidee Stavely and Jennifer Molina
Pa Lor spends much of her time strategizing how she’ll keep her preschool students fully engaged during their two-hour classes. There’s no lack of creative lesson plans, she says, but planning a lesson that the students will truly enjoy and relate to isn’t as easy as it may seem.
The added emphasis on relating to her students and social-emotional learning during the pandemic has helped her create connections with her students that might not have been possible in the same way in a classroom. They see the room she teaches from, for example, and can see that she has things in her room that they might have in their own rooms, such as a box of tissues or a pet.
“You’re thinking these 3-, 4-, 5-year-olds … what do they need? And then you have to condense it down,” said Lor, a teacher at Fresno Unified’s Early Learning Center. “And then by the time you condense it down to the creative ways … you can think: ‘Oh, it’s going to work.’ You come to class and none of the kids care for it. So then it’s always, like, excellent. X, Y and Z didn’t work. Let’s go back to A and B.”
Her students include 4-year-old Adaline Curiel, who with her mother, Miriam Arambula, are among the families that EdSource is following this year to report on learning during the pandemic.
Her students, who are all connected to her via their computer screens, may find a lesson boring and won’t hesitate to share that thought in class. That’s where the social skills lessons come into play, Lor said. She’ll take that moment and ask how they would feel if someone called them boring.
“It’s about connecting the social-emotional learning, then building their understanding of how the world works,” she said.
She also spends much of her time planning lessons that are relatable to her students and their surroundings. If they’re learning about construction, for example, she makes sure she shows images of the buildings the students might see around Fresno.
She takes those positive connections and interactions during class and remains flexible with her students in order to keep them engaged.
“I think it’s that flexibility of being able to let the kids share whatever they want to at home,” said Lor. “Then you can relate to it and then also tie it back to the learning so that they feel like their voices are heard and that they’re respected.”
Last year, Lor experienced not only the sudden shutdowns that the coronavirus forced as the pandemic began, but also the sudden change of being asked to lead her own classroom.
She began the school year as a teaching assistant, but just three months later in October was asked to become the lead preschool teacher for her 11 students. She felt that teaching “shifted from zero to one hundred” in a matter of days.
One thing that helped then and continues to work is to check in with her students each morning before class begins. They’ll all share how they’re feeling, and if a student feels sad, she’ll know to not call on them until they feel ready to participate. It’s part of teaching them that emotions are a part of life.
“We can always turn it into a learning point … connect it to anything at this point because they are still 5, and it’s all of the development that’s happening right now,” said Lor. “I think that’s what we have to do is think outside of the box.”
— Betty Márquez Rosales
Jessica Charton misses the simple things she used to do in her classroom, like joking with her students before class and approaching them in person when they looked upset and needed someone to talk to. Some of those things are still possible, but the experience is vastly different.
“I think that the biggest challenge is being able to provide the support that the kids need. I feel like I can only do so much,” said Charton, a 6th-grade teacher at a charter school in Los Angeles County. “And there’s something about, you know, going next to a student and helping them at their desk. There’s just nothing like that. And I think we’ve all taken that for granted, and we miss that.”
Charton, who teaches English and history, has actually never seen her students in person. Before this school year, her students attended school at a different campus. It’s sad, she said, to think she might not meet them in person at all while she’s their teacher.
Her students are broken up into two different cohorts. When they were all in school, the students would travel to different classrooms throughout their day.
Charton’s school is located in the city of San Fernando, a neighborhood in northern L.A. County highly impacted by high Covid-19 transmission rates during the pandemic. The high case rates impacted her students and their families, particularly those living in poverty or experiencing homelessness.
“How do you contain it when you’re living with a bunch of people in one small house? I lost count of how many students who tell me, I’m not feeling well, or my mom and dad is sick, or I’m going to go get tested, and several students who were confirmed positive or their families,” said Charton. “And let’s say their mom or dad is sick, how can you expect them to do homework or, or get any help when there might not even be getting dinner because their parents can’t obviously cook if they’re in quarantine?”
She knows how difficult it is for some of her students and their families. “Some families that are stuck on hard times, some homeless, some that don’t get food outside of what we provide them at school. So it’s hard to expect those students to come to class and do work when they don’t have their basic needs being met first.”
The pandemic not only cut off her in-person communications with students, but also temporarily ended the art class she used to teach. Charton is an artistic, creative person who enjoyed teaching art class and incorporating art into her other classes. But it became too stressful to teach art virtually while also teaching two core subjects online, she said. She’s tried to incorporate art into her students’ assignments, but receiving a photograph of an art project is not the same as being able to see it in person, she said.
She grew up in neighboring Santa Clarita, where both of her parents currently teach in public elementary schools. Charton’s school remains under a distance learning format, she said, but her parents have both returned to their classrooms. While she awaits a return, she will continue connecting with her students in the best ways she’s been able to during this year of distance learning: reaching out to students, making herself available to them, and trying to joke and make small talk before the school day like she used to in person.
— Betty Márquez Rosales
With a class of 12 students and an 8-year-old of his own, Nicholas Hangca has exercised his adjustability and patience for the past year.
“I’m just been having to take it day by day and prepare for the things that I have control over … and just be patient and ready for anything to pop up,” said Hangca, a 6th-grade teacher at Los Angeles Unified’s Holmes Avenue Elementary School.
Despite 15 years of teaching experience, Hangca felt like a new teacher as he learned how to implement new digital tools and make his approach to teaching more distance-friendly. He’s now incorporated the new tools so well that he wonders how he’ll readjust to the classroom once he can return.
“It makes me almost kind of nervous that I forgot how to teach in person,” said Hangca, who received his first dose of a Covid-19 vaccination during the first week of March.
There have been some silver linings with distance learning. Primarily, he’s been able to connect more with certain students. As 6th-graders, most have their own devices where they can reach out to Hangca when they have any questions. It helps that he has a small class, he said, because he can assist them on an individual basis.
A shortened school schedule took some adjusting to, but he now sees there’s a positive to that change.
“It made me a better teacher, more focused on cutting out certain things that maybe are unnecessary,” he said. “I have significantly less time with them now. I have to make sure that I do it in a very succinct, very specific way, so I’ve tried to do a lot more kind of targeted instruction.”
Still, some students continue struggling to adjust and often ask when they might return to their campus in South Los Angeles.
“I think one of the biggest challenges has been making this feel normal. Kind of normalizing this experience with the kids, because some kids still are just completely against conducting class in this way,” he said.
That’s where an emphasis on socio-emotional learning comes into play. He greets each of his students when they join their video call, for example, just as he would in person. He facilitates a virtual circle every morning where he’ll give them a topic to discuss before getting into the day’s lessons. It helps him check in with them to know how they’re feeling that day.
He’s also prioritized his own mental health this year to help him continue practicing patience and adjusting to the many changes the pandemic has spurred.
“I’ve kind of just been focusing on the fundamentals when it comes to my lessons and then fundamentals when it comes to life. Breathing, taking a minute to meditate, just taking that time for myself, cause I definitely sometimes need it,” he said. “It’s a good thing that teachers tend to have patience already, because we kind of just have to be ready for anything. That’s kind of what this last year has been like.”
— Betty Márquez Rosales
Fourth-grade teacher Krystal Nelson was one of the first teachers in California to reunite with students face to face after schools abruptly shut their doors last March.
Just a few months later in August 2020, Lucerne Valley Elementary School, where Nelson teaches in San Bernardino, went from fully online to a mix of remote and in-person instruction, known as hybrid learning. Since then, she’s essentially been leading two classrooms: one for her students in person, and another for the students at home.
For Nelson, who is in her third year of teaching, having only two days with students like Colton Reichow has made all the difference in keeping close communication and tabs on how students are doing. Reichow and his mother, Sarah Courtney, are among the families being followed by EdSource this year to report on how families and students are coping with Covid.
“When I can see everyone in person it’s so much easier to get that one-on-one support,” said Nelson, adding that she makes herself available for tutoring and other help after class ends both remotely and in person.
The first student group comes in on Monday and Tuesday while the rest of the class does distance learning at home. The groups switch on Thursday and Friday. And on Wednesday, everyone learns at home.
Now that she has been vaccinated, Nelson feels more eager to teach in a classroom with about 20 students, more than double the current amount that she sees in person.
“It would definitely be better to have everyone back in class, as long as it’s safe. Our hybrid plan has been great and kept students from bringing Covid home to loved ones, and that’s more important than anything to me,” said Nelson. “But students learn best in the classroom.”
Part of her hope with returning to more in-person instruction is that she’ll have a chance to catch up with more students up in a group setting. While students are always at different levels academically, this year, she has seen an even wider learning gap emerge among her students.
“The students coming to school and doing distance work all the time are right where they need to be. But there has been a definite backslide since last March,” said Nelson. “I have students really struggling with early multiplication numbers. It’s hard to teach division and fractions when I’m still trying to help them master what they should have learned last year.”
Last fall, Nelson quickly got up to speed on different virtual lessons and communication apps to make the distance learning experience as smooth as possible. But her own tech skills couldn’t help solve longstanding Wi-Fi connection issues in the High Desert where her students live, making it impossible for students to attend online class some days, or simply get students to log in even when internet access is available.
Like many teachers, Nelson has seen the difficulties of the pandemic and distance learning up close, both professionally and personally. As the mother of a 1st-grader and 3rd-grader, she feels lucky that her children, who are both doing distance learning, are being cared for by her sister-in-law. She worries about how disconnected they have become from peers and educators this school year.
No plans are officially in place to bring more students back to Lucerne Valley Elementary School. But families will be offered the option to continue with distance learning, and an ongoing question is whether teachers will continue with a hybrid model or if there will be a fully-online class of the students who want to remain at home.
“If I have only three virtual students I would still have to plan for two classes because the kids at home can’t do the same thing as the kids in class, the resources just aren’t there,” said Nelson. “It would be much easier if the online students could have a different teacher. I have my fingers crossed for that.”
— Sydney Johnson
Anne Anthony is beyond ready to get back to the classroom. She’s tired of being home all the time, she misses her students, she’s eager to put Covid behind her. What makes her nervous, though, is the new post-pandemic reality that awaits.
“School won’t be the same,” said Anthony, who teaches middle school social studies in San Diego Unified. Among her students is Lucy Allbritton, who is part of the EdSource families project.
“Students won’t be able to sit next to their friends at lunch. We’ll have plastic partitions everywhere. Desks will be far apart. Everyone will be wearing masks. I’ll have to wear a mic and kids will be staring at computers all day,” Anthony said. “I’m afraid it’s going to look a lot like online learning, but in a classroom.”
Anthony teaches at Grant K-8 school north of downtown San Diego. She’s been teaching remotely since campuses closed last March, and has slowly adjusted. She’s rewritten her lesson plans for distance learning, and gotten used to teaching from her garage. Her elderly parents, who live nearby, have both been vaccinated, so she worries less about Covid.
But she does worry about her students’ mental health struggles lingering even after schools reopen. She thinks they’ll regain the academic material quickly, but the less tangible effects of the pandemic will be harder to overcome. Depression, anxiety and despair, compounded over a year of isolation and uncertainty, is not likely to vanish the day students return to campus.
“The hardest part, for me, has been watching kids that were thriving before, the ones who loved school, who are now struggling. They never smile, they’re disengaged, you have to beg them for a response,” she said. “You just know they’re not doing well, but it’s frustrating because you can’t reach them.”
And her students who were struggling even before the pandemic are having a harder time, she noted. Poverty, unemployment and inequities have worsened over the past year, adding stress to families that had very little cushion to begin with, she said.
“Communities that were already in crisis have been hit so hard by this,” she said. “Now they’re on the verge of collapse. … The pandemic has thrown a spotlight on it.”
The most heartbreaking thing of all? “I just know,” she said, “some kids won’t be coming back.”
— Carolyn Jones
For Caroline Jackson, a special education teacher in San Diego Unified, the toughest part of the past year has not been the shift to remote learning.
It’s the turned-off cameras.
“You try so hard to connect and motivate and encourage. But are they even there? Am I talking to a blank screen?” said Jackson, whose students include Charlie Allbritton, one of the students in the EdSource families project. “You really need that one-on-one relationship with students. But when they turn their cameras off, it’s so hard to connect with them. You don’t even know if they’re there.”
Jackson teaches in the district’s STARS program, or Successful Transitions Achieved Through Responsive Support, which serves about 120 students with mild to moderate disabilities, such as autism. The program offers regular academic classes but with extra support, including counseling and tutoring, tailored to students’ individual needs. The goal is to help students who might struggle in a general classroom succeed academically and earn their high school diplomas.
Jackson teaches in person two days a week and remotely the other days. But it’s not enough, she said. Her students, who rely on individualized help with classwork, often seem uninterested when they’re learning remotely. They miss assignments, they fail tests, they turn their cameras off.
“The relationship between the student and the teacher, the routines, the consistency, the support … they don’t have that. They’re on their own,” she said. “They’re capable of doing the work, it’s the organization and executive functioning skills they need. All those intangibles.”
The experience has been stressful and discouraging for Jackson, but she never considered quitting. The pandemic will eventually fade, and schools will reopen with some degree of normalcy, she said.
And she’s seen some bright spots that she thinks will carry over when campuses reopen. For starters, teachers have become more tech-savvy, and learned new ways to improve their teaching and classroom organization using computers. For example, online systems that allow students to get their homework assignments any time have been a big success, she said.
And some students who struggled before the pandemic have thrived during distance learning. In-person classes contained too many distractions, too much social pressure, or a pace that was either too fast or too slow. Studying independently at home has been a better fit. Those students will likely have the option of continuing to learn remotely.
But Jackson is eager to get back in the classroom five days a week. She misses the personal connection that’s made possible by sitting side by side with a student, working through an assignment together.
“Myself and most teachers I know, we want to get back to the classroom as soon as possible. If they make vaccines available, I’d be the first in line,” she said. “And I think the kids will be very motivated when they get back. And appreciative.”
— Carolyn Jones
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