Why a return to the classroom was scary but worth it

March 19, 2021

Students line up on their first day back to school.

Like a page from a dystopian novel that offers a glimmer of hope at the end, my daughter marked the one-year anniversary of the pandemic that forced the closures of schools across California and the country by returning to campus.

My husband and I agonized over the decision. Our daughter, a 5th-grader in a Los Angeles area school district, has thrived this past year despite the inherent challenges of distance learning. That’s thanks to great teachers, an infectious positive attitude and lots of support at home — from Mom, Dad and even her 16-year-old brother.

Her success and ability to adapt, however, masked a social and emotional deficit that was silently simmering and that we completely underestimated.

Month after month, 2020 marked the special moments our daughter was missing at school: field trips to NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Walt Disney Concert Hall, a weeklong 5th Grade Outdoor Science School overnight camp, a chance to perform live in the school district’s 5th Grade Musical. Instead, she taught herself how to play the piano by watching YouTube videos, went on countless family bike rides and penned special editions of a Vasquez Family newspaper, complete with news stories and comic strips. (This is what happens when both parents are journalists.)

My daughter seemed to understand that the situation could always be worse, a mindset ingrained in the children and grandchildren of immigrants. She was brave when our family dealt with a health scare over the summer and used FaceTime on a daily basis to stay in touch with school friends and family who live across the country, her close-knit cousins and her beloved Abuelo and Abuela, whom she normally sees each summer and over the holidays.

For their part, my daughter’s teachers have made sure to go above and beyond since the first day of school. I was skeptical, at first, about combining two classrooms  —  60+ 5th-graders on Zoom. (The very early days of distance learning sounded a bit like a zoo had overtaken my dining room.)

The teachers not only found a way to make it work, they made it fun:

But like a light bulb that starts to flicker, my daughter’s internal light slowly began to dim. The outgoing girl who once had a million stories from the playground to tell each day after school no longer had as much to say. I’d watch as she sat in silence while she studiously did her work on Zoom, often reluctant to interrupt a class discussion or to ask a question. She’d come to life in smaller breakout rooms but only if a close friend was in the group.

Credit: Anne Vasquez / EdSource

The author’s daughter takes a math test over Zoom in the parking lot of a Los Angeles-area community college after a power outage at home cut off internet access.

She remained self-motivated, engaged and driven  —  but quiet. Uncharacteristically quiet. It was clear that a year of isolation, not to mention soul-crushing news events, were beginning to impact my daughter’s sunny disposition.

So when our school district began contemplating a phased-in reopening plan, beginning with elementary schools, my husband and I did what seemed unthinkable as recently as January: We began to contemplate a return to school and all the related “what-ifs.” What if a student comes to school sick? What if our daughter’s teacher contracts Covid-19 by an asymptomatic student? What if our daughter brings the virus home?

The questions and all the unknowns are enough to make a parent crawl under the covers and cry. (Trust me, I speak from experience.)

My daughter began to lobby us to allow her to return to school, and we noticed a sudden and distinct change. Just the idea of stepping foot in the classroom lifted our daughter’s spirits. She was again eager to go outside to play and ride her skateboard. She began to daydream about life back at school on the second-floor of the building on campus reserved for 5th-graders. She shed her pandemic wardrobe and returned to accessorizing her outfits with barrettes, sunglasses and hats for her Zoom classes.

The school district’s hybrid instruction model means students are divided into morning and afternoon cohorts while still continuing with distance learning over Zoom during the other parts of the school day. A number of health safety measures are in place, including social distancing (with reminders marked by blue paw prints on the floor), mask-wearing, contact tracing (via a smartphone app survey that must be completed each morning), temperature screening, and special bathroom and hand-washing procedures.

A blue pawprint serves as a reminder for students to stand socially distanced.

My daughter’s teacher, who had been teaching on Zoom from inside an empty classroom until this week, welcomed students back on Monday donning a lab coat and displaying Harry Potter themed room decorations. Students were assigned cubbies to keep personal items separate.

A camera at the back of the classroom allows fellow classmates on Zoom to watch their friends at school. An iPad attached to a tripod at the front of the room broadcasts what the teacher writes on the whiteboard. A television atop a counter displays the square Zoom tiles of the online students and his co-teacher.

A slab of plexiglass separates students from the teacher’s desk. On the whiteboard is a sign that reads: “We have growth mindsets!” It’s a mantra that my daughter’s teachers have engrained in the classroom from Day One. This year, more than ever, is about learning and mastery of concepts. It’s not about scores and checking off academic lists.

The tiny silver linings and life lessons of this past year will remain for years to come. In the simple words of my daughter, after her first day back on campus this week: “I’m never again taking school for granted.”

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