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School is in session for many Texas public schools, but for at least the first three weeks of the academic year, classes across the state are largely being conducted online.
As families, educators and students adjust to remote instruction, teachers say that in these initial days, they’re spending more time than ever checking in on students and their families, dealing with connectivity issues and answering questions about virtual learning technology.
Several teachers said they’re working longer hours than usual as they constantly seek new ways to engage students. Attention spans already waned during pre-pandemic schooling, and being behind a screen doesn’t make it any easier.
Here is how some Texas teachers and administrators are doing as they reopen.
Take home desks and longer hours
Parents drove away from the supply drive at Raul Yzaguirre School for Success with metal desks tucked into cars and loaded in the beds of pickup trucks.
In the days leading up to Saturday’s supply giveaway at the Houston school, custodial staff scoured the building for spare desks and chairs and found 96 sets to give to parents.
“We basically told them, ‘Your home is your classroom.’ And so now we feel a sense of duty: ‘OK, what can we do to support them in that?’” said school spokesperson John Cisneros.
A local nonprofit put together about 125 backpacks with basic school supplies, and by the time Cisneros opened the gates at 6:25 a.m. to start setting up, there was already a line of vehicles waiting. Within an hour and 10 minutes, all the supplies the school had to give out were in the hands of families.
The Raul Yzaguirre School for Success, in southern Houston, serves a community that is primarily Latino and low-income. Students returned to online classrooms Aug. 12, and the school is set up to continue remote-only learning until Sept. 23.
Two weeks in, the technology questions are beginning to dwindle as students and families get the hang of virtual learning systems. But teachers said chunks of their days are spent trying to engage students and stay connected to parents.
Before the pandemic, Jesus Sanchez, a sixth grade math teacher, usually formed a relationship with about 25 families to help his lower-performing students succeed. Now he regularly talks to the families of about 50 of his approximately 90 students. Sanchez is constantly texting or on the phone with parents during breaks. Sometimes he even checks in during class if he notices a student’s absence. By lunchtime, Sanchez’s phone battery is nearly drained. By 7 p.m., when he actually wraps up work, Sanchez is drained.
So far, online learning is “going pretty OK,” Sanchez said. Students seem to be learning, but teachers are finding it harder to give automatic feedback when they can’t see on paper what exactly a student is struggling with, said Joseline Echegoyen, a fourth grade math teacher.
Sanchez has found it more difficult to get students to attend pre-scheduled sessions for extra help. He used to be able to track students down who he knew were struggling with the material, or owed assignments, and find them at the end of their art or physical education class. Now, there’s more reliance on them showing up to the extra-help session. On Monday, only two students went.
When the teacher's toddlers wave hello
Karla Gandarilla’s soon-to-be 4-year-old and 2-year-old are as good as toddlers can be about not interrupting mommy while she teaches virtual school from the family dining room table. They’ll often play teacher in an adjacent area off camera. But they’re still kids. At times, they wander in the background or try to get on the screen. When that happens, she’ll often let her kids say hi to her third grade class before respectfully asking them to have a seat, watch cartoons or go play.
Gandarilla said it’s important that she models handling the unexpected interruptions since her students may be in similar situations, sharing home learning space with several family members.
“I don’t want them to feel embarrassed if they have a brother or sister who is also there," Gandarilla said. "I want them to think, ‘You know what, Ms. Gandarilla is in that same situation but this is how she dealt with it, so maybe I can deal with it, too.’ I don’t want a child to ever feel embarrassed about their home situation.”
Bluebonnet Elementary School in Round Rock started virtual learning last week and will continue online for the first three weeks of class, though the school board may extend that at a meeting Thursday.
So far, Sam Soto, the school’s principal, estimates that 70% of the families of the school’s roughly 300 enrolled students said they’d opt to continue instruction online once the school reopens for in-person instruction. Bluebonnet Elementary school primarily serves low-income families.
A teacher of 10 years, Gandarilla who teaches in the school’s dual language program, said her main focus, especially this year, is to connect and build relationships with her students. Once that happens everything — from classroom behavior, class participation and grades — “falls into place.”
When Gandarilla welcomed students to her virtual classroom last Thursday, she was honest with her students about the feelings rattling inside her that morning.
"I didn't hide that I was sad, I didn't hide that I was angry because of everything going on. I mean, there are protests, people getting killed, there are people losing their jobs.”
Her students seemed surprised at her honesty, but Gandarilla sees the “little light turn on” and the sense of validation students get from knowing their teacher is dealing with similar emotions as them.
“Ms. Gandarilla doesn’t talk like a teacher, Ms. Gandarilla talks like she’s real,” she recalls her students saying.