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Reopening Texas Schools

Faceless avatars and microphone malfunctions: A Houston teacher wonders if his students are learning

Spend a day with Westfield High School teacher Cris Hernandez, and you'll see the frustrations and uncertainties of virtual teaching. More than four weeks into the school year, he still can't tell if he's connecting with his students.

U.S. History teacher Cris Hernandez teaches a class remotely in an empty classroom at Westfield High School on Sept 15, 2020.

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Standing before a marked-up whiteboard, Cris Hernandez asked his students to explain what they learned from the day’s history reading, which offered two takes on conflict in colonial America.

Not one of the faceless avatars on the Google Hangouts grid on his computer screen responded.

Hernandez, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. history, tried harder to coax a response from about five students. Alone in his bare Houston-area classroom in Westfield High School on Monday, he couldn’t see the furrowed brows, glazed eyes or jiggling legs that might indicate his students were confused about the reading, or just plain tired. It was the last class of the day, and getting students to participate felt like pulling teeth.

Finally, one student unmuted herself and responded: “I was just finding it hard to read in general.”

Hernandez immediately launched into advice for building reading comprehension, encouraging students to come to his office hours for more help. As the hour continued, he used examples from the students’ lives to help them understand the dense political analysis. A camera perched on spindly tripod legs broadcast Hernandez and his whiteboard notes to students’ iPads and laptops as he tried not to move too far outside its field of vision.

After the class was over, he flopped down in a chair and sighed. More than four weeks into the virtual school year, Hernandez is often frustrated by the challenge of connecting with his students, sometimes unsure whether they’re learning or even sitting at their computers.

“They really don’t get to see me move around as much. If they are seeing me in the classroom, I bounce around everywhere and I jump. I get excited when I talk about this stuff,” he said. “I could get them excited about this by my body language.”

Hernandez and his Spring Independent School District colleagues are adjusting to a new normal in education as the majority of Texas public school students begin the year learning remotely during a global pandemic. A politico-turned-educator in his third year of teaching, Hernandez usually relies on his humor and energetic personality to keep students’ attention, tools that seem out of reach when he can’t see his students’ faces and doesn’t know if they’re watching him.

In the spring, many Texas school districts struggled to abruptly pivot to remote learning, and more than 10% of students didn’t complete assignments or respond to teacher outreach for some period of time, according to state data. Educators and politicians debated how and when to reopen classrooms in person this fall as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations piled up, weighing the health risks of in-person instruction against the social and educational pitfalls of keeping students at home.

As most students begin the academic year online, Texas has ordered school districts to resume grading, taking attendance and teaching new material, to get learning back on track. That leaves teachers juggling hefty responsibilities, including advocating for stricter safety guidelines, searching for students who haven’t logged in since spring break and facing down the challenge of engaging students over a screen.

For Hernandez and his peers, the stakes of delivering a quality education are especially high. Westfield High School students are predominately Black, Hispanic and low income, communities harder hit by COVID-19 and more likely to have received little instruction last spring.

During first period Monday, one of Hernandez’s chattiest students tried to talk to him and found that her voice would not go through. “MIC NOT WORKING,” she wrote in the chat box, followed by a string of unintelligible letters showing her frustration: “JHFAKFHKFEWF.”

Hernandez had his class of 24 students split in two groups to discuss the reading, meaning they had to close the classwide Google Hangouts window and open separate windows for the small groups. He had wanted the normally chatty student to lead one of the discussions, but it would be harder with her microphone off.

Students logged into the video lesson late, some 15 or more minutes in. Some appeared, then disappeared, then reappeared, their computers likely freezing or their internet spotty. “This is an AP class, so you’re rarely going to have kids come in late, and if they do there’s a reason, like they’re stuck in band hall,” Hernandez said. “Now, I can’t tell whether they have good reason. I have to assume they all have good reason.”

A lot has changed about this year. Before going to school each morning, Hernandez fills out an online checklist of COVID-19 symptoms, self-reporting no sign of fever, cough or shortness of breath. With just staff and a few students in the buildings, the hallways are mostly empty on the walk to his classroom. Rushing to the faculty bathroom between classes, he fits a disposable blue mask over his bearded face.

In normal years, teachers gather regularly with others in their department to talk about student progress and share ideas, a highlight for many. Now, those gatherings take place over video chat, each teacher confined to their own room to avoid spreading the virus.

Technology is more important than ever before. Hernandez is one of the most creative teachers, using an online polling tool to collect students’ answers and setting up separate chat rooms for smaller discussions. His classroom setup includes one camera, an iPad, one large monitor and two computers, so he can simultaneously show his notes on the whiteboard, refer to the historical text, check attendance and monitor students’ written pleas for technical support.

U.S. History teacher Cris Hernandez teaches a class remotely in an empty classroom at Westfield High School on Sept 15, 2020.
U.S. History teacher Cris Hernandez teaches a class remotely in an empty classroom at Westfield High School on Sept 15, 2020.

None of his students turn their cameras on and he doesn’t push them, aware they may be too embarrassed or scared to show their homes in the background. “I told them: Look, you want to be on camera? Be on camera. If not, that’s OK. But that doesn’t excuse you for not participating,” he said. “At the least, let me hear you. Let me see you in chat.”

But even this tech whiz cannot surmount all the hurdles. Due to issues with the publisher, Westfield High students don’t have access to the online history textbooks the district purchased. For now, Hernandez is using a “bootleg book” he found online that’s about four or five editions old and doesn’t even reach former President Barack Obama’s term.

In his second class Monday morning, Hernandez did not recognize a student’s name that popped up on the Google Hangouts grid. In a normal year, he would greet that new student at the door, or pull him aside and introduce himself. Now, the main options are calling the student out in front of the entire class or attempting to email him later.

“How many times have I caught these new people? I don’t know. Sometimes I don’t see them. There might be people I’ve completely lost and I haven’t said anything,” he said. “I’ve been worried.”

Last weekend, school employees went door knocking to find about 80 students enrolled last year whose parents haven’t responded to phone calls or emails. Some likely have moved or enrolled in other districts, Principal David Mason said. A few administrators have conscripted students to help them track lost kids on social media.

In two weeks, Hernandez will be required to simultaneously educate nearly half his students in person and the rest online, adding another task to the precariously tall pile he is balancing. Westfield High phased in students with disabilities first, then freshmen and sophomores next week, and juniors and seniors in two weeks. The school will limit the number of students who can come in each day in order to allow for more social distancing. About half the school’s students decided to return in person by the end of the month, similar to the percentage districtwide.

The district previously told teachers it would close schools each Wednesday to sanitize buildings. But recently, administrators said teachers would be required to come into the building Wednesdays and the district would deep clean after they leave. Teachers and students will be responsible for providing their own masks, Mason said. Students who forget to bring their masks can request one. The school has provided each teacher with a bucket of 300 wipes, a refillable bottle of hand sanitizer and six cloth masks for the year.

Research shows that children are less likely than adults to suffer severe symptoms of COVID-19, but they can transmit it to their teachers or families. Hernandez worries about whether he’ll make it through the year without getting infected and wishes he felt his administrators were doing all they could to keep staff safe.

“This is us living or dying. This is not trying to pencil whip it so you can say, ‘Hey we’ve done these things,’” he said. “If I were an administrator or higher up, I’d be trembling with the sheer weight of the responsibility you have to us as your teachers.”

On Monday morning, despite the technical difficulties and late arrivals, the class discussion appeared relatively normal: A handful of students dominated the discussion, others listened silently and presumably a few daydreamed at their desks. Hernandez took attendance by asking students to drop their names into the chat so he could gather them later.

At the end of the hour, alone in his classroom, Hernandez sent his students off with what has become a catch phrase: “Have a wonderful day, love you all, be safe. I’ll catch you Friday.”

U.S. History teacher Cris Hernandez teaches a class remotely in an empty classroom at Westfield High School on Sept 15, 2020.

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