As the coronavirus pandemic surges into autumn, California’s students, teachers and families are embarking on an extraordinary school year. Most of the usual back-to-school traditions have been scrapped. Now, students in most parts of the state are getting to know new teachers, learning new skills and meeting new friends virtually, in a high-tech experiment that will likely affect education in California for years to come.
With thousands of campuses closed for in-person instruction, many students will weather the pandemic at home, following their teachers on Zoom and navigating lessons and projects on their own. Other students, meanwhile, are still struggling to obtain tablets or laptops, reliable internet access and quiet places to study. And some students are cautiously venturing back to the classroom, in hybrid schedules with students spending part 0f the week in school and part at home attending virtually, intended to keep children safe while offering some semblance of normalcy.
In a continuing series, EdSource will be tracking families throughout the state — from the mountains of far Northern California to the urban hubs of San Diego and Los Angeles to the farm fields of the Central Valley and everywhere in between. We’ll find out what’s working, what’s not and how students and their families feel about the state of our K-12 public education system as it adapts to these tumultuous times.
We invite readers to check in regularly to see how families are faring and listen as they describe their experiences. While many students and parents we’re talking to say the beginning of the school year has been “exhausting” and “stressful” and filled with “trial and error,” some have expressed hope that a new, improved system will emerge from the chaos. And everyone seemed resolved to barrel through whatever challenges lie ahead.
As Carolyn Bims-Payne, an Oakland social worker and single mother of two put it, “We’re going to make the best of this.”
— Carolyn Jones
Carolyn Bims-Payne, a single mom in Oakland, has posted inspirational pictures and sayings in her kitchen, where her sons Michael Lee, 12, and Jaylen Lee, 10, work on their homework as they participate in distance learning. These include daily scriptures they read together each morning, a “to do” list and their schedules “to really pump them up and be engaged,” she said.
“We have quotes and affirmations to get them in the mindset: ‘We’re going to make the best of this,’” she said.
Bims-Payne is a social worker for Alameda County who works from home four days a week and monitors her sons by phone on Fridays, when she goes into her office. Overall, she is pleased with the quality of instruction Michael, a seventh-grader at Edna Brewer Middle School, is receiving, but is less impressed with the level of instruction that Jaylen, a fourth-grader at Laurel Elementary, has received this school year. Both schools are part of Oakland Unified School District, which began instruction Aug. 10.
Michael’s school divided up his six classes into two blocks called “mini-mesters.” The first block consists of three classes each day for seven weeks, followed by the other three classes the following seven weeks. He’s taking music, history and math, and has been meeting with an advisory teacher for the first two weeks who focused on “community-building” activities such as reading poetry by Tupac Shakur about panthers, the school’s mascot, and discussing its relevance to the Black Panthers in Oakland and the Black Lives Matter movement.
But Jalen has had only 30 minutes of live Zoom interaction with his teacher each day, Bims-Payne said. That interaction, so far at least, has consisted of his teacher giving out assignments and communicating with the class about expectations. Instruction is lacking, Bims-Payne said. Jaylen had a reading assessment on Monday, but on Tuesday, his teacher’s Chromebook and internet started “cutting out,” she said.
This has led to a feeling that her sons are part of a huge experiment “where it’s just really trial and error,” she said.
To supplement what she considers minimal instruction for Jaylen, Bims-Payne purchased a reading workbook to build his comprehension. She’s also concerned that Michael has no English course during his first mini-mester, which she believes is important to help hone his writing skills.
But Jaylen and Michael said they are adjusting to learning from home.
“I miss my friends and I feel like it’s better at school because with online learning, you’re not learning all the things that you learn in the classroom,” Jaylen said, adding that he wishes he could do more math. He said he is reading “Frog and Toad” books recommended by his teacher.
Michael said he expects to receive an instrument for his music class soon, and he’s learning about Islam in history and geometry in math.
“I’m enjoying it,” he said. “I’m getting way more work than usual. We get homework every day.”
But school has started with some concerns. Michael didn’t receive his class schedule until 10 days after school started, and Bims-Payne still doesn’t know what classes he will have during his second mini-mester. She also doesn’t know how the district may eventually transition to in-classroom instruction. She acknowledges that part of the slow start was due to the lack of an agreement between the teachers’ union and the district, which has made it difficult for teachers and the district to communicate plans to parents. The teachers’ union ratified the agreement two weeks into the school year.
Despite her concerns about distance learning, Bims-Payne said with Covid-19 still spreading in the community, she would not feel comfortable sending her sons to school.
— Theresa Harrington
Alexandra Mitchell, 17, has high hopes for her senior year at Shasta High School in Redding. She is president of the band and is going to work at the local hospital as part of the school’s medical occupation program. Before the coronavirus curtailed social gatherings, she had been looking forward to all the events leading up to graduation.
Her senior year, so far, is a lot different from what she expected. Mitchell and half of her schoolmates arrived at school Aug. 12 as Group B, made up of students with last names that started with letters between L and Z. Each group attends school two days a week and works from home for three. Some of her best friends are in Group A.
Mitchell starts her day by pulling on a mask and following arrows, designed to keep hallway traffic moving in one direction, to her classrooms. She stands on a red dot in the hall with other socially distanced girls waiting to go into the bathroom and eats lunch at a table with a sign limiting the number of students who can sit down. In band class, 15 of the 30 members of the group discuss music history instead of playing their instruments.
“It was definitely a culture shock, I guess,” she said. “I’m seeing the same faces I’ve always seen at schools — the teachers, my friends. The school itself feels a little different. Everything is a little off. Everything in my life has moved an inch to the left.”
Mitchell isn’t happy about not being able to play her flute with her band mates and not being able to organize band holiday parties and trips — part of her role as president — but she is pragmatic.
“It’s out of my control and I don’t want to waste my time focusing on it,” she said. “I have to focus on my future.”
Mitchell is matter-of-fact when she talks about the possibility of missing graduation and the other milestones of being a senior. It is tradition for Shasta High students to meet at the Sundial Bridge that spans the Sacramento River one morning at the beginning of the school year to watch the sun rise. At the end of the year they meet again to watch it set. Mitchell hasn’t heard any buzz about Senior Sunrise yet this school year.
“I don’t think it will happen this year,” she said.
The senior, who has a 3.9 grade-point average, had some good news recently. She learned that, despite Covid-19, she would be able to work at Shasta Community Health Center one day a week as part of a class that will help her to earn certification as a medical assistant. Mitchell, who wants to be a surgeon, is an officer in the school’s Health Occupations Students of America Club.
When Mitchell isn’t following arrows and standing on dots at Shasta High, she spends her three days at home in a combination of structured learning, following a bell schedule, and unstructured learning, in which she decides when to complete assignments. Mitchell prefers unstructured learning because she can knock out her assignments by noon and have the rest of the day to herself.
But Mitchell likes going to school and participating in band more than anything else.
“I hope there will be an opportunity for the band to come together and play together sometime, but I think it is unlikely with the state of things in the world. I don’t want to be hopeful, I would get disappointed.”
— Diana Lambert
Rashida Dunn-Nasr says her children’s first few weeks of distance learning with Sacramento City Unified this school year have been bumpy at best.
The school district and the Sacramento City Teachers Association, its teachers’ union, have yet to come to an agreement on a distance learning plan for the school year.
Dunn-Nasr says the result is an inconsistent schedule of live instruction among her three children enrolled at Martin Luther King Jr. School: Noah and William, her fifth- and sixth-grade children, are receiving one hour of live instruction via Zoom while her fourth-grader, Audrey, is getting three hours of live instruction each day.
Her ideal schedule would be two hours of instruction per child a day, with a little additional time for students to do independent work and then 30 minutes of reading.
Jayden, a ninth grader at Kennedy High School, has had some Zoom instruction during each class period. The classes are focusing on review for now because poor air quality caused by wildfires canceled textbook distribution.
During the first weeks of the semester, teachers had to eject two intruders from two of his Zoom classes: one who showed pornographic images and another who shared music with inappropriate lyrics.
District spokeswoman Tara Gallegos confirmed that there had been cases of Sacramento City Unified classes being Zoom bombed, as the practice is known, since distance learning started on Sept. 3. The school sent letters to teachers and parents earlier this month outlining the safety measures that are in place to prevent this from happening.
Dunn-Nasr arrives home every morning from her job as an overnight caretaker to make breakfast for her four children so they can begin their lessons. This semester, with Zoom classes starting as early as 8 a.m., she is scrambling to get everyone online in time.
Audrey sometimes has trouble making that first class. “I wasn’t here in the morning for like 10 minutes and I miss something, and then I couldn’t do my reading assignment and it’s hard for me because I didn’t know what they were talking about,” she said about missing part of a class.
The transition to distance learning is a work in progress, Dunn-Nasr said.
“Basically, we’re working on getting into a solid routine,” she said. “I feel as if, as adults, it’s our responsibility to supervise and ensure that they are accessing their classwork, and they also kind of need to work on personal accountability.”
The children have mixed feelings about distance learning. Noah and his brother, Jayden, like distance learning because they don’t have to wait for the entire class to complete their work before they can move on to something else.
But Noah also misses walking to school with his friends every morning.
Audrey would like to get back to the classroom. She is shy about asking questions on Zoom and would prefer to ask them in person. This year she and her best friend were finally assigned to the same class. Audrey is still waiting to sit beside her.
Despite the hurdles and heartbreak of distance learning, Dunn-Nasr wouldn’t like to see her children back on campus during the pandemic.
“Not right now,” she said. “It’s too scary. Even for the districts who, for whatever reason, aren’t having (positive coronavirus) cases. I feel like it’s only a matter of time.”
— Diana Lambert
Although the real estate agent didn’t list it as such, Kathy Lieu and Andrew Tran moved last month into a four-classroom home in San Jose. At least that’s what it has become, now that each of their four children has a room and a computer to do distance learning in relative peace.
Lieu and Tran, who immigrated from Vietnam a quarter-century ago, work in tech. If anything convinced them of the need for a bigger home, it was the inaugural run with remote learning in March. It was “chaotic,” said Lieu, a software engineer who writes computer programs at home for a company in Chico. The kids, ages 7 to 15, shared a common area on the second floor of their previous home. The internet was slow, learning was sporadic and her twins, then in sixth grade, fought over who got the better Chromebook.
“We just took it one day at a time,” she said. “There was always something new that was going to happen the next day. It’s like, ‘My internet doesn’t work.’ ‘My computer is so slow.’ ‘It froze.’ All that commotion going on at the same time.” Because the twins, Karyn and Aidan, were in the same class at the Alpha Cornerstone Academy Preparatory School, a charter school, they were on Zoom at the same time, but separately in the house.
Now, by chance, the two are in different schools. Karyn won the lottery to attend a much-in-demand — and demanding — charter school, University Preparatory Academy. Aiden is in his first year at College Connection Academy, an unusual collaboration of Franklin McKinley School District, East Side Union High School District and Evergreen Valley College. Starting in seventh grade, a cohort of students accelerates through middle and high school, where they are taught by community college instructors and get credit for a year of college courses.
Big sister Carly, 15, now a sophomore, decided to switch from College Connection to another East Side Union high school, Silver Creek, where she has friends. And 7-year-old Camdyn is at the charter school that the twins had attended, Alpha Cornerstone Academy Preparatory School.
Lieu and Tran said they’re optimistic about the fall after their kids finished their first week of school. Teachers appear better prepared, and the family is, too. But even with a big upgrade in broadband at a promotional price, the family, with five users at one time, taxed the system, and went over the 1,200-gigabyte per month limit, incurring extra charges.
As an electrical engineer who works for a telecommunications company, Tran goes to the office most days. That leaves Lieu to ride herd over the kids.
The girls appear to be better self-starters. Karyn’s teacher requires that students keep the Zoom video on and the audio unmuted, which forces everyone else to keep the noise down — which would have been impossible at the old house. College Connection isn’t as strict, and Lieu caught Aidan watching YouTube instead of the class the other day. She’s forgiving. We all multi-task, she said.
Camdyn requires the most attention, his mother said. His 8 a.m. to 12:30 pm schedule is long for a second-grader, and he complains he’s bored. Throw in lunch breaks at different times for the other kids, and it’s long day, with many distractions for Lieu. Except for her own Zoom meetings, her schedule is flexible as long as work gets done. Which is sometimes at midnight or 1 a.m., after the kids are long in bed.
— John Fensterwald
The intense heat in her Central Valley town of Porterville had already kept Mayra Guzman out of her job in the local agricultural fields for several days in August. Then her two oldest sons started school, requiring more time off.
Jose Luis and Juan Manuel, are in second and seventh grade in Porterville Unified School District, which began the school year on Aug. 13.
On the first two days of school, Guzman went to the boys’ campuses — Pioneer Middle School and Vandalia Elementary School — to pick up books they would need for their classes. Guzman spent the third day of school setting up her boys’ iPads with the necessary software, including Google Classroom, and gaining access to their student accounts.
The technology issues started on the fourth day, when classes officially began.
“The problem is that sometimes we can’t connect,” said Guzman in Spanish. “When I went to the school today, there were many parents there for the same reason. Parents didn’t know how to connect because they send you from one link to another and another. The steps to connect are so confusing.”
On the days she has been able to work, her younger brother, who is in high school, makes sure the kids get out of bed and log on to their classes.
The boys’ school day starts at 8:30 a.m. and ends by 2:30 p.m., with several breaks in between their Zoom classes. The youngest, Jose Luis, has only one teacher, but Juan Manuel has four different classes to log into each day. To ensure they stay on track, Guzman reviews their Google Classroom assignments and helps them with their homework each day after work.
The spring semester, when campuses first closed, was easier for Guzman in some ways. Juan Manuel, 11, was assigned an iPad to attend class, while Jose Luis, 7, had the option to work off of paper packets that his teacher put together for her students.
Even then, Guzman had cut their home Wi-Fi connection last year because they rarely used it. If her children needed internet for school-related work, they would often go to their local library after school. But about a month before the shelter-in-place orders were implemented, Porterville City Library burned down. Without school and without a library, Guzman had to re-install the home Wi-Fi.
The bumps in the road of distance learning have been constant, and the time commitment has led her to keep her youngest, 4-year-old Miguel Angel, out of preschool.
“I was getting calls telling me over and over to enroll him, but I didn’t because it’s too much having three children connected, and I won’t be able to be with the three of them,” Guzman said.
Instead, she purchased books, flashcards, notebooks and coloring materials to keep him engaged at home. Only if schools reopen for in-person instruction in January will Guzman enroll him in preschool.
“Our work has doubled. Right now, we have to prepare everything the kids will do: prepare what they will have for breakfast, food for lunch, make sure they’re submitting all their work, call them in the morning to wake them up, brush their teeth, change their clothes. After work, I have to check all their work,” Guzman said. “It’s exhausting.”
— Betty Márquez Rosales
After schools closed in March, Armanda Ruiz’s 10-year-old daughter Priscila only had two speech therapy sessions the rest of the school year. Priscila was born prematurely, at 25 weeks. She has had multiple health problems all her life, and she was diagnosed with autism at an early age. She is in a special education class in Los Banos Unified School District, and Ruiz said she is supposed to receive speech therapy sessions twice a week.
“They told me to practice pronouncing words with my daughter, but I don’t know English 100% well. It was really hard. I don’t have a master’s degree or a doctorate or any preparation to be a speech therapist. I couldn’t help her,” Ruiz said in Spanish.
Ruiz lives in a 3-bedroom trailer in Los Banos, in the Central Valley, with her four children. In addition to Priscila, she also has a son who is a junior in high school and two older girls who attend the local community college, Merced College. Ruiz is an active mother, involved in her daughter’s school’s English Learner Advisory Committee, a committee of parents that advocates and advises the school on how to best serve English language learners, and with the Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE), a nonprofit organization that helps parents advocate for their children in school.
School is in some ways the least of the family’s worries.
Ruiz’s husband went to Mexico a little over a year ago, in May 2019, to finalize his process to become a legal permanent resident, but at the last minute he was not allowed to return. The couple is now appealing the decision. After the family was separated, Ruiz’s oldest daughter left UC Merced to work to help keep the family afloat, enrolling in community college classes instead. Then the pandemic hit. Recently, a doctor found Priscila has gallstones.
To Ruiz, it feels like one thing after another: family separation, economic hardship, health problems, a pandemic and now, wildfire smoke, affecting several family members’ asthma.
Ruiz still isn’t sure how the family will balance all four of her children doing distance learning at once this fall. But that didn’t stop her from enrolling in her own online class — an English as a Second Language course offered by Fresno Community College, which Ruiz is hoping will help her improve her pronunciation. On her first day, Ruiz got up early before anyone else was awake and logged on to the class in her bedroom alone. She said it went well. She’s hoping it will be smoother for Priscila, too, this fall than it was in the spring.
“I hope they find a better way, so that the kids aren’t just wasting this time, which they need. I think a lot of learning was lost,” Ruiz said.
— Zaidee Stavely
Four children are tucked into corners of Leticia Solano’s cramped apartment to do distance learning in Oxnard, northwest of Los Angeles in Ventura County. Her third-grade daughter Mariacarmen has a spot at the kitchen table. Her sons, Felipe in kindergarten and Eusebio in first grade, sit on opposite sides of a toy organizer against the living room wall. Her 14-year-old niece, Andrea, who lives with the family, studies in one of the bedrooms. Meanwhile, her older son, Victor, 21, is often sleeping during the day because he works nights as a caregiver for elderly people.
“It’s hard,” Solano said. “I don’t have an education. But I still try to find ways to make it work.”
Solano only studied up to the third grade in Mexico as a child before she had to start working. Today, though, she’s considered something of an expert in school by other parents. She’s active in many parent groups, and since classes started up again in August, Solano’s been fielding calls and texts from her neighbors asking how to log onto their children’s online classes, how to apply to get Wi-Fi from the school district, or asking if she can pick up free meals from the school for families who don’t have cars. Last spring, after learning that some neighbors had to leave their house early to work in the fields and were leaving their second-grader with older siblings, she began knocking on their door every day, to wake up the boy, so he could log into his class on time.
Solano’s committed to helping other parents because she didn’t always have the help she needed when her eldest child first began school. She was a single parent at the time, and she was working as a migrant farmworker, traveling from state to state to harvest crops. When the district sent out surveys about how to reopen, Solano said she thought about the families who were in situations like she used to be.
“I put that they should focus more on the children who didn’t show up to classes in the spring, on the children who have special needs, those who didn’t even get on Zoom in the beginning. Other parents may speak just for themselves, but not me,” Solano said.
Through workshops organized by other parents, Solano learned it was best for each child to have their own space to work. So she and her niece decorated signs to welcome the younger ones to their first day, with their names and the word “Bienvenido” or “Welcome.” She wrote each child’s Zoom meeting number and password on a small piece of paper, then covered it with tape so it wouldn’t get wet.
The first few days, the younger children were mostly learning lessons that are common in any kindergarten or first-grade classroom — how to raise your hand to ask a question, for example — and a few lessons that are unique to distance learning, like how to unmute yourself. By 11 a.m., all three younger children are done with live instruction and ready for lunch. Afterward, they do homework and play with Legos or draw.
Solano said having their own space, even if it’s close to the others, is helping the children get used to the routine. Recently, she told them it was time to go to bed because they had school the next day.
“Oh yes,” said her littlest, who just began kindergarten. “It’s on Zoom and at home.”
— Zaidee Stavely
Kerry Martinez was supposed to be a fifth-year student at Cal State Los Angeles this fall, on her way to receiving her teaching credential next spring. But with her children in virtual learning at an elementary school in Los Angeles, she was forced to change her plans.
Her two sons — Ian and Alexander — attend KIPP Vida Preparatory Academy in South-Central Los Angeles. Ian is in transitional kindergarten, and Alexander is in second grade.
“I think it would have been too much for myself to be online with my classes all the time and helping with the kids’ classes,” she said. So Martinez is delaying her education by a semester and is now on track to get her credential next fall.
Having to make that decision was disappointing at first for Martinez, she said, but she’s found a silver lining: She’s receiving what she considers field experience because she can watch and learn from her sons’ teachers. She spent the first week watching those teachers and trying to learn “what works and what doesn’t work,” which she thinks will help her make kids more engaged when she becomes a teacher.
“So I think that it’s not a downside, it’s more of an upside for me,” Martinez said.
Virtual learning for Martinez’s sons wasn’t perfect in the spring, when teachers and schools were forced to quickly pivot to online learning as the virus began to spread around the state. At that time, there wasn’t much live interaction with teachers, Martinez said.
This time around, though, the days are much more engaging for her sons. They meet with their teachers for live interaction three times per day, for 30 minutes each session — sometimes with the full class and other times in groups of about 12 students. Those meetings are recorded, which appeals to Martinez because if she can’t sit with her sons as they’re in class, she can return to the lesson to see what they learned.
“And now that they’re actually seeing their teacher and interacting with other kids, I think it keeps them motivated,” Martinez said.
As a future teacher herself, Martinez said she hopes other parents will sympathize with teachers if there are hiccups as distance learning continues this fall.
“Teaching in person and then teaching virtually, they’re so different. Communication’s different. The bonding is going to be different,” she said. “So everybody has to be patient and understanding.”
Across California, many parents of children with disabilities are skeptical about distance learning and whether it can work for their kids.
That’s not the case for Shari Abercrombie, a parent in West Los Angeles who says that the transition to distance learning for her son, Ian, has been mostly smooth. Ian is a fourth-grade student at WISH Charter Elementary in West L.A. Ian’s many diagnoses include a brain malformation, an enlarged heart and hydrocephalus, which is the buildup of too much fluid in the brain.
“Since the pandemic hit, WISH has kicked into gear like they had had their (distance learning) plan all along. I don’t think they did, but they acted as if they did,” Abercrombie said.
Ian is on a modified curriculum, with a schedule developed to meet his needs — the result of weekly meetings between Abercrombie and Ian’s teachers. “We have met regularly to talk about what’s working, what’s not working. And we have refined and refined his schedule,” she said.
Each school day, he has time allotted to meet with his special education teacher for one-on-one learning. At other times, he participates in the lessons with the full class, which are conducted on an app called Blue Button.
Blue Button is a video-conferencing platform that allows the students to see the teacher and the teacher to see the students, but the students can’t see each other, Abercrombie said. She said she prefers that to other platforms that allow students to all see each other, which she said is distracting.
Ian also often participates in small group breakout sessions, and Abercrombie said the social interaction is good for him. His peers often help him and he helps them. For example, Ian is particularly good at math, Abercrombie said, and often knows equations that his peers don’t.
“They’ll put him in a group with peers, and we’re trying to do an escape room project, and they come up to a math equation, and Ian tosses in his answer. And it’s really cool,” she said.
— Michael Burke
The 2020-21 school year is a milestone for the Cruzado family — it’s 17-year-old Camila’s final year of high school at Pinole Valley High, near Richmond in the San Francisco Bay Area, and 14-year-old Leo’s first year at the school. Though learning from home has taken away some of the luster of this school year, the two are still excited for this pivotal moment in their education.
The family immigrated to the U.S. from Peru around five years ago, and the children learned English on their own, Leo said. They live in nearby San Pablo with their parents, and their older brother who is not in school. Their cousin, who is in her early 20s, is in the process of moving in with them.
West Contra Costa Unified, where Pinole Valley High is located, began the school year on Aug. 17 with almost 100 percent of students learning from home. Camila and Leo said it hasn’t been too tough to adjust, since the district transitioned to distance learning in March. The district also provided them with Chromebooks to use for distance learning.
What’s different this school year, Camila said, is that there is a mix of live instruction and learning students do independently.
“Last year we never had a Zoom call, we never actually interacted with the teacher,” Camila said. “Even though I don’t like showing my face on camera, it’s way better because if I have questions it’s more like school, and they won’t take like an hour to get back to me.”
Camila and Leo both start their school days around 10 a.m. — Camila usually works in her room and Leo at the kitchen table. Leo said their mother doesn’t let them work on the couch.
They each have a “homeroom” class at the start of the day, where they can video chat with other classmates and their homeroom teacher.
Camila is also taking AP Government, Choir, Spanish 4 Honors, Algebra 2 and CSU Expository Reading and Writing. She said her favorite classes are Choir and Spanish 4 Honors. Leo’s classes include math, English and Mandarin.
They both wrap up the day between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.
So far, they haven’t run into any major hurdles while learning online, they said, though Camila said that sometimes the Wi-Fi connection is interrupted, and she misses something her teacher said. She’s been able to check back in with her teacher, though, to get what she missed.
Leo said his classes so far this year have mostly been introductory, and he hasn’t run into any struggles.
This year Camila is also preparing for and applying to college. Her dream is to become a social worker, and she has been talking with her counselor about going to Contra Costa College — the local community college — for two years and then transferring to a university.
“I talked a lot with a social worker and it really helped the way I see life, and I want to do that for other people,” Camila said.
— Ali Tadayon
Yurok Tribal Land
The first week back to school was a hectic one for Frankie Myers. As vice chairman for the Yurok Tribal Council, he’s been busy helping with the reservation’s pandemic response while his wife works at the Kimaw Medical Clinic on the nearby Hoopa reservation — all the while raising five kids at home. Internet access, and even phone lines and electricity, are hard to come by on their reservation in the Northern California coast just south of the Oregon border, so the kids are mostly working off of paper assignment packets sent home by their schools in Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified.
“We have a first- and second-grader, and you can’t just pop them up in front of a computer. So I’m working on having a meeting in one ear and teaching at the same time,” Myers said. “It’s been hard, very hard.”
“There is a high level of stress in our house. We have three hours with the kids before dinner where we want to sit down and do school, that’s what we want to do every day. But sometimes we won’t, we’ll go down to the river. Physical, mental and spiritual health has been hard to wrap our heads around during this time.”
There has already been a glitch or two. On the first day back, some of his kids’ packets were sent to the wrong home. And having everyone at home is putting a strain on the already limited phone and internet access available.
“Every day we have to sit down and decide who gets the phone line. If my wife and I both have internet meetings, that limits the capability for their virtual schooling,” Myers said. “In my house, it’s a daily occurrence when everyone’s internet crashes. There’s only so much bandwidth, and there are seven of us in a house.”
The Yurok Tribe has been working for years to improve internet access for their community, but there’s still much to do. Most families, including Myers’ parents, had electricity installed in their homes less than five years ago. The vast majority of residents still don’t have landlines, he said.
There is a tribal internet service available, but the connection is sometimes weak and spotty, Myers said. And purchasing a private subscription is difficult for many who live on the reservation, where the median income is $11,000.
But the statewide shutdown has also come with silver linings, Myers said. With more time at home and with the family, Myers finished building a canoe, and is working with his wife to connect cultural activities like acorn gathering and basket weaving with their children’s academic lessons.
“We are working with the school and our teachers to incorporate more of our traditional practices into our schooling. My wife is a weaver and basket maker, so we are talking about how to incorporate that into lessons, or visiting fisheries so our kids get credit for what they learn there,” Myers said. “I know we aren’t the only ones.”
— Sydney Johnson
Nine-year-old Colton Reichow had two first days of school this year.
The first was completely virtual, when Lucerne Valley Elementary started online with distance learning on Aug. 6. Seeing his teacher and friends solely on screen was strange for the fourth-grader. But it didn’t last long. Three weeks later, Colton had a do-over first day of school, this time back on campus.
Located in San Bernardino County, Lucerne Valley Elementary was one of the first schools in California to get a waiver allowing elementary schools in counties on the state’s Covid-19 watch list to reopen if they meet a strict set of criteria.
Now, Colton spends Thursdays and Fridays in the classroom with his teacher and about six other students. On Mondays and Tuesdays, his cohort of classmates works from home while a separate group goes to campus for in-person instruction. And on Wednesday, everyone does distance learning.
“It was really weird,” Colton said about his first day back in his physical classroom. “We only had six people in class. It was a big difference from last year and a lot better because I didn’t have a lot of people to distract me.”
There are a few clear changes since schools were forced to close last spring. Now, Colton’s desk has a plastic “sneeze guard” on the edge, which sometimes gets smudged or fogged up, he said. While he gets to see his friends at recess and lunch, they can’t get too close.
And noticeably, everyone’s wearing masks. In fact, one of his first assignments was an art project where he got to decorate his own mask with puffy paint.
Colton is happy to be back in the classroom where he can see his friends and teacher, even if it’s only a couple of days a week. “I like being in my classroom and seeing my friends in person and being able to play with them,” he said.
On his first day back, Colton’s teacher spent time on his favorite subject: math. “We practice a lot of writing numbers in expanded form and word forms,” Colton said. “My favorite subject is math, I think I’m really smart at it.”
Lucerne Valley is a small rural town of around 6,000 residents in the high desert. “Everybody knows everybody,” said Sarah Courtney, Colton’s mother, who grew up in the town.
At home, Colton plays video games, wrestles with his little brother and likes riding dirt bikes. Courtney juggles raising two kids, running the school’s booster club and her own academic course load as a nursing student.
It’s a relief that Colton is excited to be back at school and can see his friends and teacher, Courtney said. But she still has some concerns about online learning this school year.
“I’m just worried they’re getting so used to typing and talking on the internet,” she said. “I fear they will lose that aspect of writing and the hands-on math activities. Some kids really need that.”
— Sydney Johnson
Kusema Thomas II’s start in 6th grade at a new school in the Los Angeles Unified school district did not go smoothly, to say the least.
The district opened for distance learning on Aug. 18. Kusema’s first day was Tuesday, Sept. 8 – three weeks later. And, as of this week, he’s still trying to join his distance classes. His father, also Kusema Thomas, is hoping that a visit to the school may finally get his son on track. He also doesn’t know yet what his son must do to catch up.
Dad attributes the problem to a series of bad connections – not internet connections but personal. The kind that, in the pre-Covid era, might have been solved with a face-to-face meeting with an assistant principal or a counselor, then walking the halls to introduce his son to his teachers.
Instead, there have been virtual mixups and lots of frustration dating back to summer when he first filled out a school application but never heard back. Last week, Kusema finally got admitted to his first choice, the STEAM magnet program at Stephen M. White Middle School in Carson, a city 13 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. It focuses on science, technology, engineering, math and the arts.
After he was enrolled in school, signing onto the district’s computer system proved time-consuming and required help from two computer technicians. Thomas was late to work, and Kusema missed his first class on his first day, and didn’t know if his math teacher knew there was a new kid in class. L.A. Unified’s website is full of how-to guides and tutorials, some aimed at parents. But, what Thomas said he really could have used was a welcome call from someone at school to answer questions and help with Kusema’s schedule. The school principal has not returned a phone call and two emails from EdSource.
“My son is in a new school. He knows nothing about it. He’s never met a teacher there,” Thomas said. “He comes in and, it’s like he’s any other student, you know, just sitting and listening.”
Thomas knows how to deal with frustration. At one of his two jobs, he counsels men on domestic violence and anger management through Project Fatherhood. He also provides one-on-one counseling through the Southern California Counseling Center. Kusema’s mother, Marquita Mitchell, works as a cashier.
Kusema liked his previous school, 232nd Place Elementary in Carson, which also has a 5th grade science program, though last spring’s virtual learning soured him. After waiting a month for a district laptop, he received live instruction for an hour a day and found it hard to ask questions on Zoom. “This is not fun; it’s not real school,” Kusema told his father.
Kusema and his 4-year-old brother Kadin go to his grandmother’s house for distance learning, along with their four cousins.
“They all have their schedules, and they understand what they have to do,” Thomas said. “We bought some tables and set up space with an atmosphere where they’ll be able to learn.”
Thomas said he remains “optimistic … because of all the great things I hear” from people whose children have gone through the magnet program. And he said he’s not worried that Kusema will lag behind. He has been reviewing math — fractions, multiplication, some algebra — and spelling with his son. Most importantly, he has been “getting him back on the time clock”: in bed early, up and ready to start every morning.
Kusema’s new middle school is in the same neighborhood as his elementary school, and so he expects to reunite with some of his friends.
“He’s hoping this experience will be better. He misses other kids, and he knows, for now, this (distance learning) is the only way he can be around them,” Thomas said.
— John Fensterwald
Junior year of high school is stressful for most ambitious young people. But this year, the stakes are especially high for Charlie Allbritton.
The 17-year-old from San Diego, who has multiple disabilities and is enrolled in special education classes part of the day, wants nothing more than to graduate from high school and go to trade school to become a heavy equipment operator.
But he worries that the challenges of earning passing grades — while struggling to keep up with online learning — might pose an insurmountable hurdle. While his special education teachers have been patient and supportive, his mainstream teachers don’t always have the time to give him the individual attention he sometimes needs.
His mother, Moira Allbritton, is determined to help him stay focused and pass his classes, but she’s also trying to help her 11-year-old daughter, Lucy, and keep tabs on three older children. All while her husband, a captain in the Navy, has been deployed to Virginia after a 2-year stint in Bahrain.
The stress can be overwhelming for the entire family, Moira Allbritton said. Meltdowns are common, she said.
“Some days I feel a total lack of control. I’m doing the things I’m supposed to do, but I’m not doing them particularly well and there’s no joy in it,” she said. “And I have this feeling that how good of a parent I am will be a factor in how well my children do.”
Her hopes for the upcoming school year are that Charlie receives the personalized support he needs to succeed academically, and Lucy finds a way to reignite her social connections, so she feels less isolated.
“In the spring, it was like, ‘OK, we’re all in this together,’” she said. “But now it’s been a few months and it seems there’s a lot more pressure. I’m just hoping we can get a routine and hit our stride.”
— Carolyn Jones
Spring semester was so stressful at Ann Hoeffer’s house she wondered whether she and her six grandchildren, whom she’s helping raise in rural Lake County, would survive distance learning at all.
Her two grandsons, who have moderate autism, were so bereft at not seeing their teachers and therapists in person they’d have violent outbursts — directed at others as well as themselves. Hoeffer and her daughter were worried the boys — Gabriel, 4 and Jesse, 5 — would regress and never catch up.
But over the summer life took an unexpected turn. The boys qualified for home visits from behavioral therapists through Medi-Cal and a local autism agency, and now each receive several hours of therapy a day. Wearing masks, the therapists help the boys with focus, aggression and homework, and have brought a much-needed sense of calm to the household.
Gabriel’s aggression has subsided, and he’s become “very loving, very affectionate,” Hoeffer said. Jesse is much less likely to harm himself than he was in the spring.
“We are so grateful, you have no idea,” Hoeffer said. “These ladies have fallen in love with these boys and see so much potential in them. It’s made a world of difference.”
In a summer of miracles, the biggest one was when Jesse turned to his grandmother in the kitchen one day and said, “What are you doing?” It was the first time he spoke words that could be understood.
The family is also grateful to have dodged wildfires so far this year. Lake County, in the arid mountains north of Napa, has been scorched by fires nearly every year the past decade or so. But this year, despite fires raging to the east and south, the Hoeffer family has only had to endure smoke. No evacuations, no destruction.
As school gets underway, Hoeffer is optimistic that the family’s distance learning routine will be relatively smooth. Of the six children, only the youngest, Esme, will be attending in person — a preschool with a class of 12.
“The only one we’re really worried about is Caylee (age 9). She’s falling behind in reading and math,” Hoeffer said. “Otherwise we’re just incredibly grateful.”
— Carolyn Jones
Jessica Ramos plans to be the first person in her family to graduate from college.
“That’s my dream for her,” said Jessica’s mother, Alma Ramos, a bilingual instructional assistant in an Oakland Unified preschool.
A 17-year-old senior at Skyline High in Oakland Unified, Jessica is working on college applications while juggling her distance learning course load, and her roles as a student school board representative and a member of other student leadership committees.
Bilingual in English and Spanish, Jessica started the year virtually on Aug. 10 using a Chromebook and hotspot donated through a citywide campaign that provides technology to every student in the city that needs it. An only child, she shares internet access with her mother and father, Ricardo Ramos, an Uber driver.
She completes her online classes and other schoolwork in her bedroom, while her mother works on the dining room table.
Linking into Zoom classes is easy for her, and she even helped her mom to connect with students and family at her preschool.
For the most part, Jessica likes her schedule, and considers starting two days at 10 a.m. much better for teens than 9 a.m. She takes Advanced Placement statistics at 10 a.m. on Mondays and Thursdays, a “teaching and learning principles” course at 9 a.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays, and two dual-enrollment courses through Peralta Community College, for which she will earn both high school and college credits — social psychology and criminal investigation.
With a weighted GPA of 4.0 Jessica said her favorite class is Advanced Placement Statistics, taught on Zoom by Shane Durkan. She especially likes how he gets the class going every morning with a warm-up question — such as: “How are you feeling today?” — then turns the 26 students’ answers into statistical charts and discusses the probability of each response.
“He’s very active in getting the class involved,” Jessica said.
Students try to figure out online Edpuzzles the night before class, she said, then meet in Zoom breakout groups to discuss their answers and Durkan pops into the groups to see how they’re doing. They use a math program called Desmos to submit their answers to Durkan and anyone who is struggling can stay after class for one on one tutoring.
She is enrolled in a “career pathway” focused on Education and Community Health and wants to major in education and psychology in college. Her principles in learning class is required and aims to help students with research projects. But the 9 a.m. start time is too early for her and her classmates.
None of them turn on their video cameras, and they text each other during class to find out what they missed when they don’t pay attention, she said. Recently, she said no one responded when the teacher tried to get students to debate what it means to be a citizen.
In social psychology, Jessica said students read a chapter at home, then discuss it during their Zoom class. But her criminal investigation teacher, she said, is “having a little difficulty trying to get the class together” because “it’s her first time using Zoom.” A teachers’ aide, she said, helps out by responding to students’ questions online.
When she’s not in class or doing school work, Jessica spends time playing with her dog, practicing driving and preparing for school board meetings. During her first meeting, she pushed for more translators to help families who don’t speak English.
Jessica, whose mother immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, has many immigrant friends and said she is glad to bring issues that affect students to the board’s attention.
— Theresa Harrington
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