By Shanna Cummings
It’s been almost a year since the rapid spread of COVID-19 caused schools nationwide to pivot to online learning. The sudden shift has changed the way education happens, and has created a multitude of challenges for all involved.
Culberson County-Allamoore Independent School District (CCAISD) currently requires remote learning students to attend classes online via the Zoom app and turn in classwork through Canvas. Some parents have opted for online classes all year, and students quarantined for possible exposure to COVID are expected to attend classes online for the duration of quarantine.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for schools is getting students to attend online classes when in quarantine or when parents choose to keep their kids in remote learning. Principal Charles Gonzalez said the district’s usual high attendance rate has dropped significantly since COVID restrictions began, despite the definition of “attendance” for online students becoming somewhat pliable by necessity. Online students who miss the Zoom class can still get credit for attendance by turning in their classwork.
CCAISD provides every student an electronic device, but for many, affordable, stable internet access is hard to find, especially outside of the immediate area of Van Horn. The district has attempted to fill in the accessibility gaps as much as possible by installing internet hot spots on the school-provided devices.
Student academic performance, determined by class grades and standardized tests, has suffered at least in part because of low attendance. This is happening all over the state. In fact, the Texas Education Agency (TEA), which grades Texas public schools based on a variety of criteria, including academic performance on standardized tests, will not rate schools this year because of the unusual circumstances.
On campus, administration have the task of tracking and preventing the spread of the virus, instituting mandatory masks, social distancing, and sanitation practices, as well as quarantine protocols. Besides the mandatory masks and general social distancing, clear protective shields are placed on every desk, and every room has a hand sanitizer machine. In the cafeteria, students eat six feet apart at individual tables with the same protective shields, and each desk is sanitized between lunch shifts.
For teachers, remote learning has often been a matter of figuring things out as they go. The urgency of going remote at the beginning of lockdown last year meant teachers all over the country had little time for training in virtual teaching. Instead, they’ve turned to each other for advice and answers.
Elementary math teacher Erica Urias said her Zoom classes aren’t remarkably different from in-person. She still demonstrates the lesson on the board, has the students work problems on their own, and work together via breakout rooms. But the experience is still very different, and has its own challenges.
Distractions abound for students learning at home, and teachers may struggle to keep their students’ attention. Also, something as simple as looking over a student’s work during class takes more time than in a live classroom because of technology issues. As a result, Urias said, she feels she’s rushing the remote classes just to keep up. Whether taught online or in person, all students have to take the same exams at the end of the year.
The constant back-and-forth of in-person to virtual classes also causes problems, especially since teachers and students receive little warning when they have to switch gears. Urias said she has at least five online students every day, but sometimes a whole class will go online because of quarantine, or when the school was shut down for two days due to gas line damage.
Uncertainty and a lack of peer interaction has taken a toll on teacher morale, Urias said, though it has improved. Teachers often turn to each other for help and ideas for online teaching, but social distancing has prohibited much of the camaraderie teachers enjoyed in the past, like potlucks and little parties throughout the year that helped bolster them.
The school is currently open and full of students, alive with the bustle of classes. Morale is higher.
“We’re in high times right now,” Gonzalez said. “We can hear the noise in the hallways when they’re changing classes. We can hear the kids playing in gym.” But when students are sent home for quarantine, morale suffers. “Morale right now is like a roller coaster. It goes up and down as we get notification of COVID.”
Students learning from home have their own school-related challenges. Those without someone at home during classes may choose not to attend or do their classwork, or may not be able to attend because of other responsibilities, like looking after younger siblings or ill loved ones or working a job to help support the family. Many of the younger ones haven’t yet developed the self-starter mentality necessary to log on and work when they really don’t want to.
Social learning is an essential part of school, and teachers try to provide socializing opportunities for online students, like breakout rooms where students work together on problems. Still, students can still feel isolated from their peers, which can lead to absences and falling grades.
“At first, they felt like they were in a prison,” Urias said of her students, “Like they were in their own little cell.” She said she often lets her online students socialize while they work together on challenges or classwork, the way they would in a classroom. “Being able to fit in still with their friends, even though they are at home, is vital to their learning.”
Students in quarantine aren’t allowed to participate in extracurricular activities, either, sidelining them from another reason they work hard to pass classes.
CCAISD administration is already looking toward in-person summer school to help students catch back up after a tumultuous period. Fully live summer school will depend on whether or not teachers and students have access to vaccinations by that point. Meanwhile, students, teachers and administration look forward to a more normal school experience.
“If we can get through this,” Urias said, “when we get back to some more normalcy, we’re really going to take advantage of it and not take things for granted.”