The Virtual Classroom: Schooling In A Pandemic

Tuesday, May 19th 2020

With schools across Central Texas closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak, many students are having to continue studies online, and while this an option for some families, many who have limited internet access are struggling to carry forward their children's education.

“It looks different for every kid. Because every kid is in their own situation. We are encouraging teachers to balance synchronous and asynchronous,” said Sarah Dille, a technology design coach for the Austin Independent School District.

“Almost everybody is doing things asynchronously, which means students can access the learning when it works for them and for their families. High school teachers are offering office hours on Zoom for students to check-in. Elementary teachers are using different platforms to communicate with families and with students,” Dille said.

Maria Rios has two sons that attend Austin ISD schools. Christen is in sixth grade and Jose Alberto is in third grade.

“The school district gave us laptops so that they could do their school work here at home,” Rios said.

Rios' kids are some of the 53 percent of Austin ISD students that live in low-income households. Austin ISD distributed laptops, Wi-Fi hotspots, and buses with an internet connection across the district for families like Rios'.

“This is a problem before all of this and it's just highlighted for us what that digital divide looks like and why it's so important in our society to make sure that it isn't something that continues even when we'd go back to whatever normal looks like,” Dille said.

But even with connectivity and access to tech, learning at home has been challenging for Maria and her children.

“It’s difficult for us to be stuck here at home. I just have one window open here and I can’t even open it all of the way,’ she said. “There are three times in a day, for each class, that they get 15 minutes for each class to take a break, so that they’re not in front of the computer. And I’m telling you that they are stressing out.”

Controlling stress is a worry for parents and teachers. Cuitlahauc Guerra-Mojarro is an engineering teacher in the Pflugerville Independent School District. He said new schooling conditions are affecting the emotional health of all children.

“I got students that were straight-A students. These students were averaging high 90s all year long. And I know that they're great kids.” Guerra-Mojarro said. “But then I haven't seen a lot of work turned in from them these last couple of weeks. And it's heartbreaking because I know that's not because they're the bad students. It's because this is a bad situation.”

And the stress of learning in a new environment is hard for teachers, too.

“From the moment I wake up, I'm providing care to my own children or feedback and instruction to students. And it seems like there's never any end to it.” Guerra-Mojarro said.“There's no, I leave school and I come home and I'm done. There's no, I left home and now I can focus on school. Everything is 24/7 it feels like.”

With a physical return date for school still up in the air, administrators are trying to adapt to the new normal while balancing health concerns.

“We are putting our attention now to sort of imagining what might school look like if we have to open it partially, if we have to open it fully or if we have to come back in the same way that we are right now,” said Katy Escandell, interim director of academics for Austin ISD.

Despite all efforts, this is uncharted territory. Moving school online hasn't been easy, especially for those who had a difficult time before the pandemic.

“If I could have them all there at the same time, which means they all have the access to the tech they need and they all have the support they needed in the house to be able to call in when everyone else is, then that would level the playing field a little bit when it comes to this pandemic learning,” Guerra-Mojarro said.

“But that means getting everyone computers, giving everyone internet and then giving everyone the home support that they probably needed even before remote learning started.”

Leveling the playing field during a pandemic is a tall order. There are likely more struggles ahead as teachers, parents, and students adapt to the new realities of learning at home.

If you’re a parent in Austin ISD and need access to technology, visit austinisd.org/covid19/chromebooks for more information.

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