After less than a day of at-home school instruction, Lacey Jackson concluded she doesn’t have the patience to be a teacher.
“I think my two youngest kids are going to be expelled from school by lunchtime tomorrow,” the single mother of four joked about her children in kindergarten and first grade.
When local school district leaders announced they would extend spring break by a week and shut campuses for a few more to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Jackson – along with hundreds of thousands of other San Antonio parents and grandparents – are having to learn on the fly how to adapt to a new learning routine.
For Jackson, that meant adapting to the needs of children in four grade levels at three different Northside Independent School District schools. Northside, San Antonio’s largest school district, posted its distance learning plan on an online portal with lessons tailored to individual by grade level.
The district asked those without access to technology or internet connectivity to fill out an online form stating their needs. As of Tuesday night, the district had distributed or reserved 19,367 iPads or Chromebooks and 2,910 mobile hotspots.
But even with necessary technology, navigating the online lessons can be a challenge, Jackson said. She discovered some assignments could only be accessed from a desktop computer, not a tablet device.
“So I have four kids that are trying to get their schoolwork done on one desktop computer, and then I’m trying to find some assignments that use two different websites, and then it’s just very hard to navigate to all the different places you need go and get what needs to be done,” Jackson said.
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The Northside ISD mom found it was easier for her older students to coordinate with their teachers directly, but her youngest children needed a lot more hand-holding.
Then there is the subject matter itself. Parents or family members who don’t have experience as educators are in charge of overseeing the learning process. They have help from curriculum packets or planned lessons coordinated by their student’s teachers, but it’s not the same as learning in an in-class setting.
Jackson’s high school daughter struggled with math, her most challenging subject.
“If she’s not able to grasp concepts by reading about how to solve a math problem, step-by-step, how can she be held responsible for that information?” Jackson asked.
That’s the fear for many students, parents, and educators. If school reopens as planned on April 27, students will have spent the last seven weeks at home, with five designated for remote learning. Gov. Greg Abbott waived state exam requirements for this year, but the exams are still scheduled to take place next spring, meaning students will be responsible for material they are supposed to be learning now.
Jimmie Walker, Alamo Heights ISD’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, kept this in mind as she led her district’s planning effort during the first week of spring break.
Walker, along with other Alamo Heights ISD leaders, outlined expectations for each grade level. Elementary teachers, for example, are expected to provide home lessons to parents. These could include instructions for any complex activities and include a video from a teacher greeting students, she said.
But it isn’t a direct substitute for being in the classroom, Walker said.
“Our teachers know we can’t do everything we have planned for the next two weeks or even the next semester,” she added. “We are having to pare it back and say what’s most essential? What is it kids have to get to [mastery] in for second grade or in AP U.S. History?
“We can’t have this be a lost year.”
Each district has adopted a slightly different strategy to continue at-home learning. The Texas Education Agency hasn’t issued prescribed lesson plans or specific items that need to be covered in students’ time at home. As a result, each district has made individual decisions about what classes will look like.
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In Judson ISD, San Antonio’s fourth-largest school district, district leaders told families the initial focus would be on strengthening foundational skills and building retention of previously learned skills. During the break, “learning will continue but students will not receive any new grades for learning that occurs while the district is closed,” wrote Cecilia Davis, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
This decision frustrated Monica Ryan, a parent of five Judson students. Ryan’s children are in first, fifth, eighth, ninth, and 11th grades and attend three different schools.
Ryan’s oldest children are on Google Classroom and in communication with their teachers regularly. This has worked well, she said. However, she’s been less impressed by the level of rigor in instruction for her first-grader.
The district posted online “choice boards,” or activities that students and families can choose to complete. Families without internet access could pick up paper copies.
First and second grade students could choose to write an ABC book to learn reading and writing, draw a picture of different types of birds they see out their window for science and social studies, or go on a scavenger hunt to find as many shapes as possible for math.
The district encouraged students to choose at least one activity each day and practice reading daily. Judson ISD also encouraged families with technology access to go online to use virtual tools.
Ryan, who is finishing a dissertation for a doctoral degree in education, is concerned the decision to cover only previously learned lessons and foundational skills will put her children at a disadvantage.
“We’re all in the same situation in this country in terms of future college or competitiveness for scholarships,” Ryan said. “So Judson needs to keep pace with what everybody else is doing.”
Before fears of coronavirus spread closed schools, Lara Kilgore’s company, Beyond EDU, offered one-on-one tutoring, in-home schooling services, college advising, and test prep. Now, her company is offering support for those affected by coronavirus closures.
She stressed that it’s important for students and families to have realistic expectations.
“[Parents should] be really kind to themselves … and their kids in terms of having realistic expectations of what it is going to look like and know that it takes some time,” Kilgore said of effective instruction at home. “This may not look perfect today, or the first week. For some it takes a month, some it takes six months. … For some kids, it takes longer to transition.”
Kilgore said she would advise parents to not take regular learning moments for granted. Families can use needed tasks as lessons throughout the day. Parents should also be prepared for review that will come next school year.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of remediation,” Kilgore said. “I think everyone who is involved – parents, students, faculty, administrators understand that.”
South San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Dolores Sendejo acknowledged that districts won’t immediately have the perfect answer to every obstacle that emerges related to coronavirus closures.
However, Sendejo emphasized, that just like parents, districts want to make sure learning continues. The way to do that is for everyone – family members, teachers, and students – to collaborate, she said.
“It is something that will impact us for the next few years,” Sendejo said. “We do not want to be in a place where we are not going to learn from this as we move forward.”