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How Two San Diego Students Are Handling Virtual Learning

The San Diego Union-Tribune is following two girls — one at the start of her education and the other at the culmination of K-12 — as they and their families navigate the unfamiliar terrain of school amid a pandemic.

by Deborah Sullivan Brennan, The San Diego Union-Tribune / November 16, 2020
Photo by Philipp Katzenberger on Unsplash

(TNS) — On a recent morning,  Citlali Medina Cruz  logged onto her iPad to take a test for her 12th grade government class, sitting at a desk in her bedroom surrounded by family photos and images of Christ and the Virgin Mary. In the kitchen, her mother prepared quesadillas for lunch, while her grandmother listened to telenovelas.

Her neatly kept bedroom, with its lavender furniture, religious art and a collectible doll in a pink chiffon gown — a gift for her Quinceanera two years ago — couldn't be more different from the sleek, modern classrooms of Del Lago Academy.

For the previous three years, Citlali attended class daily at the health sciences magnet high school in Escondido, where students work on digital devices and study subjects in the medical sector. This year, she's finishing classes for graduation, moving ahead with community college coursework, and serving as a student trustee on the Escondido Union High School Board — all online.

Like millions of students across San Diego County and the country, Citlali has participated in school through virtual learning since schools shut down to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each day this semester, she has joined class sessions on Zoom and submitted assignments on Canvas, an online education platform.

She has been accustomed to doing schoolwork on a tablet; mobile devices have been part of the school's high-tech focus since it opened in 2013. But for months now, the iPad has been not only a tool but also her classroom, her science lab and her link to classmates.

Six-year-old Jyla, a student at McKinley Elementary School in the San Diego Unified School District, also engages with school through a screen, but in a different learning environment. The kindergartner is part of a learning pod of five North Park families who share the cost of full-time tutors to guide their children through the maze of virtual learning and take turns hosting the group at their homes.

The San Diego Union-Tribune is following the two girls — one at the start of her education and the other at the culmination of her K-12 experience — as they and their families navigate the unfamiliar terrain of school amid a pandemic.

Citlali Medina Cruz : Senior year in virtual seclusionThe abrupt shift from school to screen, forced by the global health crisis, has been a steep learning curve for students and teachers alike. Students have struggled with technical glitches, eyestrain and online coursework. Citlali is faring better than some. She has managed to work through technical issues with the help of school staff, has a quiet place to work in her family's tidy apartment, and says she understands most of the material she's learning.

That doesn't mean it's the equivalent of in-person learning. She misses the interaction with her teacher when she's working on essays for her AP English Language Arts class.

"I feel like in person, you can get up and say, 'Am I doing this right? Can you give me feedback?'"" she said. "Now, you have to email her and wait for a response."

Citlali plans to pursue a career in nursing, and she took a medical interventions class this year to start preparing for that. When she was deciding which science class to take, a friend urged her to pick the medical interventions course, "because you're actually doing hands-on experiments."

That was before the pandemic, though. Now, the experiments are conducted virtually. Recently, they have been working on a unit about meningitis, but instead of physically conducting an Elisa test for antibodies to the pathogen, they viewed test strips on screen and rated the results. Citlali is also taking a biology class at Palomar College, and in that course, too, some labs have been canceled because of limited access to equipment.

"It's not the same," Citlali said. "I'm still learning stuff and understanding it. But I miss the hands-on experiences."

For many students, being home with family has been a distraction, as they compete for space and bandwidth with siblings and parents also working and learning at home. For Citlali, it offers an unexpected benefit — the opportunity to care for her 88-year-old grandmother while her parents are at work.

On most days, it's Citlali who prepares breakfast between first and second period, makes lunch and guides her vision-impaired grandma around the apartment. A few weeks ago, that got rough, when her grandmother started becoming disoriented and lost in their home. But for the most part, caring for her grandma is rewarding, Citlali said, and virtual learning allows her both the time and safety threshold to do it.

"I do like the time I get to spend with her now," she said. "If I were going to campus now, I wouldn't want to be as close to her because of COVID."

For the most part, Citlali stays home, leaving only for shopping trips, church or other necessary outings. It's hard, though, as her senior year unfolds without normal milestones and social events. She generally keeps in touch with friends via text or FaceTime, but recently attended a friend's birthday party. On another occasion, she joined a friend to take photos and celebrate what would have been the girl's quinceanera; the original party was canceled after the pandemic broke out last spring.

On a Zoom call Tuesday night, Citlali's update to the Escondido Union High School District board revealed how isolated students are, and how urgently they crave some semblance of normal high school life. At Del Lago Academy, the Associated Student Body organized a pumpkin carving party on Zoom and held a Halloween Costume contest through Instagram. Among the virtual versions of traditional Halloween festivities, there was one safe, socially distanced event at campus.

"We also had a drive-thru, where students were able to get candy and a little scare, so that was something they could look forward to," Citlali said.

With the national surge in COVID-19 cases, and the San Diego County's recent backslide into a more restrictive risk tier, it's unclear when students will have more access to on-campus classes and activities. Some districts have reopened for hybrid learning programs that combine part-time instruction on campus with online lessons at home, and a few, such as Vista Unified School District, have resumed full-time, on-campus instruction for students who choose that.

Escondido Union High School District has brought some students back to campus in small groups, including English learners, special education students and those needing extra support, but most students are still learning online. The school board won't consider bringing back the majority of students in a hybrid program until the county reaches the "orange" tier of COVID-19 restrictions, signifying "moderate" risk. That prospect suffered a setback when San Diego County fell into the most restrictive "purple" COVID-19 tier last week, after case numbers climbed.

Citlali is hopeful the pandemic will subside enough that the district can bring more students back to school in the spring. It's unclear when larger gatherings would be allowed, but she said she could accept missing senior prom, as long as she can walk in a graduation ceremony.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Citlali said. "I just hope I can go and be at school one last day."

Jyla Woods-Berry : 'Quaranteaming' in a learning podIn the backyard of the Woods-Berry home in North Park, you can almost forget the world is in the grip of a global pandemic that has upended life as we know it.

In the tree-shaded space last month, five kindergartners happily practiced reading, sang songs and colored pumpkins with their instructor,  Sam Ginn , a local actress and drama teacher who helps lead them in learning.  Jyla Woods-Berry , 6, danced along with her friends to the "Monster Boogie" and counted to five in Spanish, activities familiar to anyone who has watched a kindergarten class.

This isn't a classroom, though the kids are all students of McKinley Elementary School in San Diego Unified School District. Their school campus has been closed since March, but these students, like other small groups, have met daily through a learning pod organized by their parents.

Jyla's mothers,  Jen Berry  and Jualeah "Y" Woods, worked out the plan with four other local families from McKinley, where their daughter attended transitional kindergarten last year. The students still participate in virtual learning and are in class with separate teachers. But the families hired tutors to work with them from about 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. per day, guiding them in online lessons, art and drama exercises, and facilitating social contact they would otherwise miss.

"The routine is great for them," Woods said. "That's half the reason we decided we needed to do a pod."

Each family hosts the children for a week, in rotating shifts. This offers the students some typical early education experiences, and allows the parents uninterrupted work time.

"All the pod parents, we feel like pioneers," Berry said.

Within the pod, neither the students nor the tutor wears masks. The parents discussed it before launching the group, determined that they wanted their children to have the freedom to learn without masks and preferred the tutor to communicate with kids unfettered by a face covering. The five families agreed in writing to be responsible outside the pod and strictly employ masks, social distancing, handwashing and other protocols to prevent COVID-19.

"We say we are taking a calculated risk and 'quaranteaming' together," Berry said.

After the students read a Halloween story, they took a quick break for P.E. in the fenced play yard. With some time freed up during quarantine last spring, the family built the kid-friendly space, with a wooden fort, faux grass lawn and upcycled pool slides set into the hillside.

"It's been a dream for these kids," Berry said. "What's nice is it's really safe."

The kids played a hopscotch game and picked "sight words" out of a bag, then copied them into tiny notebooks. After that exercise, they split up for free play. The boys raced up to a trampoline, while  Talia Bierstein , 6, zoomed down the slide on a giant, plush pink doughnut.

After their break, they resumed work on a Halloween skit they were videotaping and discussed which characters they would play.  Sawyer Price , 6, decided he didn't want to be a pumpkin. He would rather be the director.

These acting exercises are Ginn's specialty. She works with local arts organizations — including the Old GlobeLa Jolla Playhouse and New Village Arts Theatre — and leads theater programs for San Diego youth with developmental differences. That training informs her work with the kindergartners, who are developing the building blocks of learning and fundamental social skills during one of the most traumatic times in recent history.

"I find these young humans to be very intuitive, and they are absorbing some global anxiety," Ginn said.

Like many theater professionals, work has been tight since the pandemic struck, with live performances off the table for most of the year. Ginn alternates days with another instructor in the learning pod, and it has made the difference between earning a living and drawing unemployment assistance, she said. The direct connection with kids has also been key to her well-being amid the pandemic.

"This kindergarten (learning pod) is filling my bucket of being with children in person," she said.

The reading, singing and acting are right up her alley. But after lunch, the kids return to virtual learning, pulling up educational programs such as Seesaw, a learning platform aimed at younger students. Beyond the nerve-racking task of trouble-shooting multiple computer glitches at once, she said keeping the kids focused on online learning is a constant struggle.

"The challenge for me has been helping the kids stay engaged with a screen for many more hours," Ginn said.

She's not alone in that. Teachers and parents are noticing children tuning out from "Zoom fatigue," Berry said. And in a reversal unimaginable a year ago to parents who rationed their children's screen time, they are now working to build "Zoom stamina" to help young kids sustain hours of online instruction.

As San Diego Unified plans for a return to on-campus learning next semester, Berry and Woods wonder how it will work. Shuttling their daughter to school on alternating days may be more disruptive to their work schedules and family routine than the daily pod, they worry.

Still, they're committed to their local elementary school and the public school system. While they acknowledge that Jyla and her podmates have opportunities that other students might not, they say that supporting McKinley Elementary School — and public education — was one of their main purposes in forming the pod.

"Ultimately, we want our child in school," Woods said. "We want her learning in a traditional way, not home-schooling."

Although some families have opted for a kindergarten "gap year," they said they didn't consider that, knowing that the lost enrollment could harm the school.

"Ultimately, every kid that pulls out of a school has long-term effects on public school," Berry said. "We were really passionate about helping teachers keep their jobs."

(c)2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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