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.
(TNS) — On a recent morning,
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
For the previous three years, Citlali attended class daily at the health sciences magnet high school in
Like millions of students across
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
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
"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
"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
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."
In the tree-shaded space last month, five kindergartners happily practiced reading, sang songs and colored pumpkins with their instructor,
This isn't a classroom, though the kids are all students of
"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
"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
After their break, they resumed work on a
These acting exercises are Ginn's specialty. She works with local arts organizations — including the
"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
"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."
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