By Cristela Jones
On a typical day, walking into Price Elementary School in San Antonio, Texas is like walking into a workshop. Everyone has a job.
Whether it’s the students learning vocabulary tests, teachers helping students in the classroom, or administration patrolling the halls for stragglers. Each and every person is working to carry out one goal: provide the best possible education to the children of South San Antonio.
However, due to COVID-19 the school’s mission has become more challenging than ever before.
According to Price Elementary School Principal, Florinda Castillo the pandemic has presented “unprecedented challenges” for the school’s low-income and at-risk community.
“We’re 98% at risk, meaning that students are 98% at risk of probably not graduating, being retained, failing their STAAR, not reading on-level, being not English proficient so like our bilingual students,” Castillo said. “They are also likely to have been or been in child-protective care, homeless, lived in a residential facility or have parents that have been incarcerated or they have been incarcerated so those are our students that are at-risk which plays a big role in the demographics of our community.”
Before opening the school in the fall, the South San Independent School District enacted a plan for students, faculty and staff to follow in order to ensure a safe re-entry for all schools in the district.
“We all have to wear facemasks, you cannot enter the building without a face mask, we offer facemasks at the front for all the kids, and parents are not allowed to enter the building,” Castillo said. “They have to hand sanitize, we have hand sanitizers everywhere before you enter a room, and we have the little dots on the floor that say stay six feet apart so everyone knows.”
Castillo has worked in the district for 12 years and she says that nothing could have prepared her for the disruption COVID has caused her and the school.
“When it [COVID-19] first started, we were all virtual which was really hard because we had to go to every classroom and find all the Chromebooks, all the iPads to distribute them to the kids,” Castillo said. “We did have issues like a lot of people didn’t have hotspots so the district had bought hotspots which weren’t the best, and a lot of kids didn’t get online so I am worried about the educational gap for some kids.”
In the spring, many families had to share Google Chromebooks for coursework due to the school’s limited availability at the time which prompted the district to purchase Chromebooks for every student in the fall as well as new Wi-Fi routers that hold up to 15 devices.
The school is in Phase 1 of its reopening stages with only 25% or about 100 students out of 400 students attending classes face-to-face.
Despite the school’s efforts to keep students connected, Castillo says some students are still not attending school regularly like they had before the pandemic.
“Some will log on for 5 minutes and then log off,” Castillo said. “But we count them present because we’re seeing a lot of decline in our attendance and that all is attached to AVA which is funding the state gives us for teaching the kids. That is why attendance is so important because if there’s no attendance…there’s no money, and we need that to survive.”
She also says she’s seen a difference in the mental health of not only students but also teachers.
“The kids miss interacting with their friends, and teachers had to relearn their kids,” Castillo said. “They would see them virtually, but in-person it’s completely different.”
Price Elementary Counselor, Ruby Lopez agrees and says that many students and parents have come to her to express their feelings on the pandemic.
“We have had not only students that are reaching out but also parents that are calling and saying my son or daughter is depressed,” Lopez said. “Not only because they’re not at school, but because they’re having to deal with all of these situations with the technology and it’s hard for some of them.”
Before COVID, Lopez would see around 60 students a month, but now she has had only 5 students visit her office since the start of the face-to-face semester.
One of the challenges that Lopez says students are facing is embarrassment due to their circumstances which has prompted her to recommend professional help from the district’s new mental health program, The Care Zone.
“They don’t want to join the classroom if they’re embarrassed and they prefer to be in school but they can’t so it’s adding not only depression to the students but also to the parents as well,” Lopez said. “I’m having to refer to them to Care Zone which is a new program in our district that is providing outside counseling for families and students.”
The Care Zone began in 2019 to offer free mental wellness services to enrolled students and families in the South San School District.
Lopez is maintaining a positive outlook for teachers and students in hopes that they will continue to do things that bring them happiness during this time of uncertainty.
“I tell them that we’re all in this together of course and that this is going to pass, I know for some they don’t understand because they’re younger while some are already getting used to it,” Lopez said. “I give them suggestions like things to do on their free time like hearing music and doing positive things. We just have to continue thinking positive.”
Another issue Lopez and Castillo agree students are having is that many are not taking the time to read at home.
Price Elementary Librarian, Lydia Ybarra had to close the school’s library when the pandemic hit in order to prevent the spread of germs when students check out books. Ybarra’s lessons now consist of teaching kids how to use e-books and utilize the free online reading systems like Sora, Tumble Books and Epic.
“As we’re showing the kids a lot of them are getting excited,” Ybarra said. “I have iPads out so I’m showing them how to log on because as we are a 1-1 which means every student has a device and so they all have access to it and there’s no excuse to not be able to read a book; I know a lot of kids like to have the book in their hands, you know the touch, the feel of a book, the smell of a book it’s not the same as having a device but we’re trying to still encourage them to read online.”
Ybarra says once she opens the library again she will have to put in place several new protocols to ensure the safety of herself and the students.
“Once we do start checking out, there has to be a period for when they return the books and the books kind of have to be in isolation and so we’re still working on that because we’re thinking we’re going to have to isolate those books for about 5-7 days,” Ybarra said.
Fifth Grade Dual Language Teacher Gloria Galvan isolates the books her in-person students check out from her classroom library 7-10 days before putting them back on the shelf to be read. Along with her classroom library, Galvan reads a chapter book to her students in order to encourage them to read and stay active in class.
She said one thing that has got her through this year of uncertainty was getting to finally see kids in her classroom after 7 months.
“Not being able to see the kids was hard, but teaching face-to-face has helped me since I miss seeing my kids every day, but not being able to hug them when they got back was even harder as well,” Galvan said.
Besides moving online in the spring, one of the challenges Galvan and the other fifth grade teachers faced was not being able to see whether or not their students retained the information they learned in class for the STAAR Test.
“When we were supposed to come back it was just supposed to be review, we were going to have about two weeks of review before the actual STAAR Test,” Galvan said. “So, we had mostly covered everything but we never were able to get that end result that we’re used to getting and now those kids moved on but the ones we have now we don’t have any data for them because they didn’t take the test in fourth grade.”
Galvan explained that many of the students are having to teach themselves the material at home or get help from a family member since a lot of their parents are preoccupied and can’t be at two places at once.
“A lot of the students have their parents working so they don’t have anybody to help them out and some of them are being taken care of by family members or grandparents so that’s been a struggle as well because we’re constantly having to text parents and remind them like ‘ok they didn’t log on make sure they’re doing work’ because we have until 11:59 at night to do work on Google Meets in order to be counted present,” Galvan said.
Galvan says her strategy nowadays is taking everything day-by-day and understanding the student’s perspective along with the course objectives.
“We’re trying not to overwhelm the kids as well like we have to think about what they need to learn, the objectives, we’re focused so much more on that now,” Galvan said. “But then we also have to be considerate about the situation and what they are going through at home.”
Fifth Grade Teacher Christina Zertuche explains why doing the absolute most for students is now not enough.
“Speaking for my grade level, I think the standards are very high and I think that we want to do the absolute best and it’s not possible right now,” Zertuche said. “I think that that’s where we have such a hard time because we want to provide this quality education, we want to give them these experiences but we just can’t; so regardless of how much planning and how much I look for things, the internet doesn’t work or the program isn’t loading and I think that’s where we just kind of feel like hopeless because we can’t provide what we’re capable of.”
Galvan adds that even though teachers may be having a bad day, “we can’t allow the kids to see that in us.”
For now, Price Elementary is continuing Phase I of the SSAISD reopening plan until given further instruction from the South San School District.
However, teachers like Galvan and Zertuche are staying optimistic for the future and say despite COVID-19 their main priority is to continue educating students the best way they can one day at a time.