Rachel, 5, draws while her mother, Janet Garcia, and brother Nathaniel, 6, play together in the background. The Garcias struggled to maintain reliable internet connections during the spring 2020 semester. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

With two-and-a-half months of distance learning behind them and the school year over for local districts and charters, San Antonio students, families, and educators can now review the aftermath of more than half a semester spent at home.

The results are in: At-home classes were no substitute for in-person instruction, educators and families said last week.

The success of distance learning varied greatly based on students’ at-home learning environment, style of learning, and support network. Teachers who were more willing to deliver virtual instruction or had preexisting affinities for technology excelled. Those less familiar with online learning systems and those who were not as communicative struggled to help their students learn, students observed.

Anthony Jarrett, North East Independent School District’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, believes it’s important to grade on a curve when evaluating the last semester.

With only two days to transform a “brick-and-mortar system to an online one,” school districts acted fast to develop new resources and deliver them to families, he said. However, any overall successes were relative based on the living conditions of a student or existing skill sets of a teacher.

“I think we did all that we could to deliver the resources to people,” Jarrett said. “But as we did that, we recognize that it doesn’t replace a classroom teacher in front of kids every single day.”

Selena Hernandez, 8, a third grader at Escondido Elementary School at Judson ISD, logs on to the family computer April 6 for her first virtual class. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Life at home bleeds into the classroom

Janis Jordan, Northside ISD’s deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, easily identified the factors that contributed to distance-learning success. Those who did well had supportive home environments, appropriate resources like Wi-Fi or internet-connected devices, and parents or older siblings who could assist when questions arose.

Of course, these factors are not uniform for every student in every school district, she said.

Janet Garcia had to balance assisting her two young KIPP students with job responsibilities and an unreliable internet system.

Janet, her 6-year-old son Nathaniel, and 5-year-old daughter Rachel live together at the Alazán-Apache Courts. KIPP Esperanza gave Nathaniel and Rachel computers to complete assignments, but with about a month left in the semester, the Garcias’ mobile internet hotspot malfunctioned.

Janet searched for an alternative. But some companies didn’t service her area, and the only one that did wouldn’t make the connection because of an overdue balance at her address from a previous tenant. Janet tried to buy a mobile hotspot replacement from T-Mobile, but they were sold out.

Finally, she asked her kids’ school for help, but there were still two weeks where the family didn’t have internet. To bridge the gap, Janet asked her neighbors if her kids could borrow their Wi-Fi.

“It was stressful, I’m not going to lie,” Janet said. “As a single parent, I can speak for myself, but my neighbors said the same thing, too. It was really stressful for us all.”

Both of Janet’s young kids required regular help from their mom to finish schoolwork.

That meant Janet, who works for the San Antonio Housing Authority, was often frazzled, trying to fulfill her own job responsibilities on top of guiding her kids. While the single mom appreciated the opportunity to wake up with her kids each day and closely observe their strengths and weaknesses, she felt overwhelmed at having to read them each problem and walk them through the detailed instructions.

At a certain point, Janet decided the work would get done when it got done and she wouldn’t stress too much about meeting school deadlines.

“My child’s education is important, but our survival was more important,” Janet said. “We needed to make sure we had food on our table, pay our electricity bill, things like that, because I’m their mom and their dad.”

Self-sufficient students still struggle

Most educators acknowledged that the youngest students would have the greatest trouble switching from in-person class to at-home or virtual learning. A lot of the earliest grades’ instruction focuses on hands-on activities or learning about social relationships.

This kind of instruction isn’t as easy to translate online, educators have said.

However, even older students struggled to adapt to the new way of learning.

Soon-to-be-graduated high school senior Aaliyah Davis is typically an excellent student – she is in the top 10 students among her graduating class. However, distance learning came with distractions at home and complicated communication with teachers.

When a family member became sick with coronavirus and eventually died, Davis wanted to explain to teachers about her personal situation.

“That was a conversation that needed to be had face to face,” Davis said. “It really did take a toll on me.”

Soon-to-be senior at South San High School Natalie Moncada expressed similar sentiments. Moncada prefers to learn in an in-person setting and found that motivation was hard to come by learning remotely.

The work and lack of in-person connection became discouraging, which just snowballed over time, she said.

“Communication with the teachers is not the same as in person,” Moncada added. “It is similar to when you’re texting and just reading off of what you’re saying instead of having them telling you something in person as a back and forth.”

Both high school students said they felt like they had learned less than in a regular school year.

“Way less,” Davis emphasized.

Plans to close the gap

Lacey Jackson, a single mom to four students attending Northside ISD schools, can appreciate how hard it is to balance multiple students with varying needs. Jackson has four students at three campuses – two in elementary school, one in middle school, and one in high school.

Jackson’s older students were more self-sufficient and could complete assignments with little help from their mom. But her youngest daughters needed near-constant aid for their work.

In the last two weeks of at-home learning, Jackson gave up on explaining every task and letting her daughters do it.

“The last two weeks, I just did their work for them because I was tired of fighting with them,” Jackson said. “It was easy for me to sit at the computer … you have to click on a text box to fit the space where the answer goes. That’s a lot for a kindergartner to manipulate.”

Jackson anticipates the first three months of the coming school year will be largely remedial for students. There’s usually a chunk of time at the start of the year that revisits previous material students may have forgotten during the summer.

“I think that time period is going to be a lot longer than it would have been had they been in school up until last week,” Jackson said.

Jordan, too, anticipates an unusual start to the fall semester. There will be students with greater learning loss because of the at-home learning, she said. Schools everywhere gave their students a lot of grace because of the pandemic’s disruption.

School systems like Northside are already working to bridge these new learning gaps with summer learning.

Harlandale Middle School prepares printed copies of school assignments offered to families that lack internet access. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

North East ISD is already planning and testing out distance learning practices for next year. The district is piloting a one-to-one system that would give every student a device and put them in front of a teacher on a daily basis this summer.

Teachers will deliver lessons and be available by a Zoom link to answer questions whenever students needed them. Jarrett said he feels like NEISD is on its way to making up gaps.

Jarrett estimated that in NEISD, the district was “50 to 60 percent of the way to making something really good for kids.”

When asked what grade he would give distance learning, Jarrett offered a B-plus.

“Maybe even an A, only because to me we did the impossible and made it possible and we didn’t leave any kid out,” Jarrett said. “Was the quality to [my] liking? No, I think there [were] definitely some adjustments we would make and do differently if we had the time.

“I felt like we were very responsive to our kids and our families, so to that point, I would give us that [A] grade. I can’t excuse us going forward other than the fact of what barriers we may have in a technology sense. But as far as what resources we do, our teacher preparedness, our student preparedness, I don’t think we can excuse ourselves.”

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.