Bonham Academy student Niko Carrera studies at home on her laptop. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

At 8:20 a.m. on Tuesday, Niko Carrera ambled over to the dining room table in her home. She left her hair down, still damp from her morning shower. She had 10 minutes before school started, but she wasn’t hurrying – school would be on her Bonham Academy-issued laptop.

The 13-year-old eighth-grade student said she settled into the remote-learning environment with ease last spring.

“It’s kind of better than before,” she said. “I used to wake up at 6 [a.m.] and get to school at 7:30.”

She also eschewed her school uniform (Bonham Academy students typically wear polo shirts and slacks while on campus) to “attend” class. Instead, she chose a pair of denim overalls with a white T-shirt, just socks, no shoes. She rested her head on her knees as she waited for the rest of her class to sign onto the videoconference platform her teacher would be using for the rest of the semester.

Carrera is one of thousands of students in San Antonio who started school this week. She and her 19 classmates listened to their homeroom teacher, Miss Catherine Scott, walk them through their class schedules and how to log into the virtual classroom for different school periods. Though Miss Scott explained processes more slowly than Carrera needed, Carrera said the fall already felt more organized than last spring.

“Last year, it was pretty crazy,” she said. “We never got around to taking attendance because we didn’t know how to use [the different technology platforms]. Now, we’re only in Zoom and we have classes. It’s really better because we can get attendance taken.”

Carrera’s mother Marta Solís works full-time at the Southwest School of Art. Her job gives her some flexibility, Solís said, but she still had to take her daughter with her to the office on Monday and Tuesday when she was assigned some on-site responsibilities. 

“She’s very independent,” Solís said. “She’ll come ask for help … but I don’t know how I’d do it if she was in a smaller grade level.” 

At home, Solís works at a desk in her bedroom, far enough away from Carrera so that the two don’t bother each other on their separate calls. But now and then Solís will check on her daughter and bring her water or a plate of sliced strawberries. 

“Yesterday, they had [physical education class],” Solís said, laughing. “I kept hearing, ‘One more repetition, two more repetitions.’ So I come and peek, and I see Niko drawing. I said, ‘Niko, what are you doing?’ She said, ‘I’m in PE.'”

Attendance was the first order of business in Danahe Espinoza’s own post-lunchtime PE class at Young Women’s Leadership Academy on Tuesday afternoon. Just before 1 p.m., Danahe, dressed in a red YWLA T-shirt and ripped jeans, logged back into Zoom to see some 30 unfamiliar faces looking back at her. It was her first week at a new middle school.

Digital palm trees waving on loop behind her, Danahe watched as her coach thoroughly checked off a list of names and confirmed correct pronunciation. One by one, each student unmuted themselves and indicated they were present.

Then the coach began to go over the syllabus. Students would each need a notebook to complete a daily health journal tracking nutrition and exercise. Volleyball would be the first unit, and students would have to wear uniforms when performing physical activity.

It all sounded like a typical first day, except for the fact that it was unlikely the 30-person class would scrimmage anytime soon. San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez told his board Monday night that he anticipated campuses would need to remain at 50 percent capacity or less throughout the first semester.

If given the choice, Danahe would be back at school in person.

“I want to be there,” the sixth-grader said. “I’m tired of being at home.”

Danahe (left) and Maximoz Espinoza learn at home on their computers and tablets. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In the next room, Danahe’s younger brother Maximoz, a second-grader at Promesa Academy, a new charter school, worked on speech therapy before transitioning into his own PE class. He gripped a school-issued tablet and sought advice from his mom, Nancy, in between the sessions on what to do next.

At times, the voices of Danahe’s and Maximoz’s instructors overlapped across their separated study spaces.

That was not the case at the the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Antonio’s Calderon Clubhouse where dozens of students wore headphones curled around their heads in quiet rooms as teachers gave lessons on their devices.

The clubhouse opened on Aug. 17 for students in need of supervision and academic support throughout the day. On Tuesday, about 50 students arrived early. Clubhouse leaders broke students into learning pods by age or grade and directed them to separate parts of the building for their school day.

In the teal and white cinderblock game room, 12 elementary students hunched over their laptops and tablets at folding tables spaced out at different ends of the room. Oversized masks covered the faces of the young kids and staffers.

The only source of sound in the otherwise silent space was muffled voices coming from headphones with the volume turned up too loud.

Boys and Girls Clubs of San Antonio’s Calderon Clubhouse opened on Aug. 17 for students in need of supervision and academic support throughout the day. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Some students participated in Zoom discussions by greeting their classmates or responding to their teacher. Others, including 8-year-old Benjamin, cycled through a number of educational games while on a “brain break,” which was built into his schedule to give him some rest between structured lessons.

First, Benjamin selected a holiday-themed game, which required the player to navigate Santa and his reindeer through a maze of candy canes. In the span of two minutes, Benjamin’s sleigh crashed more than 10 times, but he continued to restart the exercise from the beginning.

“Rudolph, you suck,” Benjamin murmured before closing out the screen and selecting a new game that involved placing numbers and math symbols into different categories.

A student at Madison Elementary, Benjamin said he liked virtual learning because he picked what he wanted to do, and still had the opportunity to see his friends at the clubhouse.

On the other end of the table, Cotton Academy student Giselle watched videos on her laptop. Wearing a unicorn mask, sea-foam green leggings, and carrying a unicorn lunchbox, she said the weirdest part of remote learning at the clubhouse was the mask.

“It gets hot, and it’s sometimes hard to breathe in,” she said.

However, she was glad she could wear one with a unicorn on it.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.