On a normal day, 20 4-year-olds arrive in Cashelle Johnson’s Pre-K 4 SA classroom and spend their hours playing with one another, tackling hands-on activities, and running and climbing on the playground. Every year, students take a spring field trip, but with the school closed to stop the spread of coronavirus, that wasn’t going to be possible.

Johnson instead decided she would take her class on virtual field trips every Friday. During the first week of closures, the destination was the San Diego Zoo, with students looking at elephants, monkeys, and giraffes using a live webcam feed.

Pre-K 4 SA teacher Cashelle Johnson’s student Aaron Olguin watches a live webcam video of the monkeys at the San Diego Zoo. Credit: Courtesy / Pre-K 4 SA

Students then shared their thoughts on the experience by sending their teacher illustrations and videos. It went over so well that Johnson decided to book another field trip, and last week students visited the Georgia Aquarium. With young students’ short attention spans, it ends up being a 15- to 20-minute round trip, Johnson said.

With schools closed and learning moving online, educators like Johnson are finding ways to get creative when planning lessons and factoring in elements that take place on any normal class day.

The pre-K teacher works to include a key component of a student’s education in her new remote experiences: social interaction. Johnson’s students usually learn about forming relationships and proper etiquette by being in class every day with nonfamily members. With in-class activities on hold, she lets her students talk with one another and interact over a video platform.

They do this at least twice a week to make sure students still have this kind of interaction.

Video also plays a large role in another Pre-K 4 SA teacher’s new routine. Gabriel Tejeda records videos of him reading to his students.

Last Monday, Tejeda posted a short recording of him reading the book Llama Llama Red Pajama on YouTube. To keep students engaged, he played a music track in the background and read the words to the beat.

“I have a mentality that is very flexible, so I try to find solutions and I don’t really want to harp on the problem,” said Tejeda, who has been working at Pre-K 4 SA since it started. “In making the videos, I’ve been able to connect with the [kids] on a personal level, and it helps because I’ve been doing it for years.”

Not every teacher had the advantage of knowing their curriculum well after multiple years of teaching a subject. This was Adan Gonzalez’s first year as a sixth grade tech applications teacher in a magnet program at Ed White Middle School in North East Independent School District.

When schools announced closures, he was initially uncertain how to proceed. Most of Gonzalez’s students had the appropriate technology at home to continue lessons, but some of his students were completing their homework on an Xbox, he said.

“We also had to develop some way of learning for kids who didn’t have technology at home, so we basically had to figure out how to put it all in writing,” Gonzalez said. “For a technology class, that’s particularly difficult.”

Gonzalez found his nerves quickly transforming into excitement. He drew on lessons he learned in a course to become a Google-certified educator, based lessons on readings his students were already doing in class, and offered optional videoconference lessons to students who wanted additional instruction. In the videoconferences, the class plays games together and talks about digital citizenship, he said.

But not all teachers are relying solely on technology in their new lesson plans. In Lamar Elementary’s sixth grade reading class, teacher Gabriela Santiago is exploring how best to use Bibliotech, Bexar County’s digital public library, but also plans to use physical copies of books with her students.

Lamar Elementary sixth grade teacher Gabriela Santiago takes a photo of the Zoom virtual meeting with her students. Credit: Courtesy / Gabriela Santiago

In her classroom, the San Antonio ISD teacher keeps a library of roughly 700 books. When campuses shut, she took home about a quarter of her collection and now plans to mail them out to students’ homes. Santiago said the hardest task will be to determine what book to start with.

“I feel like this is a really important time for [my students] to record what’s happening in their lives, so I’ve chosen a few diaries,” Santiago said. “I’m starting with personal narratives with children who are going through crisis and having to reevaluate their worlds. And then I’m going to have them write daily because we don’t know whether or not the things that they write today might be used as a primary source later.”

Santiago and the thousands of other San Antonio educators recognize the high stakes of these weeks for students; taking a monthlong hiatus from school isn’t an option. The importance of making this time count fostered the creation of creative solutions and ingenuity from educators, who haven’t been required to adapt like this before.

Are you an educator or do you have a student in your home who now has to learn remotely?

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.