Shannon Willard (center) helps sons Griffin Price, 6, (left) and Maddox Price, 8, with distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Shannon Willard’s first-grade son has had a tough time adjusting to distance learning in the first few weeks of the school year. Some of the hardest moments have been when he accidentally hits the submit button on an assignment he hasn’t finished yet, causing the program to automatically return a failing grade. 

When this happens, the boy dissolves into tears for fear that the grade is permanent. Willard said it sometimes takes him an hour to recover from that, just in time for him to join another Zoom lesson with his class.

If online forums are any indication, the Willards are not alone in their struggles with distance learning. Facebook groups for parents are jammed with comments describing confusion, chaos, anxiety-ridden children, and parents stressed to the point of mental breakdowns.

Like everything else about 2020, school is different and more challenging this year as school districts have tried to limit the spread of the coronavirus with varying plans that include most students beginning the fall semester online.

But that’s a model that has quickly become untenable for Willard and many parents all over San Antonio.

Three of Willard’s four sons are students at BASIS San Antonio, a charter school focused on accelerated learning school that often has a waiting list.

In a normal year, the school does not rely as heavily on technology for instruction as many other public schools. But for now BASIS is online, and Willard’s kids are sitting in front of screens for hours a day, which makes her unhappy – when she has time to think about it.

Willard said it’s challenging trying to keep her oldest son, a fifth grader, focused and on task while simultaneously helping her youngest student as he struggles with learning all the technology.  

None of her kids have special needs or underlying health conditions, so she is ready for them to return to in-person schooling, especially if there are safeguards in place, such as masks. But if the kids can’t return to the classroom yet, Willard said something has to give.

“I wish they would get rid of their specials for a while,” Willard said of BASIS courses in such subject areas as visual arts, martial arts, performing arts, and Mandarin Chinese. “It’s a lot” in addition to the core curriculum.

Willard laughed as she described to help her son with his Mandarin homework, saying the only thing keeping her from pulling the kids out and homeschooling them is that she doesn’t want them to lose their spots at BASIS.

“I love, love, love our school. I truly do love the school,” Willard said, “And I keep hanging in there hoping they will bring the kids back.”

Willard, who does not currently work from home or have a job outside it, said she can’t imagine how difficult it would be to juggle work and do distance learning with her three kids while caring for her 4-year-old. 

A difficult juggling act

Erin Rodriguez is one of those parents doing the juggle. She and her husband, Guillermo, are working from home while trying to help their two elementary-aged children with online instruction at Aue Elementary in Northside ISD. 

Fifth-grader Ricky and third-grader Evie can manage some of the learning independently, but Rodriguez said the days are often scattered and disjointed as she and her husband field the kids’ frequent requests for help logging in or completing an assignment. They also have to keep up with the daily schedules of each kid’s many Zoom meetings. Rodriguez said they’ve taken to setting alarms on their Google Home device to remind the kids when to log into their next class.

“They’ll walk away or take a break and go out on the trampoline, and all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Wait a second, you have two minutes to get back on,’” Rodriguez said. 

Evie Rodriguez attends school via Zoom as her older brother Ricky looks over her shoulder. Credit: Courtesy / Erin Rodriguez

Rodriguez, who is a television producer for KENS 5, said the stress is the worst when the kids have a need and she’s working on breaking news. “They just kind of have to realize that whatever it is, it can wait,” Rodriguez said. 

Doing school and work in the same space also has made some things simply unworkable, like when Ricky needed to practice his recorder for his music class.

“Oh, heck, no, we can’t have that going on while we’re working,” Rodriguez said. “I hope [teachers] can understand that there’s no way that kid can be practicing his recorder while I’m on Zoom.”

Rodriguez said she believes schools and parents will both have to relax a little to make distance learning work.

“They’ve asked us to bend a lot with them and to be understanding, and everyone’s trying their best,” she said. “And I feel like that should be looked at the same way for parents or grandparents or guardians that are trying to make it work at home.”

But as frustrating as the distance learning has been at times, Rodriguez doesn’t plan to send her kids back to a classroom for a while because her daughter Evie has asthma, so COVID-19 could be particularly dangerous for her. 

“I could never live with myself if she got sick,” Rodriguez said.

Despite all the stress her mom is feeling, Evie described distance learning as “kind of fun,” but said she misses her friends.

“The hardest thing is remembering to unmute yourself,” Evie said about her online classes.

Since the pandemic shut down schools in March, Rodriguez, her husband, and her parents, who live nearby, have used a complex system of tag-teaming childcare and school duties.

But for parents who are on their own, distance learning seems not just hard, but impossible.

‘It just breaks my heart’

B, who asked to be identified only by her first initial so she could speak freely, said her husband has been out of town for job training since before school started, and won’t be back until October at the earliest. That leaves her juggling her two jobs and distance learning for her three children, as well as her neighbor’s kid. Her neighbor, a single mother, is unable to work from home and relies on B to be her son’s teacher and supervisor during the day. 

“I don’t have more than 15 or 20 minutes between when another child should be doing something different,” B said. “I just run in circles for about seven hours.” 

The four kids are all in different grades, and both B and her neighbor have complicated schedules. When the neighbor gets off work, she comes over to have dinner with the four kids and be with them while B leaves for her nursing job at a hospital. When B arrives back home at 11 p.m., she wakes up her neighbor who’s asleep on the couch, so she can go home, and the day is finally done.

“I’ve cried every day for the past two weeks,” said B, who has a master’s degree in nursing. “I’ve done a lot of hard things in my life, I feel like, but this takes the cake.”

In order to stay home with the kids during the day, B said she has had to reduce her hours as a nurse and begin virtual visits for her other health care job. B said she is grateful her employers have been flexible, but her income has suffered as a result.

Conducting virtual consultations with clients during the day also has proven stressful when the younger kids suddenly need help. During one business call, B looked up to see her first grader in tears because she couldn’t figure out how to log in to her class quiz and the class had started without her. 

“She said, ‘I couldn’t get logged in in time, and I couldn’t ask you for help, and I didn’t know what to do,’” B said. “It just breaks my heart.”

Eager for her children to return to campus, B recently sent a letter to her Northside ISD school’s principal asking that her kids be allowed back sooner rather than later. The district’s current plan allowed certain categories of special needs and high-risk kids to begin attending school in person on Sept. 8, and eventually, if there is no surge in coronavirus cases, B’s first grader could be allowed back in October. 

The timeline for a return to the classroom for her older kids is far less certain. That’s where B said she disagrees with the school district’s policies, because as a health professional she believes people should understand that living with the coronavirus is just a reality now.

“This is a virus – it’s here to stay,” she said. “There’s no such thing as this being over. … We [as a family] just have kind of accepted [COVID-19] as another risk of being alive.”

As she struggles through each day, B said she has been seriously considering withdrawing her children from public school and switching to a homeschool curriculum. 

“I love our school, I love our teachers and we just love our community,” B said. “I feel like homeschooling is my only option at this point. I don’t want to do it, but it’s my only option if I want to keep my job and make the income that our family needs and make sure my kids get a quality education.”

Finding a different school model

Like B, other parents have been considering some alternate form of schooling since distance learning started, and for Amanda Pedlar, it was the right answer for her family.

After a difficult online school experience with her first grader in the spring, Pedlar, a mother of two who is working from home, decided something had to change. 

“Between me having webinars, her having meetings, trying to keep a 3-year-old occupied while we’re both busy working, dad’s gone. It was a lot,” Pedlar said. “I just didn’t feel like it would be fair to put all of us through that again.” 

At first, Pedlar said she was nervous about pulling her daughter out of Brooks Oaks Academy, a charter school. Then she found The Gathering Place, a new charter that opened this year and uses an instructional style called project-based learning.

Like every other school, The Gathering Place has had to adopt an online learning platform, but Pedlar said virtual schooling this fall has been much different from what most parents are dealing with at more traditional schools. 

Pedlar said her daughter’s school day consists of a single, optional, one-hour Zoom meeting, and logging at least three hours of learning time each day to turn in to the school.  The family schedules that around Pedlar’s work, and parents are allowed and even encouraged to creatively incorporate school into regular activities, such as using baking for math lessons and outdoors time for nature and science studies. 

Pedlar feels that she has found the right balance for her family and is glad the trials of distance learning pushed her to discover her own blend of homeschooling and laid-back distance learning. 

“Once I saw what the schedules looked like for the districts [this fall], I felt really at peace with my decision,” Pedlar said.

This story has been updated to correct a reference to BASIS San Antonio’s use of technology.

Jennifer Norris has been working in journalism since 2005. She's a native Texan, but a new San Antonian who is excited to get to know the city.