Alisa Garza, left, is a sixth-grade English teacher and curriculum designer at Longoria Middle School in Edinburg. (Courtesy photo)

There are new reasons to have back-to-school jitters this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Rio Grande Valley school districts to a virtual fall semester, and local teachers have been challenged with converting its curriculum onto online platforms.

Shaila Emurla is a fourth-grade teacher at Canterbury Elementary School in Edinburg, and also a curriculum designer. She said the task has “definitely been a huge learning curve.”

For three years now, Emurla has been a part of the district’s curriculum designing team, and has been leading the makeup of fourth-grade math material.

The challenge this year: Teachers depend on the annual STAAR exam results to prepare for the upcoming batch of students. Educators use those test scores to understand which students are behind, and determine how many are ahead. The first day for the district is Aug. 31.

Students didn’t take the STAAR exam last year. When the pandemic hit the region in March, the decision was made to eliminate the statewide exam, in an effort to ease the transition into online learning .

“How are we going to start the year by identifying the kids that need help?” Emurla said.

“We are literally starting this year with a blank slate.”

As an effort to understand the upcoming fourth graders more, Emurla’s team distributed mini-assessments to students, which they used to make groups that suit each students’ levels.

The next challenge, she said, was translating materials onto digital platforms, while making sure it was still engaging for elementary students, and easy to use for teachers.

“There are techy teachers, and others that aren’t so techy, so we have to make it so that everyone can use it,” she said. “It had to be simple and engaging. It was something different for us to make because we are not video editors or video creators, we are teachers.”

The first few lessons Emurla will be teaching her fourth-grade class include lines, angles, triangles and division — the latter of which, she said would be the most challenging to teach.

Emurla said though she is confident in the online curriculum the team has created, she speaks for all of her colleges when stating they would much rather be teaching in a classroom.

“I know it’s not safe right now and that we have to be home, but we love being in the classroom,” she said.

Emurla said another arduous part to starting the year online is making sure to harbor the same relationships and connections with students that come naturally from being in a classroom every weekday.

“I still need to make that student connection, I still need to find ways to have that relationship with them,” she said. “I need to get in there and get to know them, because you still need that in order for them to log on.”

She usually decorates her classroom with several plants, following an environmental theme. This year, she’ll still follow that theme, but instead for a corner of her house that will be shown in video sessions with her class.

Alisa Garza, a sixth-grade English teacher and curriculum designer at Longoria Middle School in Edinburg, said while creating the content, they had to consider the different situations students may be in, and the resources they may have.

“I need to stop and say, ‘this student may not have the guidance at home, this student may not have a parent who can read the daily syllabus,’” Garza said. “So I need to make sure that it is reader friendly to the grade level of that student, I need to make sure that the student can follow.”

Though the transition to online learning has been tough, Garza said it has been an opportunity for the district to integrate technology into students’ learning to make it more engaging.

“There is so much we can truly offer our students that we would not have known was possible if we have not gone through this,” she said.

The English curriculum for ECISD follows thematic objectives, while also building language.

The first unit for Garza’s English class is “Finding Courage,” a theme she said is fitting for this pandemic-riddled year.

Each unit is six weeks long, and so far, the curriculum designing team has converted the first 12 weeks into online instruction. The county’s order for all local schools to operate remotely expires Sept. 27.

It’s unknown how long schools will not be allowed to host students in classrooms, but until then, Garza said they will make the best out of the situation.

“We are using fun platforms that if we had the capability of perfect internet everyday at school, it would be like a paradise school,” she said. “If only I could be there in class with those devices and with those students, and using all the technology we have infused into the curriculum, it would be the kind of school you would want to attend again.”

A benefit of online instruction, Garza noted, is the minimizing of distractions.

“I feel like the external distractions that are there and present everyday when we are with 100-plus students in a hallway will change the way students will be able to focus and learn,” she said. “So, I am curious about how the students that are easily distracted are going to do with this kind of platform, because it may not be perfect for everyone, but it might just be exactly what those types of students need.”

However, like Emurla, Garza is concerned about how she will be able to make connections with students through screens.

“At the end of the day we are teachers and we are used to building those relationships, and teaching them about empathy and understanding, and how to tolerate differences,” Garza said. “It is going to be a challenge even with a great curriculum on figuring out, ‘How do I get to know you just as well through distance learning?’”

Garza said some teachers come into work a week early just to prepare and decorate their classrooms, one part of a regular school year that teachers miss dearly.

“We make sure our classrooms look homey and safe and vibrant for our students, who consider school as their second home,” she said. “And a lot of them look forward to that, to that space and time with everyone.

She continued: “I am going to miss looking at familiar faces, and miss seeing my students who moved onto sixth grade to seventh. Even with distance learning and the curriculum, and having the ability to send and receive each other videos, I am not going to have that relationship with students that have already moved onto the next grade level. So that is something we are not going to get through distance learning no matter how great our curriculum and our platforms are.”