Home school: Teachers, students start school year in virtual time

HARLINGEN – Zaida Rodriguez moved quickly about her classroom, speaking excitedly about her third graders returning today, albeit remotely from their homes.

“We are getting all our lessons for reading and science together to be able to create assignments on Seesaw for our students,” said Rodriguez, a teacher at Zavala Elementary.

Seesaw is the online education platform being used by Zavala and other elementary schools as educators present their lessons in virtual time.

But Rodriguez, like many teachers across the Harlingen school district, is choosing to instruct students from her classroom while students Zoom in.

“I just feel that working here, this is my environment where I know I will be successful,” she said. “Because I have all my resources, my tools that I need.”

Today is a first day of school like no other, with the district’s 19,000 students at all grade levels logging in to classrooms for virtual instruction. The first four weeks of the 2020-2021 school year are 100 percent virtual, with a transition into face-to-face learning scheduled for Oct. 5.

This means that students will have the option of coming in physically to class, remaining in virtual instruction or engaging in a hybrid of both, said Alicia Noyola, chief academic officer.

“It’s going to be different,” she said. “It’s different and the same at the same time, and I say that because there are some things that are universal. Some things don’t change with the start in school year.”

Noyola was referring to such annual milestones as meeting teachers, supporting kids in their return to school and giving them guidance on what the first day of school may look like.

“We actually have our meet the teacher nights,” Noyola said last week. “All of our campuses are scheduling meet the teacher nights, no different than we would do every other year. The difference is that it’s being done virtually.”

She said more communication is taking place this year because many parents need additional assistance to navigate through remote learning. This is especially true of teachers in the earlier grades working with parents whose children are just beginning school.

“Parents will play an increased role in supporting their children during remote instruction,” Noyola said. “So we have a lot of communication happening right now with our teachers doing outreach to our families, to their students, kind of giving them some guidance.”

Beatrice Cruz, 5th grade teacher at Zavala Elementary, decorates a bulletin board in her classroom for the first day of school. Although the classes will commence online this year, she says she will use various areas of the classroom throughout the day.

This summer when the number of COVID-19 cases spiked in Cameron County, many teachers protested physically returning to school for fear of infection. They demanded that school be held in 100 percent virtual time. Then the district moved the start date to Sept. 8 and announced the first four weeks would be strictly virtual.

State mandate, however, requires that districts offer face-to-face instruction early next month.

“Our expectation is that the week of Oct. 5 we will have some degree of face to face instruction,” Noyola said. “It’s the expectation of the state. But we also recognize that remote instruction does not work for all students. Our goal has always been about bringing our students back to school. We know there is nothing quite like face to face and being in that setting.”

Most of the teachers at Zavala Elementary are teaching virtually from their classrooms, said Principal Tanya Garza.

In preparation for the first day of school, Zavala Elementary 5th grade teacher Xochitl Lara reviews her lesson plans for the first week of school.

“About 75 percent, 80 percent of my teachers have chosen to work from the classroom,” Garza said. “They felt very comfortable with the protocols that the district had in place and the guidelines that we’re following. And so just ensuring safety might make teachers feel a little more at ease.”

Beatrice Cruz, who teaches fifth grade at Zavala, felt the district’s safety measures, such as masks, social distancing and hand washing, sufficed a return to the classroom.

“For me being here for my students means a lot so making a choice to come back in person was something that I did in order to support my students in the best way that I could,” Cruz said. “I am concerned but I feel very confident in the safety guidelines.”