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Coronavirus Education Featured

El Paso parents, teachers, students face challenges adapting to at-home learning

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Be flexible, be forgiving, be patient, and when all else fails – forget it and try again tomorrow. That’s the universal advice that teachers and parents have shared with one another as they began navigating online at home instruction since it began three weeks ago.

The Socorro Independent School District was the first district in the El Paso area to launch online courses, with just two days to ready their classes for online learning and prepare paper packets with three weeks’ worth of work for families who may not have the materials to conduct class online.

The idea is that parents will turn in the packets and exchange them for new ones – but it’s uncertain when teachers will receive the packets to grade.

“It’s all a learning curve,” Socorro ISD high school English teacher Ruby Ramirez said. “We aren’t allowed in the school at all – so I’m not sure how we’ll get the packet.”

Chief Academic Officer Lucy Borrego said the parents are supposed to hold onto them for now until further instructions come from the district.

The move to online learning came as Gov. Greg Abbott and Mayor Dee Margo ordered Texans and El Pasoans to stay at home, and schools were to remain closed through at least May 4.

 School districts in El Paso distributed iPads, laptops and remote hot spots to students that would need these devices to complete the assignments.

Kimi Monsisvais, 5, connects with his prekindergarten teacher and classmates from his home. (Photo by Vanessa Monsisvais)

Early technology challenges

The adjustment has not been without its challenges.

Some parents are juggling their time between helping their children with instruction, helping an elderly parent and appeasing their employers. Multiple usernames and passwords for multiple educational tools can also cause confusion.

In their first week of online learning, El Paso ISD students and parents struggled to log onto Schoology, their online learning tool, to get the work done.

“My daughter, who is in the eighth grade, is having trouble,” Eva Krebsach said. “On the first day, the teacher had them go into class, but my daughter was about a minute late and couldn’t log into the class. Then, there was the constant crashing of Schoology, and the codes we were sent were not working. By the time we contacted the teacher the class was over.”

Her daughter, Isabella, was able to get in touch with her teacher later that day, and together they figured out the technical difficulty, but by that time it was 8 p.m.

“And I thought well, forget it, we’ll try again tomorrow.” Krebsach said, laughing. Luckily her son, Mathias, 12, is not having as much difficulty logging on she added.

On April 6, EPISD Superintendent Juan Cabrera acknowledged the issues parents were frustrated about with Schoology and encouraged that the parents and students visit EPISD@Home resource for assistance.

“While I’m very happy with the launch of EPISD@HOME, I know there were some glitches and some connectivity issues with Schoology,” Cabrera said. “We are 100 percent certain EPISD@HOME will be a valuable community resource, but we know there will be growing pains as we work hard to build our new school model.  Please know EPISD is fully committed to supporting our families and we appreciate your patience as we work to improve performance.”

EPISD spokeswoman Melissa Martinez said parents and students have online tutoring services through EPISD@Home.

“For parents, we have a lot of parent resources on there,” Martinez said “We want parents to look at the site. And there are tips, and sample schedules so you can schedule your day. We do have tutors on staff as well to help our students.”

How parents and teachers are overcoming challenges

Vanessa Monsisvais, a mother of three children ages 5, 8 and 10 years old, works for the El Paso Independent School District. She said to avoid questions and issues regarding technical difficulties with the iPads and passwords, she spent the weekend before the launch of the EPISD@Home showing her children how to log on the devices and onto their accounts.

Penelope Monsisvais, 10, does her own schoolwork on a laptop at home,then helps her 5-year-old brother with his pre-kindergarten work. (Photo by Vanessa Monsisvais)

 Additionally, she spent time working out a schedule for herself and her children.

“I’m not a traditional parent, so we don’t follow a traditional schedule,” Monsisvais said. “I let the kids stay up late so that they can wake up later. That way I can tackle my work early in the morning before they have to hop onto the computer.”

She said that after she completes her work, her oldest child, Penelope, gets use of the laptop, and later in the evening she focuses on her son Miles, who needs one-on-one instruction. As for her youngest, the material he needs to learn is Pre-K, so she puts her oldest in charge of helping her little brother learn.

With three children on different devices stuck in the house, she decided to construct a “ZOOM” Box to provide her children an area to meet their teacher.

“It’s a cardboard box with a door,” she said, laughing. “That way when the kids need to have a meeting with their teacher, they can go in there and do what they need to do and not be disturbed. It’s actually helped set some boundaries.”

Additionally, she has designated roles for her children. While they are in class during the day, Monsisvais said she calls them “The Student,” and they call her “The Teacher.” But when they need something from her as a mother, they switch back to calling her “Mom.”

Advice from a home-schooler

While online learning at home is uncharted territory to many parents, others like Patricia Ferman, founder of the El Paso Homeschool Educators Co-OP, are familiar with this method of learning.

Since the area school districts have gone online, the number one question she’s received from parents is: How do I start?

“They want to know how do they go about structuring the schedule and they want to know what to focus on,” Ferman said. “I tell them right now with the frustration and uncertainty of the day-to-day it can be nerve wracking and worrisome not only for the parent but for the child.

“So I tell them to stay calm. I say if you need to, take some time to yourself – read a book, meditate – to unwind the frustration you have. I tell them let your kids have some space and let them be themselves for a while. If they don’t want to do their work at the moment, give them a break, they’ll pick it up.”

Ferman added that during this time, many sites have opened up their educational resources for free. She said YouTube is a great resource for learning material.

Juggling teaching and your own children

Laura Calvillo Neill, a social studies teacher at Socorro ISD, is trying to maintain a normal schedule with her children.

Evelyn Neill, 6 and Olivia Neill, 10 do their assignments in the bedrooms. Like many El Paso area students, the Neill children have transitioned to online learning at home due to COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Laura Calvillo Neill)

“We wake up at 8 a.m. and at around 8:30 a.m., have breakfast. Then they have to get ready and go to school, so everyone takes a shower and puts their shoes on,” Neill said. “Then they follow their schedule and then we’ll eat lunch and then they do their homework, and we’ll watch a movie and play board games.”

Neill added that she and her husband rearranged the children’s rooms so they could each have a designated work area.

On top of having to manage her children’s schedules, Neill must also structure her work schedule around her 150 middle school students.

“It (COVID-19) blew up our lesson plans but it has given us the freedom to also teach them through what is happening in real life,” she said. “And I have to be flexible because a lot of the kids are doing their lessons on their phones.”

Helping at-risk populations

In some cases, parents are discovering that their children thrive more with online learning at home.

 Monsisvais said her son Miles seems to be getting more work done at home.

“He’s not disturbing the classroom because he’s able to wiggle around and then come back to what he was doing,” she said.

Miles Davis Monsisvais, 8, seems to be getting more school work done since instruction moved to home because of COVID-19, his mother says. (Photo by Vanessa Monsisvais)

But for parents who need additional help, the district special education departments are working with students that have been identified as at risk, or as having a learning disability. With those students, special education teachers and counselors are meeting with these students remotely.

Officials at El Paso ISD and Ysleta ISD said parents should be in contact with the teacher and principal if their child is receiving these services, especially if they were receiving them  when the campuses were open.

At Socorro ISD, Borrego said that if a student needs special education services that they were receiving when school was in session, the parents need to contact the teacher and let them know that their child need these resources.

Ramirez, the Socorro ISD high school English teacher, said she has five students in her class with learning disabilities.

“When we were in school I had a co-teacher that would focus on those students and so now she’s continuing to focus on those students. She’s emailing them and guiding them and making sure they are on task,” Ramirez said

Losing students is a concern  

In the first week of online instruction, Socorro ISD art teacher Sergio Lopez said hadn’t heard back from 50 of his 210 students.

Whatever the reason may be, Lopez said all he can do is try to reach them again at a later date.

But if they remain uncommunicative to him, then he will have to talk to his principal or other administrators at the school, to see if they can try to communicate with the student.

Social studies teacher Calvillo Neill said she is mostly concerned for students who may get lost due to limited resources and spotty cell phone connections. She added that she is also concerned for students who may not live in a safe household.

“We may have a few kids in foster care and a few kids who are homeless and kids who live in abusive homes that we had been monitoring, and we were able to see their physical progress and provide them with support and counseling,” Neill said. “But now airing out their family issues is harder for them because it (online learning) adds another layer of distance.”

Officials with the El Paso, Socorro and Ysleta districts said if a student has not been in touch with their teacher for an extended period of time and the teacher suspects abuse is happening in the home, teachers must report those concerns to Child Protective Services.

“If the teacher suspects child abuse, the same rules apply as before,” Mackeben said. “Teachers must still report to CPS, by law. CPS and law enforcement will handle the situation just as before.”

Keep calm, this too shall pass

Teachers and parents have had to become creative and flexible. Neill, who teaches social studies, has adapted her lessons to revolve around COVID-19 news events and relating them to her lessons on World War I and the flu pandemic of 1918.

“You know this has changed teaching in many ways,” Neill said. “It took down the wall of formality. Students now know, oh this is Ms. Neill’s house. So in a way, this has brought us closer together while tearing us apart.”

Lopez said his lesson on Picasso’s rose and cubist periods required him to be flexible when some of his students told him they didn’t have access to newspapers or magazines to create a mosaic.

“So I had them create a color wheel with things they could find around the house,” Lopez said.

Ferman said keeping things fun at home will engage the students in their learning.

“Try to make learning fun,” Ferman said. “Like for spelling, my son and I play hangman and for history or science we play ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ and their life lines can be relatives that they call.”

El Paso ISD spokeswoman Martinez said most teachers are focusing on their strengths and helping each other out.

“There has to be flexibility,” Martinez said. “We keep stressing that by no means is there an expectation that you will be an expert on all of this. There is a lot of support and flexibility for both teachers and students. Our chief academic officer put it best – we are building the plane and flying it at the same time. We are navigating this together.”

Cover photo: High School English teacher Ruby Ramirez sits with her 5-year-old daughter as they work through a lesson. In addition to helping her two children through school, Ramirez must also attend to her 131 English students who are learning remotely due to COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Ruby Ramirez)

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Alex Hinojosa

Alex Hinojosa is an El Paso freelance journalist and a mass communications instructor at El Paso Community College.

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