Northeast High School Principal Sterlin McGruder said his staff's primary focus in September has been getting students connected online, engaged with classes and to making sure students are emotionally handling things well.
“Our staff knew that it was so important to take care of the social-emotional learning and the well-being of our students during the time of COVID and also during this time of civil unrest in the country,” McGruder said. “We want to make sure we take care of the emotional side.”
Cristina Coro, a visual arts teacher at Crockett High School, said relationship building is essential for teachers. In a virtual world, making a personal connection with a student can be a challenge.
“Build a good relationship with a kid, and you're halfway there. That’s been my motto ever since I started teaching,” Coro said. “That has definitely been my experience, and that is what I miss the most, not having that face-to-face contact and making those relationships with them. That's my biggest anxiety point.”
Carmela Valdez, a kindergarten teacher at Perez Elementary School, said she has enjoyed seeing her students' faces online during class, but virtual learning presents challenges for teachers and students.
“The students are working, and their families are working, really hard to keep up with everything,” she said. “Families don't want their students to lose instructional time or access.”
With class time, evaluating student work, and meetings with other teachers and administrators to talk about virtual strategies, Valdez said she has been working from 7:30 a.m. into the night most weekdays.
“It’s a lot of things to juggle in your brain,” she said. “My brain is more tired than my body is.”
Coro said this year—even more so than in years past—requires teachers to lesson plan and prepare outside of the school day. Teachers also have a greater demand to be available after hours so students and parents can communicate problems or concerns throughout the day.
As an art teacher, Coro said she is utilizing the online technology available to have discussions about art and critical thinking. She said without physical materials to create, she has been creative in how to provide that experience for students.
“We're going to have to get creative with how our kids are going to create and tapping into their creativity in any way we possibly can,” she said. “I think there’s going to be a lot more meaningful conversation about art; I’m kind of excited about that.”
Although virtual learning does present challenges, Education Austin Union President Ken Zarifis said he has been impressed with the success stories he has heard from teachers across the district in September.
Zarifis said through their careers, teachers develop strategies and tools to support in-person interactions with students in the classroom. Now conducting class in a virtual setting, teachers are being innovative with lessons and how they make connections with their new students, he said.
“The district is learning how to do online,” he said. “I think an amazing byproduct of this disaster is being given the chance to actually create one of the best online offerings in the state. I'm excited about what teachers are doing. It's like having a districtwide classroom where we're all actually learning how to be better in public education.”
Some students will be returning to AISD campuses beginning Oct. 5. Although lessons will still be taught online, students that have selected to return will be in physical classrooms with a teacher.
Since virtual learning will be used beyond Oct. 5, Crockett High School Principal Kori Crawford said making sure kids are learning in the online classroom during the first month of school has been essential. However, she said she worries about being able to support teachers once they are responsible for students in the classroom and at home.
“There's a lot of fear in coming back, and we want to make sure that not only are our students OK, but our staff are in a good place to come back, too," she said. "There's a lot of unknown and anxiety around teaching in this new virtual world. That’s a lot to put on teachers.”
Campuses have been open to teachers since mid-August, and McGruder said he has seen Northeast High teachers slowly come back to school to teach virtual classes from campus.
“They're getting used to wearing a mask as they Zoom from campus, and a lot of them do miss being here at school,” he said. “They are feeling more comfortable right now than before coming back.”
Although campuses have been open for teachers, Valdez and Coro have both been teaching from their homes since the start of the school year. Most teachers will be required by AISD to return to school Oct. 5 when some students return.
While Coro said she plans to return, Valdez will continue to teach from home.
Valdez said she is immunocompromised and lives with her 79-year-old mother, her sister and her two nephews, age 3 and 11 months. Because of this, Valdez was granted approval from the district to stay home even after most teachers will be required to return to the classroom.
Education Austin since the summer has called for AISD to delay the start of in-person offerings until at least the end of the fall semester. Zarifis said the infrastructure to remain online-only is in place for the district and that remaining virtual is the best way to keep students and staff safe during the pandemic and to help reduce COVID-19 numbers locally.
Valdez said she would not feel comfortable returning to campus until the Austin area sees a close to zero infection rate for at least 14 days or if a vaccine was available to the community.
“I’m hoping that we have the leadership [in AISD] to say, 'No, we’re not going to do this,'” she said. “We want to keep the safety of our employees and our students as our highest priority.”