Into Coronavirus and the Classroom: Teachers Swap Chalkboards for Apps
Trymaine Lee: As the nation debates the right way to handle school reopenings, teachers are finding themselves in the middle of the fight. In Florida the state's biggest teachers union sued the state over its plan to reopen this fall.
Archival Recording: One child gets it and brings it to their teacher. And they bring that home. Then it just keeps spreading more and more.
Lee: Earlier this month an op-ed ran in the Atlantic with the headline, "I'm a Nurse in New York. Teachers should do their just just like I did." Protesters opposed to reopening the schools in Michigan fashioned mock gravestones out of cardboard. (BACKGROUND VOICES) One read, quote, "RIP, Grandma," quote, "COVID Helping Grandkids With Homework." (BACKGROUND VOICES) That sound is from WXYZ, Detroit's ABC station.
Archival Recording: I stand here today for every teacher who is afraid to go back into a classroom, every parent who is afraid to send their children back. I stand here today even for those in-school administrators who are pressured to make these decisions against their better judgment. (BACKGROUND VOICES)
Lee: As a parent it's been wild to watch this all play out.
Archival Recording: No dead, zero dead. Keep the school closed. Love the children. Keep the school closed.
Lee: The nearly 6,000 teachers in the San Diego Unified School District have at least one thing on their side, a sense of certainty. They know they will not be headed back to the classroom this fall. But the new school year will present its share of challenges.
Research shows that the sudden move to online learning this spring set a lot of students back academically. Analysis from the consulting group McKinsey found that the average student could fall seven months behind while Black and Hispanic students could experience even greater learning losses. And that's just assessing the crisis up until this point. For teachers those statistics are sobering.
Adeline Baltazar: That's a challenge. I mean, most of my students are below grade level. Unfortunately a lot of our students are below grade level when it comes to reading, writing, math. So there will be learning losses unfortunately.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. Today we continue our week long look at online learning in the San Diego district with middle school teacher Adeline Baltazar. After being thrust into a remote environment this spring, will teachers like Adeline be ready for the fall?
Adeline Baltazar teaches English and Spanish at Wilson Middle School in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego. It's a low-income school where more than 96% of the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders qualify for free or reduced lunch. And nearly 9% of the kids are homeless. Some of Adeline's eighth grade students are at third grade reading level. But she's one of those teachers who believes in every single one of them.
Baltazar: My school's primarily Latino. But we do have a Black community. We do have a Vietnamese community. We do have a community of refugees. My students are very creative and they're very curious. They're energetic. They're fun. And they are very capable.
I think something that sometimes people think when you talk about urban communities unfortunately people think they can't or poor them. They might need more support than other students because of the life circumstances they're in. But my students are very much capable.
Lee: What was life like durin' a normal school day, a normal lesson? Talk to me about that.
Baltazar: It seems so long ago. But that was my favorite part of teaching. (LAUGH)
Lee: I wanna say there's almost like a twinkling eye when you say that. I can see little twinkle, like, (LAUGH) pre-pandemic teaching. It's wonderful.
Baltazar: It really was. I mean, on a normal day I would get there around 7:00 so I can prepare for the day. And then, like, I would stand at the gate and greet the students. It's always fun to see who they hang out with, who their friends are, how they are in the quad.
You just see another side of the student. And then, you know, you start class. And typically in my class we'd start with just checking in, see how we're doing. But there's so much going on in the world, right, especially this past few years in politics. And there's just many things going on.
But then you have teenagers, awkward middle schoolers who for them maybe the biggest thing is somebody finally that they wanted to getting their attention finally talked with them. Or they got (LAUGH) the new AirPods, or they got their new Jordans. And then, you know, you have five classes. They're in and out. But each class is so different again and maybe it's because of the personalities they have.
Lee: So distant learning began in the spring. And when you first got word that this was happening, like, what was your reaction?
Baltazar: Well, I was wonderin' when it was gonna happen. (LAUGH) Because the cases were rising in San Diego. And, you know, people were wondering like, "Are we gonna stay open? Or will it close?" And I have a great principal. And he had talked with us and had say, "Hey, you know, there's a possibility we might be closing. So please be prepared with, you know, continuing your units and providing work for students."
So we all took care of that. So by the time they said, "We're closing," we had an idea of what we're giving students. And it was time to print that stuff out so we can give printed packets and notebooks to our students to continue learning at home.
Lee: Was it a relief for you when they shut the school down? Or was it, like, frustration?
Baltazar: No, it was a relief for me. (LAUGH) Because we didn't know much about it back then. And we still don't. When you're a teacher you're in the classroom with on average probably 30 students. And that's changing every hour. So you have students coming in and out.
And they were all washing their hands. (LAUGH) They love to hug each other. They love to be outside, touch things. So it was concerning. That's when I was like, "Okay, I need a hand sanitizer." Because as a teacher, right, my students, I greet them at the door. They're giving high fives. I'm shaking their hands. I don't typically use hand sanitizer in the classroom. You try to build your immune system because as a teacher, the few years you get sick all the time.
Lee: So ultimately your school went online. Do you get the sense that y'all were prepared? Like, the school was actually prepared for what it actually means to teach remotely?
Baltazar: I think teachers were. What they did is that we had spring break. And then after spring break, they had four weeks of professional development in which teachers could participate in Zoom lessons on how to use different educational platforms and programs to teach.
And I think having this time made me feel confident, prepared for distance learning because I felt like I knew what I was doing. So that by the time I had to do it with my students, I felt like I could help them troubleshoot the platforms. Because I kinda knew how it worked.
But that was not the case for all teachers. I mean, this isn't just me. I had teachers here in San Diego whose school was closed on Friday. And Monday they were expected to be prepared with lessons and a online distance learning robust experience.
Lee: What were those first weeks like?
Baltazar: The first few weeks were definitely longer hours than usual. You get on Zoom and you're excited for your students. But it's also 8:00. So half of them are asleep. And they don't have their cameras on. So you feel like you're talking to yourself. And then you call on a student and they take, like, three minutes, five minutes to respond. And then you're wondering, "Are they all there or are they, like, half asleep?" (LAUGH) What's going on?
Lee: So really whats the deal with the cameras off? They're allowed to turn the cameras off?
Baltazar: They are. I think it's because of privacy and equity issues, right. Some students might be in homes where--
Lee: Right, right.
Baltazar: --there's a lot going on. And they might not feel comfortable turning on the cameras. So for that reason.
Lee: What did an actual, like, class day look like? You started off with the Zoom. It's 8:00 in the morning. The Zoom is on. No one had their cameras on. And you're excited and ready to go. (LAUGH) But how does it go from there?
Baltazar: Well, I made about 50 or more phone calls a week because that's the best way to get ahold of parents as well as track students who weren't showing up. So with the community I work with, you know, it's not the easiest or main means of communication. It is calling home. So I think most of my afternoons were spent making a lot of phone calls trying to inform parents on their students or see why their kids weren't showing up. Then after that it was grading. And then you do it again. (LAUGH)
Lee: Wow. So you said you were makin' 50 calls a week which sounds a lotta phone calls. First of all, that's a lot of phone calls. A lot of people to be talkin' to. (LAUGH) But what were those conversations like? What were parents tellin' you?
Baltazar: It varied. Many parents actually didn't know because the kids told them, "Oh, yeah. No, there's no work. Or yeah, I did it. Or there's no Zoom. So there's no class." (LAUGH) It's like, "Well, no there was. You know, their work is assigned on Sunday evening or Monday.
"And they have the week to do it. So you know that we have office hours." So to be honest a lot of those calls were informing parents. Because they're not typically checking our PowerSchool to see if their kid's grade is going down or up or looking at the assignment list.
They're not doing that because for various reasons. Some don't like using technology or don't know how to use technology. Others are working. So there's different obstacles. I think that's where I had a little more of an advantage because I am a Spanish speaker.
Being able to make those phone calls, it made me feel successful because I was able to communicate with the parents. Because I speak their language, I know the culture. So a lot of it was me informing them on their student's progress and, you know, tryin' to figure why they weren't connecting.
Other conversations were, "You know what? I can't do anything here. She doesn't wanna connect. They are passing. I go to work. I really can't do anything." A lot of the times were, you know, like, "Can you talk to him on the phone? Maybe it will, you know, make a difference. Maybe he'll connect or whatnot."
And then it's connecting them to the counselor, you know, to have other people get involved. We had a really strong support system at my school. We have a home school liaison. And we have our counselors who are very actively involved who are also making phone calls and trying to have Zoom meetings with our students who were not participating.
Lee: Were those hard conversations to have? Because at least if you could look 'em face-to-face you could say, "Bobby, come on now. Let's pick it up. Let's go." And maybe they'll respond because of your relationship with them. Was it tough though to hear parents say, "Listen, they don't wanna do it, they don't wanna do it. And I have to go to work"?
Baltazar: Yes. And it's also tough because when you're talking over the phone they aren't seeing you. Versus when you're talking to 'em in class, you do have that relationship. But they're also seeing you. And it's a lot harder for them to say no or lie.
Because you're seeing them face-to-face. When you have your students, honestly, you get to know them. And you're able to bring this stuff like, "Hey, what's really going on? Let's talk about this." And over the phone just it's not the same unfortunately.
Lee: Yeah. Did you lose complete track of any students? Did some kids just kind of fall off the grid?
Baltazar: Yes, that did happen. Kids that you would call home every week. And they've just got a voice mail or a phone number was disconnected. We had students who moved from the area. So there were students that we lost track of.
Lee: Wow. So what-- what's that feel like? Like, you're tryin' to connect with these kids. And who knows where they are?
Baltazar: You only hope that they're okay, that nothing has happened to their families or them. But unfortunately there is not much you can do because you just have the phone numbers listed on the student's information sheet. And you call those numbers. But if you can't get ahold, there really isn't much you can do beyond that.
Lee: So City Heights is one of the poorer neighborhoods in San Diego. How tough was it to engage with parents who might not be digitally literate?
Baltazar: (LAUGH) That was tough because when I would call home, part of it was walking parents or students through how to access a platform. And that's something that is tricky when a student might know how. But then the parent doesn't because the parent can't verify the information or double check on their child.
We were blessed that we were able to provide a device. Like, my district provided computers to every student who needed one, hot spots to any student who needed one, or internet through class cable. So my students had access. The other challenges perhaps if they had access was maybe they had to care for their siblings or other things going on at home, right. So in my phone calls a lot of the work I did was talking to the parent and walking them through how to log into a platform or how to help their child log in and access the work.
Lee: So there's been some early research that suggests that American students on average have fallen about seven months behind in school. Does that sit right with your experience? Do you think it's a little more, a little less? Or how do you think kids are landing?
Baltazar: I hope not. And the reason is something great our district did was that they provided curriculum for us that was adapted to online. They provided us with units for each week till the end of the school year. And if I hadn't had that support for my district it would have been difficult for me as a teacher to figure out, "What do I prioritize? What do I teach?" It would have been a lot harder to figure that out.
Lee: What about the kids that were already behind? Like, how do you reach them?
Baltazar: That's a challenge. Unfortunately a lot of our students are below grade level when it comes to reading, writing, math. So there will be learning losses unfortunately. A lot of it as a teacher, you have to scaffold. And that means that you break up the tasks of work and concept into smaller pieces.
So that they're able to take it one step, one piece at a time. With English you give them, like, short stories to read, right. And for some it might be too hard. For others it might be too easy. But the cool thing is that when it's a story, right, even if you don't comprehend every little piece of it, they get the overall story. And they're still learning. They're still practicing their literacy skills and their writing skills.
Lee: So getting better. That might not be where you want them to be or they wanna be, but there's progress.
Baltazar: I honestly thought that if the student was participating and connecting, they were making progress.
Lee: After the break, I talked to Adeline about some of bright spots of online learning. And there were a few. Plus, how she's preparing to welcome in an entirely new class of middle schoolers online this fall. We'll be right back.
Lee: We're back with Adeline Baltazar. One of the biggest challenges in the shift to online learning is the digital divide between kids with access to internet and capabilities and kids without those things. But Adeline's school was lucky. Through a partnership with Google established by California Governor Gavin Newsom, every single student at Wilson Middle School got access to a Chromebook and an internet hotspot. Adeline says this actually leveled the playing field a bit for students and taught them some new skills along the way.
Baltazar: My students at the beginning, their first assignment was completing a digital etiquette journal for how to communicate appropriately online. How to write an email, a message to a peer versus an adult, so formal versus informal writing.
Those are skills that might middle schoolers probably would have acquired in high school, maybe freshman year or maybe junior, senior year as they're getting ready to go out into the world and go to college. So they practiced those online skills which I think are so important.
Because our students, our middle schoolers, right, they're on Tiktok. They're on Instagram. They're on Snapchat. And they're constantly communicating online. And they saw cyber-bullying that happens. And this helps them think about how they are communicating, what the tone of their message is. So I think they acquired other skills.
Lee: So from a teacher's perspective, there are some good things about this platform. Like, there are some redeeming (LAUGH) values?
Baltazar: I would say so. And, I mean, I'll be the first one to say distance learning is not ideal. But we also to think about, "Okay, what are the positives? In what ways have our students grown from this? What skills have they acquired?" Problem-solving, right, it's a very important skill.
Many times my students were working late into the night, right. They're sending me a message for help on how to do something or they can't access something. And it's, like, 11:00 p.m. I'm not going to reply to that because it's inappropriate at time of night, right.
So often times I would get a message, like, 30 minutes later saying, "Oh, I figured it out. Oh, I got it." And then in the morning I check in on them. Like, "Oh, yeah, I just had to refresh the page. Or the video wasn't showing on how to, like, sign in to their Google account," or something like that.
So they also were able to practice problem-solving skills. And for my students who maybe some had technology at home, maybe some didn't. So with distance learning, right, to a certain degree we're working to close that divide as well. Because more students are becoming comfortable using technology. Not just in the classroom, right. 'Cause in the classroom they can just ask us questions and we'll help them with it, right. But now they're learning to troubleshoot it on their own.
Lee: So it sounds like some of your students actually thrive in this new learning environment. But I wonder were the some, like, surprise success stories--
Lee: --that you were actually surprised about? Like, you couldn't believe like, "Wait a second, Johnny (LAUGH) and Jennifer, what?"
Baltazar: I did. I did have some of those. So every year I have them write a "one word." One word they want to embody or represent them. A lot of my students chose scholarly. And I was like, "That's a great word." So it's just, "Tell me how to write it." I was like, "Yes, here's how you spell it." (LAUGH)
So then that's the word she chose. And she is a student that she's a social butterfly. She loves, loves talking, which as a teacher can be a challenge. With distance learning, it was a concern that, hey, she might be one of those students that you have to be after.
Because she could very well be like, "I'm done. I'm not interested, whatever." And then to my surprise she was working, working, working and turning everything in. And given, sometimes it wasn't the best. She was struggling. And she would write, "Hey, I did it. But I wasn't sure. And I struggled with this." You know, and she would communicate, write those comments on there. And I would look and we'd work together. She was one of the students that she turned in even the very last assignment.
Baltazar: And it's not that she just turned it in, you know, answered a question with like, "Yes." It wasn't minimal work. She actually did it. And to me that was okay. I was like, "She's gonna be successful. She's gonna be good in high school."
Lee: Let me ask you this. So following L.A. County, San Diego County decided to go all online, you know, when school starts up again. When you heard this news, was this a yes? Like, were you relieved? Or was this like, "Oh, man, I really wanted to get back"?
Baltazar: Well, when you put it that way, (LAUGH) I wanted to get back. The classroom is where I thrive. But back in June when we didn't know that, before the announcement was made, I was honestly anxious and worried and thinking, "Okay, do I need to, like, get life insurance?
"Do I need to get disability insurance? Because what if I end up getting coronavirus and I'm one of those people that after a month are still not feeling well?" I did start feeling that pressure. I started feeling pressure because I live with my mom, right.
So then if I'm going into work in-person all the time, I was tryin' to figure out like, "I don't wanna, like, get my mom sick and then carry that with me if she gets sick." Even if she ends up being fine, it was a lot of pressure. And I felt that.
We went from in April everybody just praising teachers being like, "Let's give teachers $1 million. They're so great, et cetera." To then in June being like, "We hate you guys. You're being selfish. You don't care about our kids, et cetera."
And you get all that backlash and you're just tryin' to make it work. If anything, we care so much about our students that they become our other children. They become our kids, right. It's not just academics. It's they talk to us. They share what's going on in their hearts and their minds, their crushes, their struggles.
They're like our children to a certain degree. And then to hear that, it totally breaks your heart. So when I heard that decision, because I know our district is working with L.A. making joint decisions, I felt very relieved. Like, "Okay, we're actually being heard."
Lee: And you talk about pressure. I've heard teachers say they were filling out wills, right, because they felt that very real possibility that they can get sick and die from doin' the job that so many of 'em love.
Baltazar: Yes. And I can understand that. Because I don't have any children, right. But I feel like if I had children, the decision to go back to work would be a lot more pressing. They have lives as we'll. They're parents as well.
Lee: So with all that, the coming semester is closer than I think most of us can actually imagine. It's like, "We're right around the corner."
Baltazar: Like, three weeks.
Lee: How are you preparing? Three weeks, oh, my goodness.
Lee: How are you actually preparing? How are you preparing?
Baltazar: To be honest, my bigger concern right now is how do I create that culture, that community, online. Because when you're in the classroom, right, the kids connect with you for what you're wearing, what you're saying, you're quirkiness, your bad drawings on the board, your high-fives, right.
They-- they connect with you in so many different ways. You connect with them, right. You compliment a student on pushing in their chair or helping their classmate or lending somebody a pencil. Compliment them on their new Jordans and they're like, "Oh, you noticed?"
But with distance learning, that is something that I'm tryin' to figure out. How do I create that community, that culture? Because if a student's connected to their teacher, then they're more likely to put in the effect, try and be present and participate in distance learning. So to me that's my biggest goal. Biggest struggle right now is how do I create that culture and community with my students digitally. So any ideas? (LAUGH)
Lee: (LAUGH) Where do we begin? (LAUGH) I'm full of ideas. (LAUGH) You know, there are a lot of parents in San Diego and across the country. But there are a lot of parents in San Diego who say, "You know what? We need our kids back in school. They're fallin' behind in math and reading. And they're really upset at the decision to keep it remote." What do you say to those parents?
Baltazar: I'd like those parents to take a moment and close their eyes and think about when they think in-person what does that look like. Some parents might be thinking the in-person experience that their child has always had, right, where they go to English class and there's a classroom library where they get free reading time.
And they can just pull books and read, where they are collaborating in groups and they're sitting next to each other, where they're sitting in groups of four, right, when they're going out and they're playing basketball outside. The reality is that in-person experience is not gonna be what parents are accustomed to.
In-person experience is gonna look different, right. Students will probably have Plexiglass around their desk. They're gonna have to be wearing masks. I myself, I won't be able to crouch next to their desk and go over editing their piece of writing.
I won't be able to be like, "Hey, guys, let's move our desks, sit in a circle, and lets read." It's gonna look very different. They won't be able to, like, hug their friends, eat next to their friends. They're gonna be sitting in rows which they're not used to. They won't be able to share the cool new mechanical pencil they got with their friend. But it's gonna look very different when we think about in-person.
Lee: Under normal circumstances, you'd be preparing to see all those little faces in a few weeks. And now you won't. How does that feel? Obviously you're glad because you feel safe. But you won't see those little faces in person. How does it feel?
Baltazar: It does not feel good. It makes me feel sad because I'm like, "How do I know my students?" When we have our first Zoom session will they turn on their cameras so I can see who they are? Because one of the most important things for a teacher is learning their names.
You wanna memorize their names with a picture to the who the person is in that first week. Because if you look at their name, right. If you call them the wrong name, oh, they will hold that against you. And we're not gonna all be able to have our typical, you know, back-to-school activities. None of those things that make school exciting at the beginning as you're getting ready for it as a teacher. We have to change what that looks like. And that's what I'm grappling with and tryin' to figure out.
Lee: Is there a part of you that regrets deciding to be a teacher, that you didn't sign up for this? That maybe I should get out now while I can?
Baltazar: No. Honestly, this is what I wanna do. But I'm not gonna say I never have that feeling. I can say I had that feeling in June and early July with I thought we we're going back in August in person. That's when I did feel, "I feel like I didn't sign up for this. That's not part of my job."
And education's not going the right way if we're doing this. Because we're not valuing teachers or the students either. As a parent I would be concerned about my student's health. And I'm not just talking about getting COVID. I'm talking about their mental health, right.
What happens if one of their friends get sick, right? Suddenly there head space is not, "Oh, I'm trying to read this story and analyze it or write a response to this or write a creative story." Suddenly they're thinking about their friend who just went home.
Is that friend okay? Or I have students when they were talking about their distance learning experience and the pandemic, I had students who did have cousins and uncles who did test positive for COVID. And that was on their mind. And they expressed that.
That was what made me feel like, "That's not what I signed up for. This is not the job I signed up for." But now with things changing, feeling supported and heard by our leaders and my district and my union, I feel like, "Well, this is what we're doing." And I love what I do. To be honest, I love teaching. And I don't see myself doing something else that's not in education.
Lee: Adeline, I wish we could give you and all your fellow teachers all the apples. Just send you a big (LAUGH) crate full of apples. (LAUGH) But seriously, Adeline, thank you very much. Teachers do amazing, tough work. And I think of a lot of us parents. I have a second grader goin' into third grade. A lot of us parents have always recognized, but even more now than ever, that teachers have a tough job. And it's important work. So thank you very much.
Baltazar: Thank you for the opportunity.
Lee: Adeline Baltazar teaches English and Spanish at Wilson Middle School in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego. And tomorrow our series Coronavirus in the Classroom wraps up with a conversation with Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond who leads California's State Board of Education.
She had a lot to say about what the state learned from distance learning this spring and what the shift means for the future of education. Be sure to check it out. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back tomorrow.