In the food line that wraps around several blocks of the Mission every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, students sometimes join their parents.
Along with other San Francisco public-school students, they will conclude their fall semester in a little more than a week. While they await their own grades, the students in line with their parents at the three-times-a-week food line on Alabama Street know what they would give online learning: a big F.
They don’t blame their teachers or schools. Many, it seems, have made valiant efforts to enrich the experience. It is simply online learning: the lack of human connection, of friends, of teachers.
The experience has left students disillusioned, stressed and anxious about the future. The San Francisco Unified School District has committed to start reopening schools by late January, a day that students look forward to experiencing.
“This isn’t really what I thought it would be, going in, but I just work with what we have,” said Lincoln High senior Arnold Guerra. He was referring to a photography class with no camera, but it reflected his feeling about the whole experience.
I still haven’t adjusted, he said.
He praised his teachers for trying, but engaging with lectures and bonding with teachers is much harder through a screen. The internet fails at least once a week, dropping Guerra from his class without warning. Other times, the class meeting will freeze up, either because of Guerra’s internet connection or his teacher’s.
And that photography class he looked forward to became a class on the history and icons of photography.
“They just make us research people that have been involved in cameras which is … OK,” Guerra said, not hiding his disappointment.
Post-graduation plans? “I don’t even know what I want to do tomorrow,” he says. ” I’m really winging it right now.”
Mission High School Principal Pirette McKamey is not surprised. Absences have been a significant problem this semester, she said. Students simply have conflicting obligations.
Some have gotten jobs to support their families, McKamey said. Others might log into their class, but show no sign of being present. Their cameras are turned off, they fail to answer questions and homework never gets turned in.
The schools offer computers, noise-cancelling headphones, hotspots and free food distribution, but don’t have what families need most: financial support, she said.
So, many like Guerra end up in the food lines to help parents with the weekly pick-up.
Roger Caixon, another high-school senior, also regularly accompanies his mother to the Mission Food Hub to collect groceries.
Caixon comes with large, over-the-ear headphones, his phone and a portable charger almost the size of a brick to pass the hours spent waiting in line. His favorite subject in school is literature. He especially likes to read fanfiction about his favorite anime shows.
“It helps you get through all of your days,” Caixon said.
However, he isn’t doing well in his math and science classes. He was struggling to adjust at the start of the semester and sort of disengaged at some point along the way, Caixon said. Now that finals are coming up, he’s worried that he won’t do very well.
It also doesn’t help that he has a bad habit of missing class. Sometimes, he oversleeps, and sometimes he’s marked absent because he’s not paying attention when he gets asked a question and the teacher assumes he’s not in front of his screen. Some days, he misses school to come with his mom to the food hub.
He gets in line behind her so that they can take home two portions, a major source of support since she’s lost both of her jobs.
He isn’t even as excited for his winter break as in years past. Staying home this year will be “more of the same.”
Caixon tried to keep in contact with his friends, but text chats aren’t the same as lunchroom shenanigans, and he’s lost contact with a few. He still texts some, but they don’t talk anywhere near as often.
Teresa Cruz Lopez’s daughter began ninth grade this year, frustrated that her idealized dream of starting high school had been ruined. But the 14-year-old girl, who Lopez did not want to name, watches the news regularly and knew very well why she couldn’t attend school in person.
Often, Lopez has to go to work and leave her daughter alone, and all she can do to make sure her daughter doesn’t slack off is hide the television remotes.
“The school has called to say she’s not doing as well as she should be, mainly in math and science,” Lopez said in Spanish.
Lopez said John O’Connell High School, where her daughter attends, offers lots of outreach and personalized tutoring, but her daughter is too shy or too discouraged to seek help. More than just struggling, Lopez said her daughter seems depressed and often overwhelmed.
All Lopez can do, she said, is keep encouraging her daughter to finish the semester strong. But Lopez also said she realizes how disheartening the whole situation must be. Once looking forward to making new friends, she’s now stuck at home.
At Mission High and other schools, teachers call families to do wellness checks, and staff often report many of the same stories. Parents like Lopez want to be there during the day to support their children, but have to go to work. Those like Caixon’s mom want their children to attend school but need their help elsewhere, either watching younger siblings or helping get more food to make it through the week.
Even given their struggles for basic needs, McKarney said, “it’s important for children to be engaged intellectually, that they get the education that they deserve.”