Roger Caixon (left) poses with his mother (right) and grandmother (center) at the Mission Food Hub. Photo by Juan Carlos Lara.

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.”

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Juan Carlos Lara covers business and development in the Mission. Juan Carlos, a San Francisco State alum, is as much a photographer as he is a writer and previously worked as the campus news editor at Golden Gate Xpress, SF State’s student paper.

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  1. I give this article an F. Why spend so much time on the chillones? Why not highlight some kids who DESPITE the adversity are able to get their work done? Why perpetuate the “poor me” stereotype. Everyone is working hard to make this work, kids have it hard yes, but now you have just justified why they can’t. Latino kids ALREADY have some of the highest drop out rates, and now you just gave a bunch of kids a reason why they never could’ve made it anyway. Good job!

  2. As a high school teacher I don’t think online ‘learning’ is the main issue at all.
    It is a lot of the same assignments (with probably even more resources available because no actual handouts to lose – everything is posted). The issue is the ‘online’ experience with a lack of outside socialization opportunities. School is has an intangible aggregate value of the interpersonal interactions everyday Even if one ‘hates people’ at least being around people allows a feeling of connection – a bit like the difference in feelings between not wanting to go to a party versus not being invited in the first place.
    Also, it is difficult to get things done when there are few incentives sometimes (like before practice, a game, a dance, a concert…).
    There is no easy fix. Adults are feeling this too – I, for one, can say this has been the loneliest semester by far in many years of being a teacher. It is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you have been in the tunnel so long you can’t remember the light before you entered. I feel we are in that part of the long tunnel of Covid.

  3. Just an anecdote, but my 7th and 9th graders are doing fine. Not to discount others experiences, but it’s not universal that students give online learning an F.

  4. This is really sad. I hope these kids can make up lost school work and reconnect with friends in post-pandemic times, but not super optimistic. Our district remote learning has been a failure even compared to other districts.

  5. San Francisco’s member of Congress is the Speaker of the House. Both CA Senators are from San Francisco, including the Vice President Elect. California’s governor is from San Francisco.

    Yet with this abundance of Democrat Party political juice, the problems on the ground simply multiply–homelessness, affordable housing, transit–and now almost a year into the pandemic, the unrich and small biz are left to fend for ourselves on income support, on pandemic health care and on education with testing popping up unpredictably here and there with contact tracing all but nonexistent for purposes of controlling spread.

    Are Democrats trying to convert SF residents into anti-government conservatives by this political non-responsiveness even with such power at hand?

    Is this comment racist, or is everyone cool with electeds of color and their nonprofit dependents of color getting paid to mark time during a deadly pandemic, this after the community is weakened after waves and waves of uncontested displacement?

  6. I would love to know how many students did not show up for class this year at all. How many assignments are missing on Google Classroom? These are accessible numbers.

    We read about school issues in other cities and states, but not in SF. I am not sure SFUSD is honest enough to admit such failures.

    Individual schools and teachers are doing their level best, but without support of the district, and especially the BOE, they are limited. They blow a lot of hot air, but get nothing done.