When the city’s public schools first closed in early March, officials said that students would be back in three weeks — a prediction that, like many early-pandemic projections, seems quaint 14 months later.
According to some students, parents and teachers in the Mission, those 14 months have been filled with plenty of tears, reopening drama and disappointment. But there have also been moments of joy and breakthroughs as some have found ways to make distance learning work.
All seven people we interviewed for this story agreed that distance learning is no substitute for in-person education, though there are lessons that can be taken away from this year that can be applied to an in-person future. Whether SFUSD will manage to bring students back in the fall for five days of in-person instruction per week, as it has committed itself to do next year, is still unclear.
Tara Ramos, a teacher librarian at Sanchez Elementary School, said the pandemic has made clear that each kid learns differently, she said, and putting more of a focus on individual students’ goals and small group work would be beneficial.
“I’m hearing, ‘five full days, five full days, five full days,’” she said, referencing calls for a full fall reopening. “My question is, five full days of what? Are we doing what we were doing before, which wasn’t working for a lot of kids, or five full days of something new, something different?”
She said she’s experienced first-hand the benefits of taking a different approach to her job. Prior to the pandemic, she used to work with groups of 25 kids at once as a librarian. Now, she works more closely with small groups of children.
There, she said she’s seen the “brilliance” of children, recalling one first-grader named Ignacio who one day showed up to her Zoom meeting with a shoebox full of paper-doll robots — he had about 30. At another meeting, he brought a notebook, filled with pages of his art work. Ramos had taught Ignacio in kindergarten, but had never gotten to know him the way she has through small group instruction.
“Kids, they’re becoming authors, they’re creating stories,” she said. “That’s something I had never experienced as a teacher librarian to the same level.”
Karla Guerrero, a reading teacher at Paul Revere, also said she’s been proud of how she’s adapted to distance learning and integrated new technology into her teaching, but added that there have been significant challenges in getting kids to stay motivated and manage their own time.
Guerrero said she has kids who have gone from honor roll students to breaking down in “non-stop tears” over assignments. “They thought they were not good students anymore, because they couldn’t find success this way,” she said. She’s tried instead to focus her students less on traditional metrics of success, and more on their own goals for learning and how they can best meet them.
But Guerrero dislikes the term “learning loss.” “What did we expect?” she asked. “When people talk about learning loss, they sound so surprised. We were not going to be able to teach the same way, the same amount, period. The term is setting all of us up to be failures, to compare ourselves to pre-pandemic learning.”
She’s needed to take her own teachings to heart with her daughter, who has also struggled with online learning and attends Dolores Huerta Elementary.
“We talked to her teacher and said, ‘I’m really sorry, we just can’t keep up,’” she said. “And our teacher affirmed us and said, ‘You know, your daughter is coming to class every day, and she’s super engaged. You’re okay. She’s going to be okay.’”
Kate Stoia, whose daughter is a senior at Mission High, has also experienced the difficulties of distance learning first-hand. When she first found out that her daughter had been skipping classes, she was shocked: Her daughter had previously been a straight-A student and had been in her room the whole time, presumably attending school.
Stoia remembers knocking on her daughter’s door and seeing her close to tears, describing how miserable she was. Part of the culture at Mission High, Stoia explained, is that it’s a “joyful” school, with lots of interaction. And that culture hasn’t translated online.
She puts the blame for the past year squarely on the Board of Education, which she says has focused more on politics than on getting students back in school.
“All my memories this year with regard to school have been trying to stick my fingers in the breaking dam,” she said. “We live in really, really, interesting historical times, and some people have really risen to the challenge of this time, and some have truly failed the test, and I would say that the Board of Education has abysmally failed its students.”
Kaylene Medina, a senior at Mission High with Stoia’s daughter, also said it’s been a hard year for her. She had a rough time in middle school and had hoped high school would be better for her, especially pinning her hopes on a memorable senior year. But “it all got ruined,” she said, mourning the loss of big events, such as prom, and getting to be in the same classes with her friends.
Though part of her wanted to go back to school to partake in the activities the district was offering seniors for a few days before the school year ended, Medina didn’t feel like it would be as fun as in-person school — and anyway, she had taken on a job at an ice cream store that starts right after school ends, so the activities wouldn’t have been feasible.
When asked what her biggest takeaway was from the pandemic year, Medina, who chose her words carefully, said it was the preciousness of time.
“It made me realize to just have fun, not waste your time,” she said. “Time can be taken away out of nowhere, like mine was.”
For some parents, the pandemic has created room to get involved with advocacy for the first time. City-wide groups such as Decreasing the Distance have sprung up, as have more local groups, such as the one coordinated by Mission parent Dheyanira Calahorrano, who has emerged as one of the strongest Mission voices in favor of reopening.
Calahorrano said the pandemic has opened her eyes to the need for parent advocacy on behalf of students. “It’s called the San Francisco Unified School District, but it’s not unified,” she said, ticking off crises from the past year like the school renaming debacle and Alison Collins’ tweets.
Over the past year, Calahorrano has organized five Latino families from the Mission to host informal outdoor school in Dolores Park, creating space for children to take their Zoom classes in company with other learners, and running enrichment activities on the weekend.
Going forward, she wants to see more parents like them represented among advocates: Single parents, Latinx parents, parents who don’t speak English as a primary language. One hard-won, positive outcome of the pandemic has been getting to build these networks of communities, she said — those who advocate together, yes, but also support each other.
“We always have to have each other,” she said. “We were able to build something together. Children are our future, and we need to take care of these children.”