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Up in the air: How one Texas teacher is preparing for an uncertain future

For the 195 students who attend St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica School, a private Catholic school located in Beaumont, Texas, there were no finals this year.

Placement tests were postponed for the summer. Report card grades were averaged. And the annual eighth-grade graduation ceremony was in the form of a car parade.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, eighth-grade graduation was a week-long tradition at St. Anthony. Eighth graders would walk the hallways for one last time, their teachers applauding them from their doorways. Then, after mass, there was the eighth-grade breakfast — where a class video was shown and yearbooks were signed. The tradition is meant to give eighth graders closure before they move along to high school. But not for 2020’s graduating class.

Those events were combined into one morning this year, according to Spanish teacher Juliana Davila, and took place in the school’s cul-de-sac, on a rainy day.

As coronavirus shuts down schools for the rest of the academic year and leaves the upcoming school year uncertain, Digital Trends is following students and teachers as they adapt to our new normal.
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Students drove to the school with their parents and were handed their breakfast through their car windows. They ate with their windows rolled down, while the priest’s pre-recorded mass played over the loudspeakers. Each student’s name was called when they picked up their diplomas from the car line. And when it was time to leave, it was a flurry of balloons, waving hands, shouts of congratulations, and feather boas, all to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance.

“You could tell they all were just dying to get out of their cars,” Davila said. “I think they were just ready to get out of their houses, and I know they missed their teachers a lot.”

The graduation events at St. Anthony should sound no different than what most schools across the country are doing in an attempt to give students a sense of normalcy during an unpredictable time. But as teachers like Davila look forward into the future, uncertainty only grows. Davila wonders what school will be like in the fall, if it will be in-person or online, and if students will be able to competently retain vital information if distance learning continues.

“I worry that when it rolls around, and we are back in school, I feel like we’re going to have to lower the standard or the expectation of what these kids are supposed to be learning,” said Davila. “I also worry about the other side of the coin — this idea that we’ve lost so much time.”

Tackling technology

Davila teaches Spanish to students ranging from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. Her class sizes average about 15 students, considerably small even for many private schools. In mid-March, when the novel coronavirus outbreak was officially declared a pandemic, she had to quickly adapt to something she was not used to: Technology.

But over the course of three months, Davila has since become a pro at using online tools like Google Classroom and finding fun activities for students to do on the internet like Jeopardy Labs, to help review for quizzes, Quizlet, to assist with vocabulary, and Conjuguemos, where students can play games in Spanish.

“I’ve learned programs that I should have been learning this whole time, and I really didn’t want to do online,” she laughed. “But now, I do feel like I have a new little toolkit, and it really showed me how much kids need teachers — their faces light up when we do Google Meets.”

Been homeschooling a 6-year old and 8-year old for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.

— shonda rhimes (@shondarhimes) March 16, 2020

And to her surprise, the majority of her students actively participated in distance learning and met most of their deadlines for assignments, even the younger ones.

One of Davila’s biggest takeaways from the last three months has been that the age of the student doesn’t directly correlate with how they will perform virtually.

“How kids perform in the classroom in real life is pretty much how they’re going to perform online, which I thought was kind of interesting,” she said.

However, there were still outliers — phone calls and emails went unanswered, and some students dropped completely off the radar.

“I think for a lot of them that didn’t perform as well, they needed motivation and pressure,” Davila said. “But it also leads me to believe that maybe they didn’t have access to the internet or maybe there was another barrier. I reached out to all of them, but sometimes they don’t read emails or don’t listen to their voicemails.”

Davila also said she spent a lot of time on the phone with parents, guiding them on how to use Google Classroom, or just listening to their frustrations with educating their children on their own.

“At the beginning of April, maybe two weeks after most people had been distance learning and having their kids full-time in their home, I did have quite a few parents vent to me, saying, ‘I don’t understand why I have to do this,’” Davila said.

All the barriers of distance learning — working parents, spotty internet, lack of technology, and removed guidance — led teachers at St. Anthony to forgo finals entirely, focus on remedial learning, and postpone placement tests for later in the summer. The report card grades eighth-graders received through the windows of their cars during the graduation parade were averaged in an effort to be fair due to the circumstances.

Looking forward

In early May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its guidelines for how schools are to conduct learning in a present-COVID-19 world. For example, the CDC recommends students stay with one teacher and one group the entire day and the enforcement of cloth face coverings.

“I don’t wanna say it’s unreasonable, but it will be really difficult to enforce,” Davila said of the CDC recommendations. “You can’t sit together in the cafeteria? You can’t share toys or supplies? You can’t play on the playground? How do you do that with kids who are so small and that’s what they like to do?”

But right now, Davila and her colleagues still don’t know if they are physically going back to school in the fall.

“We don’t know if it’s going to be online learning in the fall or what, they haven’t decided,” she said. “But I think it is going to be a lot more work in the fall because I have to make up for what they should have learned and try to ease them back into what they need to be learning.”

Davila’s principal told teachers to be prepared to teach virtually once again, but that is uncertain, too. Teachers at St. Anthony will meet over the summer to discuss the game plan for fall, as well as what needs to be accomplished once everyone is back in the same place.

“I worry that we won’t be able to do anything fun in the classroom,” Davila said. “When we go back, we may just need to get results basically.”

And looking forward, into the future, Davila not only worries for the education of her students, the backslide they may have had over the summer, but of the permanence of her profession.

“I don’t want to say that schools are not going to be necessary anymore but, this idea that you can learn whatever you need online, you don’t necessarily need a teacher,” she said. “I’ve always felt pretty secure with my job, but now I don’t know.”

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Meira Gebel
Meira Gebel is a freelance reporter based in Portland. She writes about tech, social media, and internet culture for Digital…
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