Zoraya Sexton, a 14-year old freshman at Anzar High School, begins her school day by sitting at a large, light brown oak table and opening her sticker-decorated black laptop. She’s on time to join a scheduled class meeting through a video conference. Seconds pass, then minutes as the computer struggles to load the page. Internet issues are something Sexton is all too familiar with.
“The internet not working, not loading stuff, not loading videos,” she said. “You can’t get into the classes or the meetings.”
Living in an area where high speed internet is a rarity can add stress to the already difficult transition from traditional classroom instruction to online distance learning, not just for Anzar’s High School’s 322 students, but for teachers and administrators as well.
Weeks before San Benito County’s shelter-in-place order closed local schools, Principal Angela Crawley said Anzar had its teachers train students to use Google Classroom in anticipation for a possible shutdown. The program allows teachers to hand out assignments and students to turn in their work.
The high school also surveyed students to determine who had access to computers and the internet. On the last Friday of in-person instruction, Anzar checked out about 60 laptops to those students who needed them.
“I believe this extra work ahead of time has been vital to our success so far,” Crawley said.
Since the school was closed, teachers are engaging students through virtual classes and online office hours. The school also keeps track of students’ progress in hopes of providing extra support for those struggling to turn in work.
“Sometimes students come to office hours just to say hi, which really makes our day,” Crawley said. “Making contact, having our students and their families know that we, the school, are here to support them is important to us.”
Sexton and her brother Paulo, 16, both said they have utilized office hours as they struggled to adapt to the new format. Though they’ve since acclimated, one challenge remains: submitting their work.
“I’m glad that teachers have been so forgiving because I’ve been having a lot of connectivity issues,” Paulo said. “They’ve taken that into account. It’s nice because there are a lot of people who are having trouble in general.”
While the Sextons take part in the online distance learning, they also use paper homework packets the school provides as an alternative.
Without internet access, 16-year-old junior Lathan Juarez had no choice but to use the paper homework packets. Unlike some issues other students are having online, he said he has not had major problems adapting to the new format, despite being a visual learner and depending on the teacher’s instruction.
Crawley said about 20% of the students are utilizing the packet format.
Every two weeks, Juarez said he dives into a new packet. He described the process as self-learning and said that though teachers have provided their numbers for students to call when they need help, he has not had to call.
“I try to get it done as quick as I can so I can have more time to myself without homework,” Juarez said.
The school doesn’t just rely on student feedback to adjust their approach, they also keep in close communication with parents.
“I have definitely seen the school and the teachers respond in incredible ways,” said Pam Sexton, mother of Zoraya and Paulo. “Just really encouraging the connection directly between the teachers and the student, but also reaching out to me as a parent because they can’t always know what’s going on through the students directly.”
Though Zoraya and her brother had previous experience with Google Classroom, both struggled in their first week.
“I think our transition has been good, but a rocky one at the beginning,” Pam said. “We’ve been able to get to a good place.”
Zoraya needed to adapt to the process of receiving and turning in work, which required her to take pictures of the assignments and submit them through Google Classroom. The stress for Paulo came in keeping up with intense classes such as AP literature without the constant contact with teachers and coaches normally found in the classroom. There’s also a required graduation exhibition, for which he will submit a 15-page report on his selected topic: how humanity can realistically survive a nuclear fallout.
Paulo will also need to present it to a group of judges for review. He considers himself lucky, however, in that unlike some of his classmates, he can complete his graduation requirements despite the school closure. Some of his classmates might need to retake it next year because they are unable to conduct surveys and collect data.
“The teachers are doing their best to adapt, but since I’m unfamiliar with the concept I’m having a little more trouble adjusting my time to do these projects,” Paulo said.
When students using the online tools and homework packets still have difficulty turning in work, teachers reach out to them through phone calls and emails. If even more assistance is needed, Crawley and other school officials reach out to students and their families directly.
The last resort to reach unengaged students—especially seniors at risk of not graduating—is a home visit, with administrators adhering to social distancing and other Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. Crawley said Anzar’s small school population makes this possible.
“We have all worked so hard to get where we are, we don’t want students to lose any of the gains they have made and we definitely don’t want students and their families to feel that they aren’t supported,” Crawley said.
With distance learning still a fresh concept for most, if not everyone involved, Anzar High School continues to adapt to challenges that arise, such as scheduling specific subjects on different days to avoid overloading the site.
Though not in the spotlight prior to the pandemic, Crawley said staff has always been dedicated.
“It’s just highlighted now because they are working even harder than before,” Crawley said.
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