Editor’s note: This story is part of an occasional series called “Behind the Mask.” The coronavirus pandemic has upended life as we know it — our workplace, home and play. Yet life must be lived, even through social distancing. Each piece of “Behind the Mask” will explore how people in our community are adapting to their new life post-pandemic. Have a story to share? Email fresnoland@fresnobee.com.

In Senora Jauregui’s class, her dual immersion third graders just finished reading El Descubrimiento de Kaffa “Kaffa’s Discovery,” an African folktale about a young meerkat who learns that no one in his pack is more important than others and that each has a better chance at survival when they all work together as a team. It’s a fitting lesson for the current circumstances in this pandemic.

“It’s been beautiful to see the message of my lessons still come through … even with the distance,” said Ivette Jauregui, who has been teaching over 10 years.

Being an educator during the coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed the day-to-day work, flexibility, and the required skills for teachers. For Jauregui, working from home has forced her work and personal life to merge into one. She wakes up at 6 a.m. to get herself and her three children — a preschooler, a second grader, and a seventh-grader — ready and fed before their own distance learning from home. By 9 a.m., Jauregui and her children are all logged into their individual classes from their laptops and tablets.

“I had to talk to my daughter’s preschool teacher and let her know I can’t be available to help my daughter during class,” Jauregui said. “I have to just hope she’s doing what she’s being asked.”

As for when the workday ends, Cristina Lopez and Rachel Anderson, also local third grade teachers, say it never quite does.

“I understand that many students and families need additional support,” Lopez said. “I respond to late emails, texts, calls, and messages.”

Anderson says it is not uncommon to receive texts or calls as early as sunrise and as late as midnight.

Turning home into a classroom

Though most districts have provided teachers with the essential tools they need to teach from home successfully, some teachers had to purchase additional supplies to amplify their students’ learning experience.

Jauregui said she spent about $500 to turn her family’s playroom into her home classroom. She also upgraded her internet connection, bringing her new bill from $60 to $90 a month. Additional materials like classroom decorations for their home, lighting to brighten up a dark room, a timer, easels, and a document camera are some of the additional items purchased by these teachers.

Even with an internet upgrade, Anderson’s plan could not handle the internet bandwidth needs of her husband, three children, and herself.

“We were having a lot of internet connection issues,” said Anderson. “My family and I decided that working from school was the best choice for me.”

With limited space in her home, Lopez converted the family’s dining room table into her classroom corner — which means the table is off-limits to her family during her teaching hours.

“The district gave us the option to teach from home or school,” said Lopez. “I decided to teach from home because I have three school-aged children of my own.”

Lopez’s children, ages 10, 12, and 15, each take a bedroom in their home and log into their own distance learning classroom while their mother works and is unavailable to assist with their own troubleshooting issues.

Martha Soto, a local fifth-grade teacher, says teaching from behind a screen is very different from doing it in person.

“The creativity that goes into virtual teaching means you have to be accountable for every second,” said Soto. “I can’t miss a beat. I can’t mess up and just stop like I could in the classroom.”

Soto, who once worked as a teacher for an online charter school, says that even with her experience teaching online, this does not compare.

“When I taught online, the students wanted to attend online,” she said. “Whereas now, not only is it a pandemic, but the students had no voice in choosing to learn from home. They want to be in class.”

All four teachers said they have been surprised by their students’ willingness to show up every morning and participate in the lessons, even in the absence of face-to-face interaction.

“Even though we’re far away, I feel connected to them when I can see their little hands tracing or coloring with the colors I assigned,” Jauregui said.

The teachers said their students’ parents have also been a large asset in helping, so things run smoothly.

“I have been impressed with how communicative and helpful parents have been,” Anderson said. “The students want to learn, and the parents want to help.”

Lopez’ classroom home set up in her family’s dining room table. Dayana Jiselle djiselle@frsenobee.com

Distance learning challenges for teachers and students

All four teachers expressed some frustration with the technology.

“The tablets students received were not designed for distance learning,” Jauregui said.

Teachers have to help students and parents troubleshoot through technology issues they are not trained on, during and outside of class, she said, adding that the problem is even bigger for those students who have opted to use their own devices rather than those provided by the school because teachers do not know how to help them with different systems.

Although troubleshooting training videos and an IT department are available to teachers, Anderson says those resources are not always adequate in helping to resolve the technical issues in a timely manner.

Students face the additional challenge of being caretakers at home.

“I’ve had younger siblings make it on camera,” Anderson said.

She added that she understands some students have to walk away from their screens to feed or assist a younger sibling during lessons. It is not mandatory for students to have their screens on, so some students are moving throughout their homes as their class sessions are on.

“Although I would like to see all of my students’ faces, I also want to respect their feelings and privacy,” Lopez said. “We don’t know what students’ living conditions are or what they might not want their peers to see.”

As for others, Soto said some students are watched at a sitter’s or family member’s home while their parents work. This means they often have no quiet and distraction-free space to enter their class sessions.

A hopeful teacher’s heart

All four teachers said their hope for the 2020 fall semester is that students still gain the best quality education and know they are treasured and loved by their teachers. However, they admit there are still things about the classroom experience that cannot be replaced by distance learning.

“I miss the ‘aha’ moments in their faces once something that they struggled with finally made sense,” said Lopez, with tears in her eyes. “I just miss having a classroom full of curious minds.”

“I miss being in a rush, and then suddenly a student runs up to hug me, and then another one runs up,” Jauregui reminisced, smiling. She added that seeing her students face-to-face also allowed her to see where they may need additional support, whereas distance learning makes it difficult to identify a student’s weaknesses.

“I miss rewarding my students for doing a good job,” Soto said. “Something as simple as giving them a piece of chocolate, it’s like that finish line feeling after our lessons that we no longer get.”

“So many of them have tough situations at home, and coming to school was an escape,” Anderson said, fighting back tears. “How can I let them know that I love them when I haven’t even met them?”

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