Education During a Pandemic: Students, Teachers Navigate Virtual Learning and Shifting Conditions

Destiny Viator

By Collin Breaux | Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @collin_breaux UPDATE: Friday, Aug. 28, 45:40 p.m.—Capistrano Unified School District campuses could reopen for in-person instruction in mid-to-late September. Below is the initial version of this story published below on Friday, Aug. 28, at 3 a.m. Amy Hemphill spent the end of […]

By Collin Breaux | Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @collin_breaux

UPDATE: Friday, Aug. 28, 45:40 p.m.—Capistrano Unified School District campuses could reopen for in-person instruction in mid-to-late September.

Below is the initial version of this story published below on Friday, Aug. 28, at 3 a.m.

Amy Hemphill spent the end of the first week of the new school year teaching in an empty classroom—sort of.

Hemphill, an English teacher at JSerra Catholic High School, a private school in San Juan Capistrano, was conducting a virtual class with her students due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A screen of their faces was displayed on a board in her classroom, which was unusually quiet. Hemphill communicated with them through a laptop computer.

JSerra Catholic High School English teacher Amy Hemphill talks to her students during a virtual class on Friday, Aug. 21. Photo: Collin Breaux. 

“For every teacher, this was like being a first-year teacher, even though we did this last year. We just did it a little differently,” Hemphill said when reflecting on the start of an unusual school year. “As soon as we get off at the end of the day, we’re not done. It’s double the work, just preparing for all the technology. We’ve had a few rolling blackouts.”

Despite those and other challenges, teachers are pushing through and have “amazing tools.” Still, Hemphill noted they’re “dog tired” and feeling like they’re back in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most facets of life.

JSerra Catholic High School English teacher Amy Hemphill teaches a virtual class of students while alone in her classroom on Friday, Aug. 21. Photo: Collin Breaux

There is excitement, though, since students could return to campus with Orange County off the state watchlist. Even then, questions pop up, such how do teachers teach a hybrid curriculum for both in-person and online instruction, considering that some families may not feel comfortable returning to in-person instruction, and there’s uncertainty about how teachers would instruct students while wearing a mask.

Most students and teachers in San Juan Capistrano and South Orange County started the 2020-21 school year last week the same way they ended the previous school year—with online learning. A mandate from Gov. Gavin Newsom stipulates campuses can only open for in-person instruction when their county is off the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list for 14 consecutive days. Orange County came off that list on Sunday, Aug. 23, potentially paving the way for campuses reopening after Labor Day. Some schools already have been granted waivers to conduct in-person instruction for elementary grades.

“I would like to see students return as safely as they can,” Hemphill said, when asked if she’d like to see in-person instruction return on campus. “Right now, I can teach them perfectly the way my technology is working.”

Students will still get a quality education if they choose to remain on campus if campuses are allowed to reopen, Hemphill said. Hemphill doesn’t want her students to feel alone and had a guest speaker in her class on Friday, Aug. 21, to alleviate that feeling.

“It’s night and day,” Hemphill said of how virtual learning is different from her usual in-person classes. “It’s a little bit harder. You have to do all the prep work in advance.”

Hemphill loves coming to her classroom to teach, because it was harder to manage being a mom, wife and worker at home. She also asked for understanding and empathy from parents and people who don’t work in the classroom.

“We are learning new tools. We are learning new tricks,” Hemphill said. “At the end of the day, we’re just there for the students. That’s our No. 1 priority.”

JSerra senior student Daniel “Danny” Day said while the new school year has been an odd experience for everyone, JSerra has fortunately invested in a lot of innovative technology that was working really well. That investment made the experience better than he had expected.

“I was homeschooled before my freshman year at JSerra, so I have had several online classes. Overall, I’m fine with them and learn from them,” Day said. “However, it is a different way to learn and takes more self-motivation. The lack of in-person socialization is a downside to online education. Online classes are definitely something that takes some getting used to.”

Day wants to return to in-person instruction on campus and thinks everyone will do better once they get back in school.

Over in the public school system, students and teachers at San Juan Hills High School are also grappling with an unusual start to their school year. Siena Chacón and Tommy Burleson, senior students and members of the school’s Associated Student Body, both said it’s definitely been a different experience and weird transition.

Chacón said her teachers are doing well with virtual learning, though she would prefer to be back on campus for in-person learning, since a big part of learning comes from peer interaction.

“Social interaction is a big part of learning social skills,” Chacón said.

San Juan Hills High School senior student Siena Chacon demonstrates on her computer what virtual learning is like. Photo: Collin Breaux

Burleson noted he had a few technical issues on the first day of school.

“It was off to a rough start,” said Burleson, who would also prefer to be back on campus.

Burleson said he’s never related more to his teachers than he does now. Chacón has passed by the San Juan Hills campus, which has been devoid of students since March. It felt like a ghost town to her.

“It feels like the school is waiting for us to get back,” Burleson said.

Both said they would be upset if there was a drive-through graduation ceremony for the Class of 2021 instead of a traditional ceremony. The Class of 2020 recently had a drive-through ceremony. They’ve already had to miss out on other senior events, Burleson said.

Jinwoo Lee, a math teacher at San Juan Hills, also reflected on the 2020-21 school year starting in the midst of a pandemic. Lee said the first day of school this year went well, all things considered.

The past school year was a shocking moment, Lee said. He assisted students when it became clear then that learning would go online.

“It was the lack of face-to-face contact I missed,” Lee said.

When asked how he feels about returning to in-person instruction, Lee said he misses his students but also recognizes there is a sense of responsibility to his family. He is comfortable with in-person instruction returning when the time is appropriate to do so and with students taking the necessary precautions.

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