Saved by the bell

A return to in-person learning for grades TK-2 provides relief for families and students struggling with online learning

After the anticipated reopening of all RBUSD elementary schools on Feb. 1, children from kindergarten up to the second grade are now permitted to re-enter an in-person learning environment. Laura Leal, mother of six and grandmother of six, stands among the many who have struggled through a difficult first semester of online learning and welcome the critical change, as she takes care of four of her grandchildren while also working full-time. 

“I have two boys doing second grade together in two different schools, which have two different teachers and two different schedules. Combined with my sixth grade granddaughter, we have three schedules from three different schools all going on at the same time, plus a preschooler,” Leal said.  

To accommodate all of her children and grandchildren, Leal said they had to “reconfigure the house” so everyone had their own accounted for space and schedule. And with all of her own children going off to work, Leal shouldered caring for her grandchildren with calendars and phone reminders. 

“My children all work, and their jobs require them to go to work physically,” Leal said. “Also, one of my daughters is taking online-college, so she has to manage her own school time along with her son’s school time and make that all work. So it’s complicated, and it’s crazy; it takes a lot of juggling, and a lot of attention.”

That’s why when the news came out that one of her second-grade grandchildren, B, would be eligible for a return to on-campus learning for an adapted hybrid-schedule, Leal knew this would be a great opportunity not only to ease management issues but also for B himself to enter a better learning environment. At Washington Elementary School, B started his first week back on Monday, Feb. 1, in Cohort A, where he will continue to return back to campus for every other Monday as well as Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

“He got to go to school two days in a row, and was super excited about it,” Leal said. “He got to see his classmates, got to go play on the field and actually got to meet his teacher in-person.”

This was a “major improvement” for B, for he was faced with many issues when taking an entire semester of school online at such a young age. Not only was B forced to learn in an unfamiliar terrain, but online learning also confined him to limited social interactions.

“At the beginning of the year, he struggled a bit to get the hang of talking and listening virtually,” Leal said. “The kids were trying to figure out how the computers worked, and when you have your speakers on instead of a headset on, and if there was any feedback or reverberations. It’s been stressful for him online.”

There were also other problems that erupted from learning at home day after day surrounded by family, including a decreased resistance to distractions and restlessness. 

“At first we tried having school with the two second graders in the same room just focusing on their schoolwork,” Leal said. “But they would just poke at each other or get into each other’s classrooms, so we had to separate them. B was in the office with me because if there wasn’t somebody with eyes on him, he would be absent without leave.”

Luckily, the distractions between the two second graders ended when one moved out of Leal’s house in November, but B still acted on his boredom and agitation by sometimes leaving mid-Zoom to take extra long water breaks and play outside. Having his home be also his learning environment caused many problems, another one being difficulties when it came to the academics themselves. 

“They do assessments, so we discovered that when starting out the year, Brian wasn’t at the right reading level for his grade,” Leal said. “He was having a hard time understanding some of the math concepts as well.”

B started going to “intervention” after school, an online program started by the teachers to help students learn some “reinforcements of basic skills.” But Leal found that B didn’t take advantage of the extra given help; he wouldn’t ask any questions because he didn’t consider it “school time,” and even used the time to try and chat with others or with the teacher herself about other topics. This came to influence Leal’s decision to get B a tutor instead, because she knew he needed someone to give “more explanation of instructions” and the “attention” that he needed to focus. 

“Having a tutor allowed me to continue working in the afternoons, which was critical because I was getting to the point where I was taking off too much time from work trying to explain to Brian how the computer program worked or how to upload assignments,” said Leal. “Also, having a tutor come in to sit with Brian specifically because he needs a little help staying on task was a turning point for him comprehending the work that he was being given electronically; it was critical in him being successful online.”

From observing B’s struggles and progresses when working in a digital space, Leal quickly came to realize the importance for a return on campus, for “academically and socially, it’s the best possible decision for him.”

“It’s easy to walk away from electronics; it’s impossible to walk away from a teacher at the front of the classroom,” Leal said. “That’s why I think for him, being in a classroom setting and having a teacher talking to him, engaging with him, catching him with eye-contact and direct questions, allows him to focus more than watching through a screen where he knows if he just tipped over in his chair he doesn’t have to see her. It eliminates the options for him to treat it like it’s an optional thing.”

With the matter of physical safety inevitably arising with the pandemic still in full-gear, Leal and her family have recognized the dangers and the controversy in their decisions. 

“There’s a lot of apprehension about having COVID impact specifically; it’s the biggest worry about being back to school,” Leal said. “We had to have a lot of conversations with the kids about proper mask-wearing and having extra masks handy so that they are aware of why we do it, and why it’s so important.”

Leal has taken to checking notifications about active cases concerning the schools repeatedly, and has adapted a ritual for B so that when he comes home, he has to wash with soap and change into new clothes immediately and put his school clothes in the laundry, a sequence they hope will help “minimize the risk.” 

Also, although none of Leal’s immediate or extended family has ever contracted the virus, she knows that her family is at a greater risk because herself, her daughter and her daughter’s son all have “severe” cases of asthma. 

“Knowing that a primary attribute of the disease is that it attacks the lungs, as soon as they started talking about it spreading here and labeling it as a ‘pandemic’ it was pretty much an instant decision for us to stay away from people, even before the shutdowns,” Leal said. “We knew what the risks were and we took it at its value; this was something not to be messed with.”

Leal’s other grandson, who is also in the second grade, has not yet joined B in his journey back to school, for his mother has decided to keep him out of school longer since she “doesn’t feel safe yet with the spike in COVID cases.” In the matter of letting kids go back to school or keeping them at home, Leal thinks it’s “a split decision” for parents at this time. 

“I know that there’s pros and cons for each side, and it’s one of those situations where everybody’s got to go with their own personal safety valve,” Leal said. “It’s a matter of understanding what you’re able to tolerate risk-wise and what you believe is the best for your kids.”

In Leal’s optimistic outlook on going back to school, she takes into account all of the precautions B’s school has put into place to protect the safety of the students and staff. These include a six-foot distance between the students in desks, in line, when they’re eating snacks and even at recess. No lunch boxes or personal pencils, pens and other supplies are allowed; the school provides supplies in boxes for each student at their desk, which they sanitize regularly. The classes are also distant from each other and now have designated bathrooms. 

“They’re also making it mandatory to hand-wash and sanitize as you go throughout your day, so they’re being very cautious about it, which is part of the reason why I’m okay with letting B go back to school,” Leal said. 

As many changes are being implemented from the very start of quarantine until now, Leal recognizes the importance in adapting to the present situation, and finding ways to navigate through unprecedented events. 

“You have to make adjustments for the things that happen in life,” said Leal. “And this is a really good lesson on how to learn to pivot quickly, because things are changing all the time.”