(Left) Calexico High School sophomore Natalie Trevaskiss writes notes during the first day of school. (Center) Mains Elementary School sixth-grader Jose Abril gives a thumbs up on his first day of online classes on Aug. 24. (Right) Eighth-grade student Isabella Esquer smiles while at her desk for the first day of online classes at Enrique Camarena Junior High School. | COURTESY PHOTOS
CALEXICO — The start of a new fall school year brought a sense of normalcy for Yulil Alonso-Garza, an English teacher at Enrique Camarena Junior High School, even despite the fact that she was able to meet her students from the comfort of her home Aug. 24.
“It was definitely a historic first day for all of us because we are used to greeting our students at the door,” Alonso-Garza said. She thanked the video-conferencing service Zoom for having its waiting room feature as it helped her see how many students were waiting to join her class’ online session.
“It was like the students were waiting in line outside our door anxiously and nervously awaiting the teacher’s welcome and signal to come in,” Alonso-Garza said.
Luckily Alonso-Garza’s classes were not greatly affected by a widespread Zoom outage that impacted the first day of classes for several other schools and universities, not just locally but nationwide, that were also reopening for online classes Aug. 24 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The company first began to receive reports of users’ unable to start or join Zoom meetings and webinars just before 6 a.m., according to Zoom’s service status report.
By about 8 a.m., the company said it had identified the issue and that it was in the “process of deploying a fix across our cloud” and that “service has been restored already for some users.” Zoom had resolved a majority of the issues by around 10 a.m.
“Thank you all for your patience and our sincere apologies for disrupting your day,” the Zoom company said on Twitter.
Meanwhile, locally, in response to the outage, Calexico Unified School District Superintendent Carlos R. Gonzales issued a statement regarding its impact on the first day of online classes for the district’s 11 school sites.
“We faced a peculiar first day due to the nationwide Zoom outage, but we very minimally impacted and the majority of our staff and students were able to connect and participate on our distance-learning platforms,” Gonzales commented. “It was a day filled with stories from our students, families and staff reconnecting and enjoying their time together.”
Prior to the first day of classes, the district had ensured all its students, from kindergarten to high school, had access to the technology required for distance learning by approving the purchase of more than 8,000 new Apple iPads, as well as accessories for students to use this fall.
“We are in the process of fully implementing a one-to-one device program,” Gonzales stated. “All transitional kindergarten (through) eighth-grade students will be receiving iPads and all ninth-grade through 12th-grade students will be receiving MacBook Airs.”
The new technology purchases were approved during the district’s regularly scheduled school board meeting Aug. 13. The price for all the equipment totaled around $2.9 million after taxes and recycling fees, according to the district agenda’s resolution documents.
As technology continues to drive fall classes, the transition hasn’t been too difficult for English teacher Alonso-Garza, given that she had been making steps to be more digitally accessible prior to the pandemic.
“Our district has been closing the digital divide over the past years,” Alonso-Garza said. “I transitioned easily because we were already operating at 80 percent technology in my classroom.”
Returning to Enrique Camarena Junior High School for her seventh year, Alonso-Garza will be teaching about 130 students through her live online classes with a total of five different student groups.
“The challenge I mostly anticipate is the lack of social interaction with my students and their interactions with each other,” she said. “I also anticipate social and emotional needs to rise more than normal which is the reason our district has encouraged the integration of social emotional learning activities the first weeks of school.”
Alonso-Garza hopes her students will be able to make the most of their time during distance learning despite the pandemic’s ongoing hold on the community.
“I hope they learn to truly value themselves, their family bonds, and their capability to get through obstacles that are beyond their control,” she said. “Learning content is essential and will be available as they grow, but resilience is learned through these inevitable world events that impact our daily lives.”
To colleagues also transitioning to online classes this fall, Alonso-Garza hopes they can all work together to help their students be prepared for the coming months.
“Together we can resolve obstacles and lift each other up in our times of need just like we always do at Calexico Unified School District,” she said.
Sharing that same community spirit, Calexico High School physical education teacher Amanda Rose Gerardo Briseño shared her thoughts on helping her mother, a fellow physical education teacher at the high school, become more comfortable teaching from in front of her computer screen.
“I remember telling my mom some words of encouragement the night before the first day of school, because she looked uneasy with all the technology information packed in one week of training,” Briseño said. “The best advice I can say to my fellow educators is to hang in there.”
The opportunity to help her mom reminded Briseño of just last year, when she was starting her first year with high school and her mom was giving her a pep talk to ease her first-day jitters.
“Now, she is the one that needs a little more assistance with this advanced technology to teach her own classes through Zoom and our new learning platform CANVAS,” she said, also having helped out a few other colleagues get past technology hurdles. “I feel like I am paying it forward by helping them out now with our new normal.”
Kennedy Gardens Elementary School teacher Alysa Teran also advised fellow teachers to ask for help when needed and to try to teach with their students’ perspectives in mind.
“Follow teachers on Tik Tok, Instagram, or join a teacher Facebook group … even watching a YouTube video can be helpful,” she said. “I have done all of this in order to make my class website and presentations.”
Instead of setting up her usual decorations in her classroom to welcome her second-grade students, Teran created virtual Bitmoji Classrooms and websites for my students to access online.
“I have second-graders this year and they still need hands-on activities and instruction … at the same time I want them to feel independent within their own learning experience,” she said.
Although Teran did experience some minor issues with students logging into her Zoom class meeting, the first day of classes ultimately went smoother than she had anticipated.
“My students were patient and so was I because we are all doing the best we can,” she said. “With that experience alone, I think that my little second-graders taught me that they have the patience and understanding that we are not in a typical classroom setting, but we will manage.”
Like many educators starting classes this fall with distancing measures in place, Teran is concerned about making the same personal connections with her students as she’s done in her past in-person class sessions.
“I do at times worry a lot about my English Language Learners because when you see them in person you know and can tell who needs help,” she said. “Due to this, I am researching and finding online resources and techniques in order to teach me to help them succeed.”
Mayra Hernandez, a teacher at Dool Elementary School, also shared similar concerns about teaching her students online this fall.
“I anticipate the most challenging aspect for me … will be to help my students learn that they can trust me, to learn that I already trust them and to believe that we can adapt to anything, especially together, as a class,” Hernandez said.
She hopes her students are able to rely on her to help them grow academically even if she can’t be with them in person.
“My hope for my students is that they see and feel how much I care about them as individuals, so that we can collaborate and help them grow personally and academically,” Hernandez said. “I want my students to feel my energy, my optimism, my resilience.”
Entering her fourth year with the district, Hernandez decided to instruct her classes from home to give her additional time to help care for her toddler alongside her husband.
“I feel happy and excited to help my students get started and connected with me in our virtual classroom,” she said.
For Calexico parents and students who still may be struggling with logging into online classes or need more knowledge on the technology being used, training in both Spanish and English are being offered through the district’s Family Resource Center.
“We have provided training for parents and have concentrated in making them feel comfortable using Zoom since all our parent meetings have been via Zoom,” said Hortencia Armendariz, coordinator of the Family Resource Center. “We have had great participation in our parent meetings because we take the time to show them how to use their video, mute, unmute and how to use the chat box to ask questions.”
Beyond technology training, the center helps with intervention and prevention in collaboration with the school’s site coordinator, student support specialist, licensed clinical social worker, homeless facilitator, and outside community agencies.
“The strong collaborative efforts that have been established throughout the Imperial Valley and knowing the needs of the community has made the Calexico Family Resource Center a place that students and families seek for assistance,” Armendariz said. “If we can’t help them directly, we will link them to an agency that can assist.”
In addition, the center offers parenting classes available with focus on family issues and will be expanding their services with the opening of their new facility.
“My hope is that we will be able to provide wrap around services for our families because we will have additional staff at the new Family Resource Center,” Armendariz said.
The center will soon include the district’s Migrant Department, Extended Learning Department and Food Services Department. The center’s Mental Health, Wellbeing and Communication Task Force will also be focused on supporting students, parents, and teachers on social and emotional learning during this fall school year.
For more information on these services, families can call the center at 760-768-3905 or email Hortencia Armendariz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Calexico Family Resource Center’s main focus is to improve the quality of life and education of students and their families in Calexico,” she said.