San Antonio Elementary Teachers Adapting to Online Learning

One in a Series of Articles from the Spring J322 Reporting Public Issues Course

When students in J322 (Reporting Public Issues) transitioned to online learning, one student expressed concern that she had planned to write the best piece of her college career this semester and it would no longer be possible by reporting remotely. Attitudes quickly changed to, “We’ve got this!” And they did. On the final day, that student said she did submit the finest piece – so far – of her college career. The J322 series of articles showcases students' work during this unique moment in history.

Living room recliners have transformed into office chairs and dining tables are now covered in papers, sticky notes and textbooks. The glow of a laptop screen illuminates the faces of thousands of teachers around the country as they navigate the new reality of online learning.

“Going online, I knew there were so many hurdles we were gonna have to jump,” said Mary Morton, a second grade teacher in San Antonio ISD. “I was a little scared to be honest.”

While many middle school and high school teachers and students are familiar with online tools used in the classroom, those at the elementary level are diving into uncharted territory.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced on April 17 that all public schools will remain closed for the rest of the academic school year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of the typical in person classes, school has been forced to switch to online learning. However, the technology tools needed to continue the school year were not readily accessible to the majority of elementary students in San Antonio.

“Technology can’t teach in the same way a teacher in person can teach,” Morton added. “So I always stayed away from things like Google Classroom until now.”

With 90% of San Antonio ISD’s student population considered by the Texas Education Agency as economically disadvantaged, the district had to provide laptops, tablets and internet hotspots to those families.

Dina Toland, second and third grade teacher, had one student who waited three weeks to obtain a hotspot and tablet from San Antonio ISD. During that time, he fell behind.

“It makes all the inequities already in your class, whether it be a single parent home or poverty,” Toland said. “Then multiply that by ten.”

Morton’s first priority when the switch started was to make sure all of her students had the tools needed before she started introducing new materials.

“Pretty much all my kids have at least one piece of working San Antonio ISD technology at home now,” Morton added.

Teachers, students, and parents are having to adapt to an unprecedented online learning environment in the matter of weeks. In that short amount of time, the need for creativity and an open mind to new methods became apparent. 

“The transition was a learning curve for many,” said Barry Perez, the executive director of communications for Northside ISD. “Our Curriculum and Instructions Department has told educators this is now the time to be creative and think outside the box.” 

In San Antonio ISD, Toland has even made materials for her students and left them on her porch for the parents to pick up.

“It is so hard to teach basic math facts to a second grader online,” she added. “You’re not sitting right there, you got the lag or interference with audio, so it's been kind of frustrating.”

Technical and teaching issues have taken over Texas teacher’s classrooms. So now teachers are presenting the information to their kids in hopes that it sticks to the students. According to the Texas Education Agency, almost 2.6 million elementary students in Texas are at risk of falling behind the learning curve due to this issue.

“I’m not covering anywhere near the amount of information that i would have been expected to cover had we been in school,” Morton said. “I worry about how much our kids are actually learning and what I will have to reteach to the new group of kids I get next year.”

Both Northside ISD and San Antonio ISD are planning to implement summer programs in order to prevent what Toland described as the “summer slide,” where students fall behind in the curriculum while on summer break.

“We are doing things over the summer, especially checking in with kids,” Toland said. “Even when we are off contract.”

The move to online learning was very sudden and certainly unexpected. No one can prepare for a global pandemic. The connections these elementary teachers have with their students has been split in half by a screen.

“They are really funny and chatty and most of all loving. They just want to hug me all the time,” Morton said about her second grade class. “I am really sad I’m not with them.”

Since online learning has slowed the pace of the curriculum, these San Antonio elementary teachers are trying to make logging into class fun and something students want to do.

Toland has introduced special days to her Zoom calls, like crazy hair day or dress up your pet day, to keep her kids interested and engaged.

“It was really cute. Everyone showed their dogs and cats in different outfits,” she said. “The connection with the kids is the most important thing right now.”

Morton has a daily Zoom meeting with her students every day and reads a book to them. Currently they are reading “The One and Only Ivan.” The kids talk to each other and to Morton about what they think is going to happen next in the book.

“We really just hang out and talk,” Morton added. “It is a time I want them to enjoy. I want them to want to call in and be able to see their friends and still have that personal connection.”

Teachers and their kids essentially got their school year cut short because of COVID-19. Online learning could possibly become the new normal, but for now these teachers just want to be able to see their kids again.

“The fact that we are not going to be back in May and I won’t see them again, it hurts,” Toland said.

Daniella Cortez
J322 Student