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Students return to school — from a distance
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Denair High School math teacher Robyn Hilton shows her class how to do a math problem via Zoom on Thursday (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

On Wednesday, Denair High School math teacher Robyn Hilton walked into her classroom for the first day of school. Instead of being met with smiles, boisterous banter and words of welcome from her students, however, she was greeted by rows of empty desks — the new normal as local schools begin the semester with distance learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think this year and everything we’ve already gone through will teach us perseverance,” Hilton said. “But I will miss seeing the kids every day and I’ll miss the chatter. I have a very loose classroom; we like to joke. I want them to pick on me and we laugh a lot.”

The 2020-2021 school year is Hilton’s eighth year as an educator and this year she is teaching five subjects — two of which are completely new for her. That means five different websites for each class and five groups of students to oversee on virtual Zoom calls throughout the day. It’s tough to stay organized, she said, but the first day of school “exceeded expectations” even though Denair Unified School District’s 1,300 students were missing from its four campuses.

“I was so nervous because I’ve never done this before. No one has ever done this before,” Hilton said. “I didn’t think kids would understand logging in and logging out from class to class, but I think I only had five absences the entire day. I was really impressed.”

While local teachers and students got a taste of distance learning when schools abruptly closed down in March, the start of the new school year is seemingly more organized when it comes to scheduling. Students within both DUSD and Turlock Unified School District have set schedules, logging in for attendance in the morning and receiving instruction throughout the day before completing their coursework in the afternoon.

Public and private schools in Stanislaus County cannot welcome students back to their campuses until the region is removed from the state’s coronavirus watch list, which will only happen when the number of local positive COVID-19 test results decrease substantially.

Hilton was one of the few teachers who held Zoom meetings with her classes last school year, she said, so she was already skilled when it came to using the software this week. Other than a few hiccups (a couple of Zoom ‘hackers’ crashed the call and one student got distracted by the ‘doodle’ feature), everything went swimmingly. She even created a Bitmoji classroom which showcased her cartoon self, complete with clickable links and other resources for students.

It’s all in an effort to make distance learning fun for students during a time that is confusing and lonely for many. She worries about those who used to skate by just by attending class, but will now be responsible for their own work ethic at home.

“It’s normal teaching this many subjects when I have the kids in my room, but doing it online has been tricky. I’ve been trying to help some of the other teachers who aren’t as quick with technology,” Hilton said. “I think the kids were just glad to have the opportunity to interact with their peers again. I was fully expecting them to be down in the dumps and negative about things, but they really weren’t. It’s kind of fun because it’s a challenge and it’s new.”

Hilton added that over the summer, teacher-led Zoom meetings helped instructors collaborate and share ideas for the upcoming school year. While she didn’t feel completely prepared for full-time distance learning, it also felt strange to overly prepare.

“As teachers, we were asking ourselves, ‘Am I just going to be using this for this one time and then never use it again?’ It’s tough, especially when we have no timeline and no clue.”

There are plenty of challenges that come with distance learning, like on the second day of school when Hilton was trying to show her students how to access their homework online, but noted it was difficult because she couldn’t “peek over their shoulder to make sure everyone is on the same page.” There was also the aspect of showing students how to do certain math problems, which saw Hilton pick up a little dry-erase whiteboard and hold her equations up to the camera.

Then, someone asked her what finals would look like at the end of the semester.

“At this point, I’m just trying to make it through the first week,” Hilton responded.

Both TUSD and DUSD have distributed Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots to students who need them to connect from home. In some households, siblings have to fight for the WiFi they already have.

Turlock High School freshman Nienebra Varani had to be whisked away to her aunt’s house in search of a connection during one of her first lessons because she couldn’t log in to her Zoom call. On Friday, she was forced to join a video conference via cell phone due to the same issue — something she anticipates happening often, as she shares the internet with her sisters Eatana Varani, a seventh grader at Turlock Junior High School, and Akadina Varani, a third grader at Dennis Earl Elementary School.

After the first three days, Nienebra gave her distance learning experience so far a score of eight out of 10.

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After having trouble connecting to the WiFi on her Chromebook, Turlock High School freshman Nienebra Varani participates in her class Zoom call thanks to her cell phone (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

“It’s very fast-paced, but I’m trying my best,” she said. “You basically just sit at your computer and don’t move around much until you’re done with everything.”

The Varani girls’ parents, Antoine and Anokeen, both have full time jobs as a dentist and real estate agent, respectively. Anokeen has been working from home this week and will continue to do so as their children embark on their new form of education, but after three days the experience has been tiring.

“I’m exhausted,” she laughed. “It’s hard for me because I need to be in my cubicle at my desk to focus and I can’t do that...I’m extremely lucky because I can work from home, but it is a lot harder. With real estate you’re at mercy of your clients. I am home for the most part, but if I have to leave, I have to leave and I have to trust that they can stay focused.”

Akadina’s schedule looks a little bit different than her sisters’ since she’s in elementary school. So far, she’s been read to by her teacher and received a tour of the classroom that she hopes to one day attend school in. So far, Eatana’s only complaint about her junior high schedule is that there hasn’t been a lot of time to ask questions. It’s worth noting, however, that TUSD was on an early-release schedule this week to allow for more teacher collaboration after school.

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Dennis Earl Elementary School third grader Akadina Varani listens to her teacher on Zoom as her mother Anokeen watches on (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

Despite her single qualm, Eatana said distance learning has been a breeze so far — especially when it comes to staying focused.

“We’re all in our rooms so it’s really quiet,” she said. “But it’s weird not being able to actually say hi to my friends.”

TUSD asked parents on Facebook how the first day of school went, and the responses varied. Many reported back that the first day went great without a hitch. Others made the district aware of audio, connection and password issues with Zoom calls and Chromebooks. Some parents shared worries about keeping their children on task, especially those with more than one child, while others worried about the length and layout of the full day school schedule beginning next week.

“My grandson was so happy to call me, told me all about his first day of Kindergarten at Julien Elementary School,” Lisa Tovar wrote. “Everything went well!”

“Many Chromebooks have terrible sound quality. As a teacher I am unable to understand some of my students,” Lori Ford shared. “It is not an internet issue.”

Anokeen hopes that the experience will teach her daughters how to keep their heads up in the face of adversity.

“Crazy things happen, but we have to learn to adapt and push through it because everyone is in this situation,” she said. “We’re blessed and really lucky to not be impacted by losing our jobs...We don't even have that stress and it’s not easy, so I can’t even imagine the families who are really struggling and going through this.”

She added that last spring, distance learning was simpler because there were less expectations placed on students, with many believing the pandemic would be under control by the next school year.

“Back then it was something temporary, so you just went along with it...Reality now has kicked in and we know it’s not going away, so the thought of it not going away is stressful,” Anokeen said. “We know this is long term now, and I think that’s scarier.”