Southwest High School science teacher Cheryl Turner (from left) and Principal Matt Phillips greeting Turner’s “class” via Zoom on the first day of school Aug. 11. The Central Union High School District, which also includes Central Union High School and Desert Oasis High School in El Centro, were the first schools to come back into session this week. | CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO
EL CENTRO — Although the halls of Southwest High School lacked the buzz of the first day of school, inside Cheryl Turner’s science classroom came a familiar exuberance as she welcomed her students into their live Zoom video meeting the morning of Aug. 11.
“I’m just so excited, I haven’t seen them since May,” Turner said as she peered over her laptop to check if any more students were waiting to be added to their Zoom meeting.
Turner stood at the front of her empty classroom as she called attendance and checked in on her students’ online connection as well as their health.
“It’s good to see you guys,” Turner told her students.
Southwest High School students, along with those from Central Union High School and Desert Oasis High School, all in El Centro, became the first in the Imperial Valley to resume fall schooling with campuses closed and distance-learning measures in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“My focus this year must be on how to engage my students using online tools like Zoom and Google classroom,” explained Turner. “In past years, engaging students face to face is easy and fun because it is much easier to read the room and respond quickly.”
Returning for her ninth year of teaching at Southwest High School, Turner was among a handful of teachers within the Central Unified School District that chose to instruct live lessons from their on-campus classrooms, rather than in their homes.
“It is difficult to set up a classroom environment in your home,” Turner said.
Given that Turner teaches chemistry, she said she chose to return to her science classroom because of the extensive amount of resources that are available to her in the room and her familiarity with instructing from a classroom setting for the past 18 years of her teaching career. She will be juggling five classes this fall semester with about 120 students in total.
“As an educator you must be the lead in establishing the culture and environment that will motivate students and give them the best opportunity to learn,” said Turner. “It is 100 percent up to you right now.”
Prior to the pandemic-cautious first day of school, the biggest concern for most faculty on day one would be making sure lost students are able to find their way around campus, explained Southwest High School Principal Matt Phillips.
“The equivalent of finding your classrooms now is being able to log on to your student account,” Phillips said, referencing the online portal students use to access information about their classes and schedules.
Along with making sure students can properly log on, Phillips also noted that the next concern is making sure students have a fast and strong-enough internet connection to carry the live video classes that are vital to the students’ educational interaction.
“We absolutely recognize how important the in-person live instruction is and that’s one of the things people miss most, the interaction,” said Phillips.
Additionally, with an average of more than 2,000 students attending Southwest High School each school year, Phillips also notes that the school is trying to check in on families that might not have registered their children yet.
“Normally we expect about 2,100 students and in terms of registered right now we are under 2,000, so we are going to be making about 200 phone calls to see where everybody is,” Phillips said Aug. 11.
Although late registration is not unusual for the first day of school, Phillips believes some of the confusion may come from the fact that the district begins high school class sessions about two weeks before the El Centro Elementary School District starts its first day of school, leaving some students to start registering much earlier than their younger siblings.
“We have people who are on the phone calling the families of people we are expecting but haven’t registered,” Phillips said. “We need to do everything we can to find them and just see what their status is.”
Like many other school districts, Phillips and his faculty are prepared to phase into less precocious measures of teaching based on when they are authorized by the Imperial County Public Health Department to bring students back to their campuses. Students can anticipate that the school year will progress in stages, starting from distance learning and transitioning into on-campus learning for students when it has been deemed safe to do so.
“The last thing we want to do is contribute to the spread of the virus by anything we do,” Phillips said through his Southwest High School face mask. “We want our kids back and we want them safe, and it is our job to do both.”
Keeping a safe distance herself, Southwest teacher Jackie Valadez decided to spend her first day of classes meeting with her students virtually from the comfort of her Brawley home.
“I will probably go into my classroom for specific units, but as of now I have been able to adapt the material to work from home,” said Valadez. “All you really need is the connectivity.”
Valadez has taught the school’s dental assistant course for the past 13 years, in which she provides students the knowledge, skills, and practice for those who would like to obtain employment within a dental facility.
“For teachers, right now it’s about looking at things outside the box and figuring out how students can have a similar experience through a different lens,” Valadez said. “One way is to reevaluate how to establish relationships in the new learning platform.”
Central Union High School teacher Jennifer Burt was glad to reconnect with her students while working from campus Aug. 11.
“The most challenging part was sitting in a classroom, with all of the chairs up on their desks, empty,” said Burt, who returned to teach science for her 14th year. She will be teaching 119 students this fall school year.
In contrast to her empty classroom, Burt was happy to see students attend online classes promptly and actively engaged.
“Students (had) positive attitudes, good energy, and good communication skills,” Burt said. “I’m proud of our Central students.”
Although it is a different type of interaction, Central Union High School teacher Elizabeth Fifer also enjoyed the interactions she was able to make with students on their first day of her English class.
“The positive aspect is always making connections,” Fifer said. “It was nice to be able to have some one-on-one meets with students who were doing well and those that needed an encouraging word.”
Despite running into technical issues that required her to jump between using her mobile device and her home computer, Fifer was happy to see her students persevere on the first day regardless of unforeseen issues.
“I think the most challenging aspect was not being able to physically be in the same room as my students,” she said. “At times students were having technical issues that we could power through.”
Like Valadez, Fifer opted to teach her five classes from her home where she expects to spend the majority of her instructing time. She attributed her classes’ successful first day to the hard work and support her community and district has provided her and her colleagues leading up to the day.
“I think our parents, students, teachers, support staff, administrators, and community members are being so helpful,” Fifer said. “I would not be ready to teach virtually without every other stakeholder looking out for what is best for our students.”