LocationAlhambra , CA
Just before 8 a.m. on a recent Thursday, Garfield Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Harvey Chin launched Zoom on his laptop and welcomed his class with a message he hoped would resonate.
It was a number from “High School Musical” called “We’re All in This Together.”
Since March 16, the denizens of Chin’s Room 18 have been coping with a new way of doing school in the age of coronavirus: marooned at home on a computer, without the teachers and classmates who make up their Garfield family.
“Some felt shell-shocked when they didn’t have their peers and support next to them,” Chin said recently, recalling his pupils’ reactions on the first day of distance learning six weeks ago. “Suddenly, you’re at home, you’re not at school with the routines you’re so used to.”
The abrupt change – announced on a Friday and effective the following Monday – was a shock for the adults, too. It has been especially challenging for parents who are trying to do their jobs from home while supervising their children.
That includes Chin, who is in charge of his three children – all under the age of seven – while his wife, a nurse at Kaiser, is away at work.
“If I had hair,” quipped the veteran teacher with the shaved head, “it would be falling out.”
In spite of the challenges, he exudes calm, barely missing a beat when, for instance, his two-year-old climbed into his lap during a Zoom meeting with students about their video project.
A Northern California native who grew up in Rosemead, Chin abandoned a business major in his sophomore year at Cal State L.A. and switched to education. “I loved working with youth and wanted to be part of something bigger,” he explained. He joined the Alhambra Unified School District in 2004 as a kindergarten teacher and has spent most of the past 16 years in the classroom except for a short time as an instructional specialist for the district.
He is passionate about connecting with his students at Garfield, where 69 percent of the enrollment is socioeconomically disadvantaged and 28 percent speak a language other than English – primarily Spanish, Mandarin or Cantonese. Garfield is the only school in the district and one of 27 in the state chosen to participate in Turnaround Arts, a national program that helps schools in low-income neighborhoods use the arts to boost academic performance.
“Now we have this freedom to test out how art can really be this force for learning,” said Chin, who has integrated the arts into his classes for years.
He also began incorporating technology in his classroom long before the current crisis.
One of his goals this year was to make classwork 70 percent to 80 percent paperless, so his students were already accustomed to starting the day with a warm-up exercise on their district-supplied Chromebooks. They also were familiar with Google Classroom, an online tool for managing assignments and grades that has become essential to schools since they were forced to close.
Because of these efforts, Chin said, the transition to distance learning might have been less of a challenge for his students than it was for others.
For Alex Jackson, 10, the toughest part was finding his teacher’s email with the link for the first Zoom meeting. “Then,” he said, “it was easy.”
His classmate, Elizabeth Chieng, 11, agreed. “The technology has not been hard,” she said. “It’s just the realization that we are stuck at home now. We can’t really go outside to hang out with friends.”
For hundreds of thousands of students across the state, the technology requirements remain a hurdle. State officials estimate that many as 1 in 5 of California’s more than 6 million K-12 students still lack wi-fi connections or suitable devices for remote learning more than a month after schools shut down.
Alhambra, by contrast, ramped up more quickly.
The district has sanitized, packaged and loaned about 3,100 laptops, issuing most of them during drive-through distribution events at school sites, according to Ashton Potter, the district’s director of technology. If parents were unable to pick up the computers, Potter and a small group of principals and other employees personally delivered them to homes.
By the fourth week of distance learning, 99.6 percent of Alhambra’s 16,022 students had logged on, district figures show.
The district is trying to connect by phone, email, home visit and letter with the families of the students who have still not logged on to find out what is preventing them from joining their classes online and what resources they might need.
“Because ours is a low-income district… parents may have lost jobs in the crisis and may have had to move in with others or out of the district, or the children have gone to live with relatives,” said district spokesperson Toby Gilbert. “Most everyone on our staff is now also a detective, checking on students and their families.”
Of Chin’s 31 students, four lacked access to a computer and two had no wi-fi at home. When the last student succeeded in Zooming in two weeks ago, the class broke into cheers.
Getting everyone connected was the first challenge. But, in Chin’s view, the more important task was to create a nurturing online culture, one that, he said, would help students “feel cared for, appreciated and safe while apart from one another.”
Chin is “very good at the social-emotional piece” of teaching, said Garfield Principal Stephanie Richardson. “His No. 1 skill is that interpersonal relationship. In his class they cheer each other on and it’s really positive.”
While other teachers may hold live class sessions only a few times a week, Chin brings all his students together on Zoom for 30 to 60 minutes every week morning at 8 a.m. They use the time to review the week’s “training guide,” the name Chin gave to the distance learning agenda he sends out on Sunday night.
“I don’t want them to think fifth grade is a one-year thing,” he said. “You’re training to become acquainted with junior high or to be a writer. It’s about life skills.”
After reminding them of the assignments due, he leads a lesson. One day last month they played a fast-moving game about identifying imagery in poems. He also likes to teach them new Zoom skills, such as how to change their screen names, and creates Zoom breakout rooms for those working on group projects.
For the rest of the day, students can follow a set schedule of 45-minute blocks for reading, writing, math and social studies with a break at mid-morning and lunch, or they can design their own schedule and work at their own pace.
Many choose the latter option and wind up their work well before the traditional dismissal time of 2:30 p.m. For Paulina Paez, 11, it’s one of the benefits of being at home.
“We get to do school in our pajamas and finish a little earlier,” she said.
Michael Lopez, 10, said he usually completes his assignments by noon, which leaves him plenty of time to play his favorite video game, Fortnite. “It’s weird to be home but doing work,” he said. “I kind of like it but at the same time I kind of don’t. I miss the relationships.”
Chin encourages his pupils to message him with questions when the class is offline or contact their classmates for help or just to hang out.
What he doesn’t want is for them to feel isolated.
“A lot of my students didn’t know how to socialize online,” Chin observed. “I told them straight up, ‘It’s time for you guys to socialize. Go and play a game with a friend like Words with Friends or chess.’ I want them to extend themselves… and not be like hermits.”
He also sets a theme for each week: “Involve yourself,” “Be an impact,” “Reach Out” and “Go Give.” He ties in an activity, such as writing letters or making a video to express gratitude to healthcare workers.
Supervising their children’s schoolwork at home has been a revelation for many parents.
“This has given me the opportunity to see what my kids are made of,” said Jason Jackson, whose 10-year-old son Alex, is one of Chin’s students. “It has expanded my understanding of what his capabilities are. Now I trust he’s doing what he should be doing, not messing around in school.”
Both Jackson and his wife, Jenny, are working from home while tending to Alex and his two siblings. They said the distance learning experience has deepened their appreciation for AUSD’s staff and resources.
“They have done a tremendous job keeping kids able to learn without interrupting what we need to do as adults,” Jackson said.
Yicel Paez, Paulina’s mother, described the first week of virtual school as rough. “It was difficult not to see it as an extended vacation,” she said.
“Now,” she noted, “we’re settling in. Mr. Chin is not there every hour of the school day so if Paulina has questions, she has to try to figure it out … or email Mr. Chin. That’s a silver lining for me, to see how she is growing and able to reach out and ask those questions.”
Chin, too, sees growth.
“Now,” he said, “their questions are more content-based instead of ‘How do I drive this vehicle?’”
But the current adventure in distance learning is not business as usual.
“We cannot just take our schedule, materials, lessons and format we were providing in a face-to-face classroom setting and put it online,” said Assistant Superintendent Janet Lees. “Our overall goal during distance learning is to create a home learning environment for our students that allows them to continue to develop and learn and does not fail any student.”
When schools reopen, what education will look like when it does, and how students will make up what they’ve missed remain open questions. After a month and a half of remote teaching and learning, Chin and other educators still feel they are, to borrow the words of AUSD Superintendent Denise Jaramillo, “trying to fly a plane while you build it.”
Despite the challenges, “I’m still trying to figure out how to make them ready for sixth grade,” Chin said of his students late one night after putting his own kids to bed. “I don’t know if I’m kidding myself by expecting that. I don’t know what the summer break will do to them. But I feel if I set a goal and think my students can do it, I have to make that magic happen.”
Elaine Woo, a former editor and writer at the Los Angeles Times, grew up in Monterey Park and attended AUSD schools. She is a member of the Alhambra Source Advisory Board.