This story is part of the series “2020 Lessons.” This fall, WBEZ education reporters are following students and teachers from the Chicago area as they make their way through an education world turned upside down by the coronavirus.
It’s been two weeks since remote learning began for about 295,000 students in traditional Chicago public schools.
Teachers say it’s hard trying to keep students engaged for long hours online while supporting the social and emotional needs of those lagging behind.
This fall, reporter Adriana Cardona-Maguigad is following a special education teacher at Brian Piccolo Elementary, a Chicago public school on the Northwest Side.
Jessica Vega is there for students beyond academics — working as a teacher and doing social work for them on the side.
Vega is starting her third year teaching at Piccolo, a mostly Latino and Black school where 34% of students speak limited English. Any other year, she would be feeling excited to be back with her students. But with the pandemic, and now remote learning, she feels like a first-year teacher all over again.
“When I started teaching this is definitely not what I imagined doing in my third year,” said Vega, who can easily be confused as a student, especially when she wears the school’s T-shirt. “As many teachers know, the first year is probably one of the most difficult and stressful years, and I feel like that again because I am learning everything again.”
Vega, who is 24 years old, went into teaching to help shape the learning experiences of children in underserved communities. As a first generation Mexican American growing up in Chicago, she knows what it’s like to go to public schools and translate for her Spanish speaking parents as they learned to navigate a new culture.
As an adult, she sees the struggles of immigrant families with a new set of eyes. She volunteers to translate for parents and other teachers at Piccolo, and always makes herself available when students need help.
She’s always taken on extra work above and beyond just providing lessons. But this year is unlike anything she’s ever seen.
The challenge ahead
Her main goal these days is figuring out how to best teach eighth graders remotely. Each day, her students are expected to spend nearly four hours in real-time online instruction and more than two hours doing learning activities.
Vega has eight students, all with some type of learning disability, including challenges recognizing sounds in reading and difficulties understanding patterns in math.
So, she sits at her basement office at the home she shares with her parents, siblings and other relatives. With a big whiteboard by her side and markers of all colors on her desk, she brainstorms ways to reach her students — anything from responding enthusiastically when students participate to playing games.
“I am still trying to figure out other ways … what else I can do,” she said.
By the end of the day, she’s exhausted.
“The screen time, it is insane,” Vega said. “When I mean tired, I mean mentally and physically tired. I am not used to sitting down for so many hours. As a teacher I am used to being up on my feet walking around.”
Despite that, Vega said she keeps at it, knowing she needs to come back the next day and be there for her students. But, in quiet moments, a scary thought bubbles up, one she doesn’t want to entertain.
“Have I thought about how long I could do this?” asked Vega. “The thought has crossed my mind, but I decided not to linger on it because I want to be positive and optimistic it won’t be forever.”
Troubleshooting tech problems is the new normal
Vega wears many hats these days. At the same time she’s teaching her students with math and science, she’s also their tech support.
Most of them are able to connect, and they all have computers. That’s a big improvement over the spring. But there are still problems.
“They are feeling actually pretty frustrated with just technology in general so their WiFi is very slow or it keeps crashing, or the computer keeps crashing or the applications keep crashing and they need a lot of support,” Vega said on Wednesday, seven days after remote learning began.
Sometimes, she said, she can’t tell when her students are confused. Not all kids keep their cameras on, either because they don’t work or they don’t feel comfortable due to their living situation. CPS requires students to keep their cameras on during live instruction, but teachers say that rule is hard to enforce.
City officials promised to give free high-speed internet to up to 100,000 low-income students. So far, about 33,000 students have signed up. But getting the free internet can be complicated for some, and others aren’t eligible. CPS says it’s considering expanding its reach.
More than a teacher
Vega learned a few lessons last spring, and now she is trying a few things differently. Instead of overwhelming parents with tons of group messages, she is reaching out to them directly.
“Most importantly, something that I learned is checking in with the families,” she said. “Not as, ‘Has the student done the work?’ But how is the family doing and how are the students doing, because sometimes that has a lot of information as to what might be going on that can translate into the virtual classroom.”
Working with immigrant families at her school has taught her a lot more about the challenges immigrant families face — challenges that are amplified by the pandemic.
“Life here is very different [here] and the expectations are very different, especially in education,” Vega said. “The language barrier is very difficult sometimes to overcome, as well as when there is no one that can translate at the moment, especially if you have something urgent. Some families don’t have housing, financial, food security.”
Last May, one of her eighth graders, an immigrant from Guatemala, lost his mother to the coronavirus. Vega had come to know the student’s mother, Carolina Lopez, well over the past year.
Lopez left her home in Guatemala in the winter of 2019 to start a new life with her two sons in Chicago far from her abusive husband. Her oldest son was separated from her after getting caught by immigration officials at the U.S-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. He was later deported.
In Chicago, Lopez found a supportive school community when she enrolled her son at Piccolo. Vega stepped in to help Lopez and her son with translations.
Vega and Lopez stayed in touch when school closed in March because of the pandemic. She and other teachers helped her son get a computer and internet service.
When Vega learned that Lopez died, she was shocked. It took her some time to process the news, but then immediately she offered to help coordinate funeral arrangements for Lopez.
“That is how I may have been able to cope with the loss of a parent who I knew cared so much about her son,” Vega said.
Carolina’s son is now in the care of an uncle. Vega is making sure he is going to high school. But his future is extremely uncertain. His uncle doesn’t have a stable home, and Carolina’s son is staying with a cousin.
In her three years as a teacher, Vega has learned to be there for her students beyond school hours. She is willing to do whatever it takes to support them. This year is no different. But with the pandemic, she knows the stakes are that much higher for all her students and their families.