With the new school year here, COVID-19 is presenting unique challenges to parents, teachers and students in San Diego’s southern region, which bear the highest number of COVID-19 cases in San Diego County.

A graph of COVID-19 cases in San Diego County by region. (Chart courtesy of Antonio Pequeño IV).
A graph of COVID-19 cases in San Diego County by region. (Chart courtesy of Antonio Pequeño IV).

South San Diego is composed of a largely Latinx population, contains a high number of low-income communities and is primarily served by the Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD), which voted to cut over 200 teachers and staff just before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

Now dogged by a virus that forced the implementation of remote learning, educators and parents in South San Diego face several issues under districts that are stretched thin and are divided as to whether or not the region’s students should return to in-person learning in the near future.

Vanessa Macias is a resident of Chula Vista and a married mother of three students. Macias’ children range from a sixth grader in middle school to a freshman and junior in high school. Each child is starting the upcoming academic year online, but what makes Macias’ position particularly challenging is the fact that she and her husband are full-time workers.

“Things are kinda back to normal for me, and working in a clinic setting, I’m not available. I can’t be taking that phone call, I can’t be checking that email… it presents a lot of problems for me,” Macias, who works in ophthalmology, said.

Macias is concerned about keeping her youngest children engaged. While some parents might assign responsibility to their oldest child, Macias said the answer is not that simple.

“It’s not very fair of me to put the pressure on my oldest and [tell her] ‘Hey, you need to check in on your younger siblings, making sure that they’re logging in, making sure that they’re doing their homework and understanding [their assignments],” Macias said.

Macias’ oldest child is taking on multiple Advanced Placement courses this upcoming school year and has a heightened amount of academic pressure to handle in her pursuit of admission into college.

Macias wondered aloud how well her children will retain information in a digital learning environment. She said that her two youngest are hands-on learners and that distance learning does not inspire confidence. “I feel like they’re actually regressing,” she said.

For Macias, the risk associated with in-person learning is worth it, given appropriate safeguards and health policies are in place. Returning to some semblance of normalcy would benefit her children’s education and lessen the pressure on her and her husband significantly.

“I see it as life can’t stop,” Macias said. “We just have to continue moving forward and keep those precautionary guidelines in place.”

A mural at High Tech Elementary Chula Vista. (Photo courtesy of Antonio Pequeño IV).
A mural at High Tech Elementary Chula Vista. (Photo courtesy of Antonio Pequeño IV).

National City resident Sandra Ruffier does not feel the same way.

An unemployed single mother, Ruffier explained that even though remote learning does not keep her two high schoolers and one middle schooler sufficiently engaged, keeping them at home is ultimately the right move.

“I do not want to send them too soon because I know the situation is not as under control as some people want to portray it,” Ruffier said, who has lost three family members to COVID-19.

The absence of in-person schooling also robbed Ruffier’s children of their extracurricular activities, which ranged from football and robotics club to involvement in a student council. The absence of these activities created an empty space in their everyday lives.

“I want to say, yeah, my kids need to get back to school because they have too much time on their hands. But no, they don’t need to get back to school to where they’re either gonna get sick or get someone else sick,” Ruffier said. “It’s not an option for me right now.”

Just as parents have their own opinions on the current state of education, so too do educators.

Latanya Lockett, a performing arts teacher at High Tech Elementary Chula Vista, happens to be an educator that wants back in.

“There’s no correct answer that’s going to solve everything, but I do think that we need a plan to come through this out to the other side of [in-person learning] because [distance learning] is not going to work,” Lockett said.

Lockett explained that with current school administrations, focus on the logistics of online education has caused administrators to overlook the nuances of student morale, retention and guidance.

“No one’s [asking], ‘Are they going to be able to deal with being online this long? Are they actually learning something? Do they feel overwhelmed?’” Lockett said. “We’re giving them too much responsibility and they need less work and less time on the computer.”

Lockett has the task of managing performing arts classes where singing, dancing and theater are used to creatively teach students math, science and literature.

Classes such as Lockett’s require plenty of coordination and cooperation from students.

“It’s exhausting,” Lockett said, reflecting on the difficulties of keeping a class of young children on track. Whether it is students turning the camera on and off, lying in bed or playing video games with their cameras and sound off, Lockett has experienced it all.

“We can’t control what’s going on in 20 different households,” she said.

Though Lockett is open to returning to in-person learning, she is cognizant of the challenges that would likely accompany it. “There’s lots you can’t control that we’re not thinking about,” she said. “Teachers are gonna spend more time policing the kids than instructing them.”

A closure sign on a gate of a school in the SUHSD. (Photo courtesy of Antonio Pequeño IV).
A closure sign on a gate of a school in the SUHSD. (Photo courtesy of Antonio Pequeño IV).

Tina Tom is a science, health and computer science teacher at Chula Vista Middle School (CVMS). Like Lockett, she has experienced the complications associated with remote learning.

On the second day of the new semester, which began on Aug. 3 for CVMS, Tom shared that communication breakdowns and student stress had already become issues.

“I just felt really bad for the students these past few days. I could feel their anxiety because they care and they’re trying… The lack of communication on the district’s end, our administration’s end and us teachers, it’s just not all there,” Tom said.

Tom and fellow science teachers sent out surveys to their students at the end of last semester to understand the difficulties students had with remote learning.

One set of results showed that the inability to focus, feelings of isolation and depression and not knowing where to start were the most prominent struggles that students faced at home. Another set of results showed how students ranked their remote learning experience. A score of one indicated a poor experience while a score of five indicated a great experience.

Results from a portion of the survey given by Tom and other teachers to their students. (Courtesy of Tina Tom)
Results from a portion of the survey given by Tom and other teachers to their students. (Courtesy of Tina Tom)

In addition to the problems detailed in the survey, Tom reflected on students with internet connection/access issues, students taking care of younger siblings and the middle school’s homeless population. Taking this into consideration, there is no shortage of obstacles for CVMS and its students.

Tom added that she has had to assist students with downloading and obtaining all of the required digital applications needed to attend class. “There’s a lot of front loading to train them to do these things,” she said.

Despite the challenges presented by remote learning, Tom is not comfortable with returning to the classroom. “… as much as I would love [for] us to return back to school. I’m on the side of being safe.”

Tom emphasized that, “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Tina Tom as a science, math and computer science instructor when she is actually a science, health and computer science instructor. The piece has since been updated. The subheading has also been updated to say South San Diego instead of the Sweetwater Union High School District because one of the teachers in the article is not from that school district.