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Virtual classes highlight the very real struggle for parents, teachers and students

*Editor’s note: Joseph High is a journalism student in SF State’s Journalism 575 Community Media this spring. Taught by professor Jon Funabiki, the class is a collaboration with El Tecolote.

Since San Francisco public schools closed on March 16 in response to the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, Lourdes Alarcon has been in quarantine taking care of her 8th grade son and 5th grade daughter. She has also been watching a friend’s 2-year-old son during the day so that she can continue working at a local market.

Alarcon says that the tasks of providing childcare, maintaining a home, and making sure her kids keep up on their studies have been a huge lift. 

“If you’re a single mother out there you really need some support, not only from the teachers but from anybody in the community that can send you some love,” Alarcon said,

San Francisco Unified School District opened classes via Zoom teleconferencing on Monday, April 13. Alarcon was relieved to have her children back in regular learning sessions with their teachers, and her kids were excited to see their teachers and classmates again. But she says that even with virtual classes beginning, having her kids learn from home over the computer hasn’t been perfect.

“When they’re going to the teacher it’s a different feeling and energy,” she said. “We’re human beings, even if the technology tries to fulfill all the needs, the presence of a teacher is something else, it’s something that has a soul.”

Lourdes Alarcon (left) and her daughter, Itzel Perez Alarcon, pose for a portrait inside their San Francisco residential building on April, 21, 2020. Photo: Janeth R. Sanchez.

Alarcon also mentioned that technology and language have been barriers even more than usual for her family and other families trying to access online learning as well as administrative business with the district. She says she is helping about 10 other families navigate enrollment for next school year as well getting onto Zoom classes. 

“It’s hard because they couldn’t deal with the school system, and now it’s even worse because they cannot deal with the education online,” she said. “I cannot deal with it and I’m good at English, tell me about the Spanish speaking families?”

SFUSD Board Vice President Gabriela Lopez, who also works for the Mission Neighborhood Centers, says the school system’s focus should be to take every step with empathy and leniency. 

“We’re still helping families get adjusted to this process and supporting them in understanding the technology, getting access to it in general,” she said. “I continue to emphasize the need to understand that we’re all learning through this together, we’re all adjusting, we’re putting in our best efforts. And unfortunately the first show of this will probably not be everything we want it to be. But that’s where we get the feedback to keep building and keep learning.”

Frank Lara teaches a bilingual Spanish-English 5th grade class at Buena Vista Horace Mann Community School in the Mission, which is where Alarcon’s children go. He shares Alarcon’s concerns that virtual classrooms are not a proper replacement for the real thing, but stresses that it is equally important that the school system tries to preserve the social relationship it had to the families it served. 

“I think there’s a lot of talk about equity and social justice. In San Francisco what was making that somewhat successful was the schools themselves,” he said. “We provided a shelter for families that didn’t have homes, we provided a food bank, we provided parent development. And now the one thing that seemed to be helping is gone, and you can’t replicate that virtually.”

Lourdes Alarcon navigates her daughter’s school using the video platform Zoom where she finds the assignments due every day. Photo: Janeth R. Sanchez

Mayor London Breed’s office announced on April 9, that following the district’s decision to close schools until the end of the school year, San Francisco’s emergency youth and child care centers will remain open until at least the end of the academic year, providing the children of essential workers as well as low-income families childcare and three meals a day. 

Lopez believes that this measure will fill in for some of the most essential services that schools usually provide.

“Initially the reason why we didn’t close sooner was because we were providing food and childcare, that was the main concern from families,” she said. 

Lara said that though systemic short-comings are affecting families more than ever now, they are symptoms of underlying problems that have always existed but are being exposed in new ways. 

“Our school serves 70 percent free and reduced lunch which is the measure of poverty in schools, so our school had a lot of economic needs to begin with,” he said. “Now we’re seeing that a lot of these families were laid-off work, they’re struggling to pay rent, many of them still work, whether they’re called essential workers or they’re workers who are trying to eek out a living even in unsafe conditions, their children are having to be at home and that’s a reality we have to face.”

Despite the struggles in the past few weeks, Lopez sees some hope in how communities and the school system have stayed resilient.

“I think it’s become an opportunity to explore how we can accommodate and support everyone during this time, and not to forget that when we do get to where we get to in the future, we had the ability, we all stepped up,” she said. “We’re getting resources and funding, we’re connecting with city agencies, we’re connecting with community-based organizations. All of that combined has created this community-driven work, really coming together.” 

Lara echoed a similarly hopeful idea: “It is a moment to reflect on the importance of social programs that uplift families, that’s much more important than the stock exchange, it’s the well-being of our families, and we’re seeing that in public schools.”

Alarcon, in addition to helping out other families with childcare and access to school resources, was heartened by the support she has received from local organizations like Parent Voices and Horizons.

“I’m trying to support my community, and I’m realizing that we’re all so strong. Oh my goodness I realize we are so strong,” she said. “I have faith that we’ll get through it, it’s just another challenge.” 

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