Months into the pandemic, challenges remain in virtual classrooms

By Adam Evarts / NM News Port

Gwen Gordon sits behind her desk, awaiting the arrival of her students. On the desk sits an attendance book, the day’s lesson plans and her grade book. She hears a noise and looks up. But instead the sound of the classroom door, she hears students arriving in her online Zoom waiting room. 

“If students were in their regular class in the morning, but are late to my class, I just assume they’ve gotten lost in cyberspace,” Gordon says jokingly.

Gordon has taught 5th and 6th graders for the past 18 years at Bosque Farms Elementary, splitting time between math and language arts classes. She waits a few more minutes, takes attendance, then begins the lesson for the day.

“Absenteeism is higher now,” Gordon says when asked about the main challenges of class during a pandemic. 

This is now what most classes look like across New Mexico. Gone is the classroom arrival. Gone is the individualized gratification students receive when doing their work correctly. Gone is the structure that in-person school brings.

Mix the pandemic with technological issues, and doing school virtually is causing many students to fall behind and many teachers to struggle with how to help their students adapt.

“Low-income and minority students could suffer the greatest learning loss,” Ryan Tolman of the Legislative Finance Committee said during an October presentation. According to an LFC report, students across New Mexico are falling behind. 

Moreover, some are getting lost along the way — literally disappearing from the classroom. A recent report from the State Education Department stated that 12,000 kids have “disappeared from public school rolls.” 

Teachers have all but become IT personnel as well. Helping students figure out how to navigate web pages on their tablets or how to download files or apps. The challenge sometimes involves having to screen share and walk step-by-step through problems —  much like a computer tech support person does over the phone. 

Albuquerque Public Schools has dramatically expanded its Technology Service Desk website,  to provide assistance to teachers and students (and parents) with APS-supported technology. The site has a request area where stuck or confused users can fill out a form and wait to get help from the technology department. The site designers hope the adults and the kids can do most of this problem-solving on their own, giving them lots of instructions and tools for just about any problem with their district-issued technology.

And issues are not uncommon. 

“Has anyone else had the problem of their child’s new iPad charging cable just stop working,” vented parent Emily Chase to other parents on a school district social media group for parents.. “My kids’ cord has stopped charging her iPad.” 

“We have already had to replace an iPad,” parent Basilisa Lerma said in the same forum. “The iPads won’t hold a charge. The kids have to keep them plugged in all the time.” 

APS has said that any piece of equipment that is not working correctly must be taken to the child’s school for replacement or repair. That information is also shared on their technology site.

For Domenique Baldonado, who teaches kindergarten for Albuquerque Public Schools, teaching virtually has become an attempt at balance. 

“I really try to work with parents on schedules,” Baldonado said. 

Baldonado is set up to teach live on Zoom half of the day and the other half requires the kids working on their own. 

“Some parents complained,” Baldonado said. “Some said I wasn’t doing my job, some said it was too much for their kids. I’ve learned to accept I’m not going to make everyone happy.” 

For many teachers, this has been the new normal for the better part of 2020, and it looks to remain the norm at least heading into January. With many counties around the state still tracking in red for COVID-19 cases, many districts will be beginning the second semester virtually with no change in guidelines yet announced by the Public Education Department. 

Meanwhile, Gwen Gordon finishes her lesson and lets her math students go. 

“I worry that I am modifying the assignments too much for online classes — more so than I would if we were in person,” Gordon says as the last student logs off, ending another day of virtual teaching.

Adam Evarts is a reporter for New Mexico News Port. He can be reached on Twitter @adam_evarts19 or by email at nmnewsport@gmail.com.