Few LAUSD High Schoolers Are Returning To Campus — But Those Who Are Need A Place To Learn
Hayley Pimentel has struggled to keep up with the workload during distance learning. There’s no teacher at home to keep her on-task. Attending Zoom classes from the same bedroom as her sister is hard. Even her phone is a constant distraction.
“At home, I’m not going to do [the work],” Pimentel said. “At school, you know that they’re going to be on you.”
As of Friday, all L.A. Unified School District students have had the chance to attend in-person classes for the first time in more than a year.
But Pimentel is one of the few middle- and high school students to actually return to campuses: LAUSD officials expected just one in five high school students to come back this week.
There are many reasons why. Fears about COVID-19 haven’t faded. Some students are waiting for vaccinations. Plus, most students with quiet homes and stable Wi-Fi would prefer to remain in distance learning mode — especially when the alternative is to continue attending their same online course schedule from a classroom on-campus rather than from their own kitchen table.
“I get it — it’s not ideal for a lot of folks,” said LAUSD board member Mónica García, “but for the kids coming back, it’s a lifesaver.”
‘If I’m At School, I Know I’ll Finish it’
Pimentel is one of the students for whom in-person instruction could be especially meaningful. She’s supposed to graduate from high school this year, but is still well short of the credits she needs.
She’s enrolled in a school that can help: Simon Rodia High School, a “continuation school” in South Gate that’s specially designed to get off-track students back on course for graduation. Continuation schools offer stripped-down classes so that students can make up a lot of credits fast.
There are online versions of these courses, but Rodia principal Victorio Gutierrez said that for his students, there’s something about getting all the coursework in one thick paper packet that doesn’t quite translate over Zoom.
“They want something with paper,” Gutierrez said. “It’s weird. As much as they think they’re advanced with technology, paper is still a form of security for most of our kids and adults.”
Pimentel said she definitely prefers the paper packets — at Rodia, they’re called “contracts” — to the online versions. She said during the pandemic, she was more likely to “slack off” on assignments. She feels much more optimistic about finishing the work she needs for her diploma.
“If I’m at school,” Pimentel said, “I know I’ll finish [the work] … When I used to be at school, I used to finish my work all the time.”
With just six weeks left in the spring semester, graduation will be the most pressing challenge for many LAUSD students.
In March, 20% of all LAUSD high school seniors were missing at least one class they needed for a diploma. According to an analysis of district data by Great Public Schools Now, 43% of next year’s senior class is at least one class off-track.
‘Hoping There’s Quietness Here’
Some high school students heading back to LAUSD campuses say they need a place to escape the distractions of home.
At home, Naytelin Teodoro juggled her Zoom classes and caring for her 4-year-old brother. Now, she’s back on campus at Garfield High School.
“Taking care of my brother and also doing Zoom is a little hectic,” the high school senior said. “It gets a little draining. You have to feed the little kid and also do work, so it’s a lot.”
“In my house currently,” added Garfield senior Sarahai Cisneros, “it’s my family plus my grandparents. We don’t have a huge mansion; it’s a very small house. It gets frustrating trying to work with other people’s schedules.”
Another Garfield senior, Ivonne Ortega, said she’s also hoping to escape a “noisy house” — and she feels more likely to find calm on-campus, where she expects to attend classes in a room with just four other students.
“I’m hoping there’s quietness here,” Ortega said, “but if not, then I am going back home.”
We Won’t Have The Full Picture Until Next Year
On Tuesday, around 30 Rodia students gathered at cafeteria tables in the small school’s courtyard for a return-to-campus ceremony featuring music from a former student and a few words from LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner.
Then Rodia’s psychiatric social worker, Maria Vaquerano, stepped to the mic. Just showing up to campus, she told the students, was a huge step.
“You being back here,” Vaquerano told them, “shows that you’re so invested in completing your high school diploma. And you are not alone.”
Until the winter coronavirus surge, Vaquerano had visited students’ homes during the pandemic, giving her an up-close view of the burdens that students at Rodia are shouldering. Some are living in overcrowded quarters. Some are are experiencing homelessness. Some are grieving relatives lost to COVID-19.
And those are just the problems she knows about.
During distance learning, Vaquerano suspects other students have been hiding their problems from view in a very literal way: “Most of our students don’t turn on their camera on Zoom.”
“That has added to the isolation,” she said. “It’s not socially acceptable to turn on your camera, and so that continues that trend of, ‘I’m alone, nobody hears me, nobody sees me.’”
Vaquerano — who’s been with LAUSD for six years and a social worker for 15 — said the return to campuses will allow some Rodia students to return to familiar routines. Without routines, students lose motivation and struggle to move past traumas, she said.
However, Rodia’s principal expects only about one-quarter of the continuation school’s students back on campus this spring. That means some students’ struggles will remain out of Vaquerano’s view.
“We have a very miniscule idea of what their struggles really are,” Vaquerano said, “and I don’t think that we’ll be able to grab onto the full picture until we have them again back for full in-person learning next year.”