High school is more than an education. For some, it’s a lifeline.
The day was surreal. Students and teachers were wondering the same thing: “Were they really going to close the school?” None of us had experienced anything like this before. As we waited, we continued to teach as planned. When we finally received the email from our principal and superintendent about the closure, I waited until we had about 30 minutes left of class to tell my students. There was a mixture of feelings. Our students are from all over the school district, so a lot of them don’t have friends in their neighborhoods. A lot of them don’t have cars, so they knew they’d be isolated at home. Of course, there were kids who were excited about missing school for a month.
We expected and prepared enrichment work for a two-week closure. But like every other school, we’re closed indefinitely, several weeks later.
I work at Chaparral High School, a continuation school for Grossmont Unified School District in El Cajon, California, as the special education teacher specializing in math. I work with students who haven’t been successful at their comprehensive sites. Many arrive in my classroom because they were expelled or voluntarily transferred. We try to get them back on track so they can be successful when they return to their home schools. They’re with us for two semesters before they’re eligible to return. The district comes up with rehabilitation plans, which often include counseling, community service, and passing a certain number of classes.
Our school is small; we have fewer than 100 students and only seven full-time teachers. For a lot of our students, seeing adults who know them on a personal level, care for them, and are reliable, helps get them back on track and do well. In a lot of ways, Chaparral is like a family. We have the opportunity to make real connections with our kids.
A lot of these students don’t have a positive experience with school. Some got in trouble and have had numerous referrals. Other times, they made one bad choice and were kicked out of their original school. Many have had a long history of not being successful in the traditional school setting, which makes our connections with these students are so important. And this is what makes remote learning so difficult.
I’m worried about our students. I’m worried about their lack of structure and being unsupervised. I’m grateful that we have a stay-at-home order, but I hope that they are eating enough as many don’t have access to food now and received a free and reduced lunch during the school year.
My biggest fear: They will make some really bad choices. There are some students whose triggers and stressors come from school, but there are kids whose stressors are at home. For them, being at home all the time doesn’t put them in a good place. A lot of our students don’t have stability in their lives. We have kids that live in hotels or are bouncing around to relatives. So being able to come to school every day, see teachers, have people care about them and ask questions about themselves is really important for them. Not having that is difficult, and I hope they are getting what they need emotionally.
Before COVID-19, we had online courses, which I helped students complete on their Chromebooks in my classroom. Luckily the students can complete those classes from home. We also have kids taking construction and culinary classes, which don’t exactly lend themselves to distance learning. But math is really hard to teach online, especially because the curriculum we use is supposed to be team-based. It can also be challenging for parents to help with homework because the coursework is more difficult.
This closure will be challenging for our students, especially if they already have difficulties in school. A lot of times, our kids will only do the work because they want to make the teachers happy. We are there to share, lead, and check on their work. We keep them on track. And if we’re not there to do that, I’m afraid some of them are not going to do the work or they’re going to just give up. And that’s concerning to me. I hope we can figure out a way to still reach those kids. I miss them.
Buffy Bennett Flores ’94 is a special education teacher specializing in math at Chaparral High School in El Cajon, California. After graduating with a degree in literature from UC San Diego’s Marshall College, she began working at a small private school. She has worked in education for 26 years.
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