Students get connected by whatever means necessary

Second grader Luke Giese listens carefully to a lesson on Friday at the First United Methodist Church virtual support space. (Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

HARLINGEN — Eva Arozena had just spent the first half of her day logging in to class from the safety of familiar surroundings.

The fifth grader had been Zooming in to her teachers at Lee Means Fine Arts Academy in the company of classmates and adult mentors at the LeMoyne Gardens Unit of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harlingen.

It was Friday and Eva, 10, had just completed her first week of virtual learning in the Harlingen school district, in this most historical of all school years. It was the culmination of many months of preparation.

Eva and her classmates — and her teachers — have had to radically change the way they approach education because of the threat of COVID-19. Parents, children and educators are now in a state of accelerated learning as they adjust to online instruction from home.

The Harlingen school district went into overdrive this summer to ensure all students had connectivity at home, even distributing digital devices to children at their respective campuses. However, many children are connecting to their classrooms from learning centers like churches or the Boys and Girls Clubs. In fact, the district is in partnership with the B&GC for that very purpose. Students and adult mentors were all practicing social distance and wearing face masks.

“Some of our families are comprised of parents in which both of them work, so it’s a huge hardship,” said Veronica Kortan, administrator for organizational development at the Harlingen school district.

“Some of them are there, yes, because they’re not real comfortable with connectivity,” she said. “But they’re also there because maybe they may not have somebody to watch their kids. So some of our kids are there simply because both of their parents work so they need a place to be.”

That’s why Pastor J.J. Wicke opened the fellowship hall at First United Methodist Church for students.

“It kind of started with a personal need of my wife and I,” Wicke said. “We both work full time. We have two kids, a seven-year-old and a four-year-old. We were just at a point where, what do we do? We both have to go to work.’”

The district spent long hours leading up to the first day of school Sept. 8 preparing teachers and students. Parents were given a crash online course in Internet learning, and the district set up a help desk for anyone needing assistance. The first week rolled out surprisingly smooth, Kortan said.

“There have been a couple of little technology things that we had to fix on our end,” Kortan said. “We are working with parents as far as walking them through how to set up emails, get into classes and things like that.”

Parents have shown an impressive eagerness to learn about online instruction for their kids. On the first day of school, the help desk received about 1,800 requests for assistance.

“Our parents have been very patient and they’ve been reaching out, which I think is important,” Kortan said. “We can’t fix what we don’t know about, and so we have had a lot of contact with our parents.”

Kids like Eva have been very good about logging in at their scheduled class times, she said.

“They are very much engaged,” Kortan said. “As we look at how much engagement we’ve had around the district and what our attendance has been like, it’s very healthy.”

Eva was adjusting well to the new arrangement.

“I feel like they are doing their best to do whatever they can, so I appreciate it,” Eva said.

She gave a special nod to Sophie Cantu, unit director at LeMoyne.

“Sophie has helped me a lot and I am just so proud of them,” Eva said. “They are doing a lot of things and risking their lives to come and help us.”

While the first four weeks of school are all in virtual learning, the district will begin offering some face-to-face class time to those who prefer in person instruction, in accordance with state mandate.

twhitehead@valleystar.com