Back to school: Long lines, barren parking lots, mute button among first day impressions

EDINBURG — If there are any advantages to suffering through a global pandemic, one of them must surely be parking.

At least it seemed that way at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley on Monday, the first day of school for the fall 2020 semester. Lots at the Edinburg campus that would usually be packed with vehicles and circled by cars searching for a spare space like vultures were mostly vacant, the result of most of the university’s courses being taught virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although some courses at UTRGV and South Texas College, which also started Monday, will be in person, the majority of students can expect to spend the semester learning through their computer screen.

There were still cars in the lots and students and professors on campus at UTRGV on Monday, but there were markedly less than there would be in a normal year. Like at South Texas College, some UTRGV courses that don’t readily translate to virtual curriculum will be taught in person with social distancing measures in place.

Walkways at UTRGV that would usually be bustling with students and filled with booths representing extracurricular organizations looking to snag new members for the year were largely deserted Monday.

Kiosks meant to hold The Rider, UTRGV’s university newspaper were mostly empty. The few yellowed copies that hadn’t been claimed were from March, before the pandemic shut down campus.

A few places were more crowded. There was a line of masked people outside the visitor’s center and another in the library, mostly students who had stopped by to pick up books and supplies.

Elizabeth Newton, 18, was one of the students standing in that long, socially distanced line for the bookstore. Newton, a freshman, says she certainly didn’t imagine the school year kicking off the way it did.

“I was kind of excited to have everybody on campus at the same time, and COVID kind of ruined that,” she said. “COVID kind of ruined everything.”

Newton brought her friend to campus Monday and spent part of the morning at the library, going over the syllabus in an online class.

She says she’ll likely spend lots of time doing online classes in the library; there’s free internet, afterall.

“I never thought I would take an online class, I always thought I would do it in person. It’s just kind of new getting into the weird groove of things just having things online,” she said. “I like having an in-person interaction.”

McAllen ISD’s 22,000-odd students also started a completely virtual curriculum slated to last at least four weeks Monday.

Mark May, spokesman for McAllen ISD, said the school district will have first day attendance numbers available this week.

Among those that returned to a virtual learning environment was Erika Peña’s fourth grade Victor Fields Elementary class.

An hour-long video provided by the district showed Peña teaching her students synchronously for part of their morning. The class went over schedules, rules and the semester’s first assignment, with Pena using slideshows and videos to get the point across.

In many ways, despite being entirely online, the class had a lot of similarities with a traditional one.

Peña’s students, for example, were just as chatty as every group of fourth graders seeing their friends again after the summer break.

She steered the students back to paying attention when they spoke out of turn or went off topic on the class’ group chat.

For the most part they paid attention, but there was one instance in which a student who wasn’t staying quiet illustrated a new strategy for keeping order in the teacher’s toolbox: the mute button.

“I am muting you right now because you are not following the directions,” she said. “I asked you to raise your hand and unmute yourself, OK?”

Other things stood out in contrast to a traditional class.

Peña’s students were set up in a variety of homemade classrooms: they sat at kitchen tables, on couches, in bedrooms and even in a home gym, little portals into the children’s lives and into Peña’s.

At one point her cat, Jackson, pushed his way into her room and meowed off-screen, prompting a flurry of messages from the class about their own pets.

There were a few minor hiccups, like videos loading slowly and students having trouble adjusting the volume on their headphones, but for the most part the class went along smoothly. Still, online learning is a substitute for face-to-face instruction and it didn’t appear to be the preferred way to learn for any of Peña’s students.

“School without corona was better,” one of the kids said in the group chat early in the class. Several of his classmates echoed the sentiment.

Peña paused for a moment and looked sympathetic.

“I know…,” she said. “I really want to be live in class with you all, but safety is first, right?”