EDINBURG — Linda Davila-Macal, a seventh grade reading teacher at BL Garza Middle School, did not start the school year on the right foot.
She’d set her alarm to 5 p.m. instead of 5 a.m. Sunday, and woke up almost half an hour late Monday morning.
“I felt like I had just lost 27 crucial minutes,” she said.
The next two hours were a flurry of activity. Davila-Macal decided to cut makeup out of her routine for the moment, sacrificing it in favor of making breakfast, getting her own kids ready for school and replying to the stream of questions from parents that started sending her texts around 6:30 a.m.
Andres, one of Davila-Macal’s 8-year-old twins, couldn’t see the point in brushing his hair if he could just wear a hat. He didn’t see much point in putting on shoes either.
“Who cares what I wear on the bottom, nobody’s gonna see,” Andres said.
It took some wrangling, but Davila-Macal managed to get him groomed and geared up.
Daniela, Andres’ sister, took less work. Davila-Macal helped her braid her hair. Daniela even brought her mother a cup of coffee.
Detail-oriented and anxious, Daniela was bullied on campus, and online learning has been a reprieve.
“For her it’s been the best thing,” Davila-Macal said. “She’s so excited about working from home; Andres, not so much.”
At 8 a.m., Davila-Macal was in the playroom she’d converted into a makeshift classroom. Andres and Daniela in their bedrooms half an hour later. All three ready to start their first day of the 2020-21 school year.
Like educators across the nation, Davila-Macal is trying to adjust to a completely online learning curriculum; like parents across the nation, she’s trying to adjust to her children attending school from home.
Neither transition has been easy, and doing both at the same time is particularly difficult.
“I feel like my brain is just on overload,” Davila-Macal said, talking about the multiple training sessions she attended over the summer, training intended to teach the 46-year-old veteran teacher how to do a job that’s changed completely.
Davila-Macal, who has lost friends and family to COVID-19, thinks avoiding in-person instruction is important for the time being. That doesn’t mean she’s a fan of online education. Davila-Macal says gearing up for the school year has been a struggle that’s caused tears to fall and worries to pile up. She even had to drop out of her master’s program, faced with a schedule so full it she simply couldn’t find the time.
“I could teach reading with my eyes closed,” she said. “I know my lessons, I know what my composition book looks like. I know what fun activity I’m going to do with every single lesson. Now I have to recreate all those lessons to make them virtual so that my kids can do something online.”
Recreating those lessons and learning dozens of new teaching programs hasn’t been easy. Davila-Macal says she’s relied on her eldest daughter.
“These millennials have literally been my crutch. I’m not even joking. I sent Amazon gift cards yesterday because I am so grateful to these younger teachers that have this technology experience,” she said Monday. “And I feel bad for the teachers that are more years in. One of my best friends, she’s been teaching for 34 years and yesterday she just cried for about 30 minutes and said, ‘Why did I not retire in May?’”
Davila-Macal put that training to the test Monday, and for the most part the day went smoothly.
There was one issue, however.
At one point a student typed Trump 2020 and an expletive in the group chat.
“I immediately got on there and said, this is the best way to get kicked out of my class and out of level two on day one,” Davila-Macal said. “I said this chatroom is specifically for educational purposes. It is specifically for questions pertaining to reading, and it is specifically for questions on what you don’t understand in regards to my lecture. This is not for you to chit chat and mingle with your friends.”
Students can still be suspended or sent to the alternative campus, so there are consequences for misbehaving in virtual class, but Davila-Macal says her disciplinary toolkit is limited.
It’s hard to monitor classrooms made up of students with muted mics and turned-off cameras. It’s even harder for Davila-Macal, who teaches using humor and a no-nonsense attitude that keeps kids in line, to connect with her students.
“I can’t tell what’s going on at home, and they don’t know me,” she said. “They’re not going to connect with me the way they would in the classroom.”
Davila-Macal is worried about the children on the other end of those video chats. She and her wife were in a financial position to outfit their home with desks and chairs, but she knows that’s not a luxury every student will have.
She worries about the ones who don’t come from very good homes, the ones who would vent to her about problems at home when she was teaching on campus. She doesn’t know if they’re paying attention. She can’t tell if they’re awake, or even in the same room.
“It’s scary, on so many levels,” she said.
Davila-Macal is worried about her own kids too. Her schedule doesn’t exactly line up with theirs, and she can’t be ducking out of class to make sure they’re paying attention in their own classrooms.
Davila-Macal ran through the rules again Monday, reminding Andres that he couldn’t bother her for a snack and shouldn’t be snacking in class. Still, she says, distractions are inevitable when you’re teaching from home.
“If we’re in the classroom, we don’t have any interruptions other than a student getting in and out of the room to go to the restroom or an administrator walking in,” she said. “We don’t have kids asking for a snack or saying that they’re hungry.”
Davila-Macal says she lucked out Monday and her father came to help, making a pizza for a quick lunch and telling Andres he needed to shape up after he spoke out of turn in class again.
“He told the teacher that he didn’t think she was doing it right, that maybe I could teach her because I’m a teacher,” Davila-Macal said.
Tomorrow he’ll be back, but Davila-Macal’s father works and he can’t come every day. Her wife works too, and for the most part the twins are going to be on their own.
“I have to pray that they log on independently,” she said. I typed out a schedule for them, I typed out instructions on how to logon to Google Classroom, how to reconnect if for some reason the WiFi is down. I typed out passwords.”
Despite the mounting worries, Davila-Macal says she’s staying positive. She doesn’t have a choice.
“I’ve got to be positive and pray,” she said. “That’s all we can do.”