Meet Jyla and Citlali: kindergartener and high school senior offer lens into online learning

When the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools last spring, teachers and families braced for a brief interruption of a few weeks.

Instead, the abrupt and often stumbling shift to virtual learning bled from one school year to the next. For half a year, students have entered classrooms through computer screens and connected with schoolmates on video conferences, while teachers improvised online lessons.

Schools scrambled to reimagine education for an era of quarantine, and entered the fall semester better prepared to stream math, science and reading lessons into millions of homes. Despite those ubiquitous live feeds, it’s unclear how well students are learning.

Are online lessons capturing their attention, or leaving their eyes glazed-over from long hours of screen-time? Do they understand teachers’ instructions, and know how to pose questions if they don’t? Do younger students and those with disabilities risk falling behind developmentally? And are those nearing graduation destined for uncertain futures?

The San Diego Union-Tribune is following two students as they navigate the new terrain of virtual learning this school year. We’ll explore what’s working and what isn’t, and what their successes and stumbling blocks are amid this unplanned experiment in online education.

Jyla Berry-Woods is a kindergartener at McKinley Elementary School in San Diego, and is part of a learning pod that her parents organized with other families to support their children, as well as their neighborhood school. Citlali Medina is a senior at Del Lago Academy in Escondido who is also enrolled in a biology class at Palomar College, serves as a student representative on the school board, and cares for her grandmother, while juggling high school coursework online.

Their stories illustrate the challenges facing different grade levels. For early elementary school students, assembling the building blocks of education such as early literacy, math and social skills, is very different on screen than in person, and requires a level of focus that’s hard for young kids to sustain. High school students, by contrast, are completing the capstones of their education, planning for college and career, and entering young adulthood in a world that’s largely shut down.

The two girls and their families also offer a glimpse of the resources available to students, the challenges they face, and their resourcefulness in adapting to virtual education. We will follow them as they delve into online learning, and hopefully return to campus, albeit with masks and social distancing.

Jyla Berry-Woods

Jyla Berry-Woods (center), plays in the front yard with her moms, Jualeah Woods (left) and Jennifer Berry (right)

Jyla Berry-Woods (center), plays in the front yard with her moms, Jualeah Woods (left) and Jennifer Berry (right) in San Diego on September 24, 2020.

(Ariana Drehsler / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

For Jyla, the kindergarten classroom might be her family’s back deck in North Park, the living room at a friend’s home, or other spots where her learning pod meets each day from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Although some parents have formed learning pods as a homeschooling alternative to public school, Jyla’s group serves to complement the students’ online classes at McKinley Elementary School.

Jyla’s mothers, Jen Berry and Jualeah “Y” Woods, formed the group with four other families from the school, and take turns hosting the kindergarteners on weekly rotations. Berry tapped two friends from the theater community to serve as alternating tutors for the group. Throughout the morning, the instructors troubleshoot technical glitches, keep students focused, and make sure they understand their assignments. After lunch, they lead them in games, crafts or drama exercises.

“When we hired the pod teachers, we said we want (our children) to learn to read, and we want them to keep the love of learning,” Berry said.

So far, that seems to be working. On a recent afternoon after school, Jyla happily explained the various learning programs she uses for class and with her tutors.

“It’s actually great,” said the lively 5-year-old with wavy blond hair and pink glasses. “We do a lot of stuff. After Seesaw, we always do Prodigy. It helps your brain learn better because it’s all about math. You pick your wizards and you sign in. You can get your own pets. You get one for free and the others you have to battle for.”

After their school work is completed, they often do art projects, such as the paper crowns they made that day for a classmate’s birthday. On other days they drew an otter or colored a rainbow bear. Students earn stickers if they’re good, but not if they’re naughty, Jyla said; she always earns stickers. As in any kindergarten class, kids can get a little squirrelly; earlier that day, one of her pod classmates impulsively plunked his laptop down at her feet.

“Henry moved under my desk to work,” she said. “He just wanted to move under my desk, and I was like ‘What the…!;”

Jyla Berry-Woods (right), jumps on the trampoline in the backyard

Jyla Berry-Woods (right), jumps on the trampoline in the backyard while her moms, Jualeah Woods (left) and Jennifer Berry (center) look on in San Diego on September 24, 2020.

(Ariana Drehsler / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Unlike some kindergarteners, Jyla has a point of comparison with traditional school. She started transitional kindergarten at McKinley last year, but that was cut short in March, when COVID-19 forced school closures throughout the country. Although schools stepped in with online classes in the following weeks, most parents and educators acknowledge that it wasn’t ideal. Her family is hopeful that this school year will turn out better.

“After two weeks in the spring, she was like, ‘I’m done with this, this is too hard,’” Berry said. “Now they are prepared, they were ready. They have lesson plans. They gave us packets.”

Still, they knew that Jyla would need more support to learn, and they would require help to get their own work done. Woods is a women’s basketball coach at the University of California Irvine. Berry works for After School All Stars, a Los Angeles-based program for low-income youth, and is also completing a doctoral degree.

The learning pod supports students’ learning and provides the social interaction that’s crucial for Jyla, a social butterfly whom her mothers playfully refer to as “the mayor of North Park.” Importantly, it also provides affordable childcare for the working parents. At $35 per hour, split between fiveTK students, it’s not inexpensive, but still more cost-effective than other childcare options, which offer less school support at higher prices, Berry said.

Although working from home presents challenges, it has also brought unexpected benefits for the family. Woods had been off work with her team during the pandemic, and just recently returned to training. Berry does her work remotely, and expects to continue that way.

“We’ve never had jobs that allowed that time,” Woods said. “We were like ships passing in the night. I’ve been happy that we’ve got to have family nights.”

Although it can be hectic with a 5-year-old at home, they’re grateful for the reprieve from long commutes, and extra time with their daughter.

“The silver lining is I get to be with her, give her a bath every night, and make dinner,” Berry said. “I’ve been able to do gardening, and get outside and create an entire park for her and her friends out of recycled materials.”

The summer brought new distress for their family, when the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor opened old wounds. Woods is Black, Berry is White, and Jyla, despite her blond hair and fair skin, is mixed race, Berry said.

“The murder of George Floyd really hit our family really hard,” Berry said. “Our first family outing (after the pandemic closures) was a Black Lives Matter March for kids with McKinley families.”

That kind of neighborhood spirit is what kept them committed to their local school, and determined to make virtual learning work, they said. It’s a shared sentiment among many McKinley families in the close-knit school community, said Principal Debra Ganderton. They know that if they pull their student out for the fall, the school will lose funding, which could cause setbacks in subsequent years, she said.

“Our parents are making accommodations so that they can make public school online education work for them,” she said.

Citlali Medina

Citlali Medina (center), walks with her parents Crispin (right) and Florencia (left)

Citlali Medina (center), walks with her parents Crispin (right) and Florencia (left) at Grape Day Park in Escondido on September 25, 2020. Citlali feels her classes are going well so far but misses her friends.

(Ariana Drehsler / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In some ways, senior year is proceeding as planned for Citlali Medina, a 12th-grader at Del Lago Academy, a health sciences magnet school in Escondido. She plans to pursue a career in nursing, and is completing credits she needs for graduation and college entry, including AP statistics, AP English, medical interventions and American government. That leaves her enough time to get a head start on a biology class at Palomar College, and to serve as a student representative on the Escondido Union High School District Board.

On the other hand, everything is different. All of her classes take place remotely, instead of in the state-of-the-art labs and classrooms at Del Lago. In lieu of managing a full day of classes, she’s grappling with software glitches and wifi failures.

An internship she started at Palomar Medical last spring was suspended because of the pandemic, and the after-school tutoring program she volunteered for previously is on hold as well.

On top of her schoolwork, she’s caring for her grandmother, who is 88 and has vision impairment, while her parents are at work. This is her final year to bond with high school friends, but it’s not the same at a distance.

“I’m still staying in contact with friends, even in quarantine,” said Citlali, 17. “I do miss them. My best friend at school, this is the year we actually have classes together, but we don’t really have school.”

Still, with close to 50,000 COVID-19 cases countywide, including more than 2,000 in Escondido, she’s content to stay home.

“I do like it because I’m home, and I feel safe,” she said. “With this pandemic, it created an anxiety in me a little bit. I have allergies so if I wake up in the morning, I worry, ‘oh no!’ I wonder if I have COVID.”

The first week or two of virtual school was a little hectic, she said, with login problems at Del Lago. And a lab simulation on ionic and covalent bonds for her college biology class didn’t work properly. Since then, the high school has held tech advisory sessions that helped her work out the computer problems, and the biology class has gone more smoothly.

“Overall, I think it worked better than I expected,” she said. “Overall, I didn’t end up hating it. I do like it, so I’m not really complaining about it.”

Citlali Medina (center), poses for a photo with her parents Crispin (left) and Florencia (right)

Citlali Medina (center), poses for a photo with her parents Crispin (left) and Florencia (right) at Grape Day Park in Escondido on September 25, 2020.

(Ariana Drehsler / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Part of that might be the school’s longstanding use of online learning systems, even before pandemic struck, Principal Ruth Hellams said. The school opened in fall of 2013, with digital learning as part of the curriculum. From the start, students have been issued iPads for schoolwork, and a couple of years ago the school began using Canvas, a virtual learning platform that many other schools have adopted this year in response to COVID-19 closures.

Her father, Cristin Medina, agrees that his daughter was primed for virtual learning before it became a necessity.

“For this girl, in this grade, it’s not a problem,” he said. “She’s always been working like this, on a tablet or computer.”

Her parents say they’re sympathetic to families with younger children who need constant supervision for virtual learning, and count themselves lucky for their daughter’s self-reliance.

“For us it isn’t very difficult, because she’s older and responsible,” said her mother, Florencia Medina.

When her mother looked into getting help for her grandmother while she and her husband are at their jobs in housekeeping and gardening, Citlali offered to take over. Amid the disruption of COVID-19, many teens are stepping in to help with younger siblings or older relatives, say educators, who are conscious of that extra workload for students. In between lessons Citlali eats breakfast with her grandma, and helps keep track of her when she becomes disoriented in the apartment.

“She said, ‘I can do it,’” Cristin Medina said. “But yes, it is distracting. It’s either a little sister or a grandmother.”

Citlali said she has enjoyed the time with her grandmother, but also looks forward to reconnecting with friends when her school reopens.

“I do miss them, and spending lunch with them,” she said. “I know that even if we go back, it’s going to be really different.”

On Sept. 8, Citlali attended her first meeting as a student representative to the school board, where she explained the “tech Zooms” that Del Lago Academy holds each morning to help students with digital glitches, and highlighted virtual events, including an alumni panel, talent show and spirit week. After weeks of studying online, she found herself at ease on the school board Zoom meeting.

“I feel like I was less nervous than I would be in person,” she said.

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