After challenging year of online school, Phoenix teacher returns to classroom

Mar 15, 2021, 4:55 AM | Updated: 8:44 am
Angelica Gaona, a fourth grade teacher in Phoenix's Alhambra Elementary School District, spent a ye...
Angelica Gaona, a fourth grade teacher in Phoenix's Alhambra Elementary School District, spent a year teaching from home because of the coronavirus pandemic. (KTAR News Photo/Griselda Zetino)
(KTAR News Photo/Griselda Zetino)

This story is part of KTAR News’ “Pandemic in Arizona: One Year In” special report on 92.3 FM, online and our app.

PHOENIX — After spending nearly a year teaching in front of a computer screen, Angelica Gaona headed back to her Phoenix classroom Monday.

She’s a fourth-grade teacher in the Alhambra Elementary School District, which is welcoming students back for in-person classes this week.

“I miss the kids so much,” she told KTAR News 92.3 FM. “That’s what I miss the most.”

Gaona began teaching virtually from her home last March after Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman announced a statewide closure of schools over coronavirus concerns. At the time, 13 coronavirus cases had been confirmed in Arizona.

“We went on spring break and didn’t come back,” Gaona said. “Everything changed to only online.”

And it hasn’t been easy.

“Challenges include kids who only show up for a material they might have interest in,” she said.

Student participation dropped, assignments weren’t always turned in and students’ focus could drift while all instruction was virtual.

“My kids might say, ‘I’m going to make breakfast for my sibling,’ or, ‘My mom asked me to take care of the baby while she makes us breakfast,’” she said.

Gaona teaches at a Title I school, meaning many students come from low-income families. The vast majority qualify for free or reduced lunch.

At home, they often don’t have a dedicated space to do their online schoolwork and some have faced internet challenges.

“Kids will tell me, ‘My mom hasn’t paid the internet. That’s why I was gone for the past two days,’” Gaona said, adding many parents weren’t aware that the district could help them connect to free Wi-Fi.

Gaona has 28 students in her class. She worries that only four or five will be ready for fifth grade while the rest “have really fallen behind.”

“There’s definitely going to be a lot of gaps to fill. The amazing thing about kids, though, is their minds grow so much better than adults. I know that we can catch them up, but I know they’re not prepared,” she said.

She adds she tries to consider how severely disrupted learning has been for her students over the past 12 months.

The 2019-20 school year ended with students learning from home after Ducey and Hoffman extended the closures, citing health and safety concerns over the coronavirus.

The governor announced in late June that public district and charter schools would have to delay the start of in-person learning until at least Aug. 17 as the state grappled with an increase in COVID-19 cases.

Many schools started the new academic year with online learning and gradually began welcoming students back to campuses. By late February, about 60% of Arizona schools were offering some form of in-person learning.

Earlier this month, the governor noted that health experts have deemed schools safe and ordered them to offer students an in-person learning option by March 15 or after returning from spring break. Schools were also ordered to continue offering an online learning option for families not yet ready to send their kids back.

For the first time in about a year, the Alhambra Elementary School District in west Phoenix opens its doors in to students on Tuesday. Teachers were due on campus Monday to prepare.

Gaona said she feels better about returning to her classroom now that she has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I feel like I’m better protected,” she said. “But I’m still nervous about coming home.”

She said she is afraid of contracting the virus at school, even though she’s protected from its effects. She worries about bringing it home to her unvaccinated husband and three kids.

Still, Gaona tries to stay optimistic and looks to other schools that have reopened with mitigation measures in place.

“They’ve done it successfully,” she said. “So I’m excited but nervous about coming back.”

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After challenging year of online school, Phoenix teacher returns to classroom