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For months, as some school districts across Orange County reopened classrooms, Santa Ana Unified School District officials held off as high virus case rates in the surrounding neighborhoods – among the highest in the county –  made opening impossible.

That’s forced students to quickly navigate the ups and downs of online learning, with mixed results for many. 

Annie Velasco, a 16-year-old junior at Santa Ana High School, said when the pandemic hit she was relieved to stay at home but after months of distance learning she now feels constantly tired and annoyed by the workload.

“Our teachers and our administrators aren’t taking into account that again, we are in the middle of a pandemic. A lot of students have other things going on,” Velasco said. “It’s so unrealistic to expect students to be working at the same pace and at the same quality, as when we were there physically.” 

Velasco said the student voice should be the most important right now.

“Why wouldn’t you include (the) student voice when you’re thinking about the decisions that are going to affect our learning and our education? I feel like administrators and teachers need to be listening more to how we’re feeling,” she said.

Annie Velasco outside her home in Santa Ana on Oct. 16, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Santa Ana Unified School District Board Member John Palacio said he understands Velasco’s point.

“That’s something that we’re learning as to who our stakeholders should be but it’s moving very, very quickly. Remember, in mid March, just with very little notice, school districts in California closed down,” Palacio said. “I think we can always do better.”

Velasco also said that since the pandemic her grades have slipped because she feels unmotivated. 

Leal recognized these challenges and said that the district is looking to offer more support to students.

“We’re working to offer some additional tutoring, we’re working with our teachers, so they can provide more office hours,” Leal said. “But we do realize that this is kind of new and we are trying to adjust as we go.”

He added that the district’s board of education will be looking at possibly adjusting grading policies at their meeting later today.

Despite her concerns with distant learning, Velasco said she plans to continue online when the district launches a hybrid program because she has access to good internet connection and wants to leave spots open for students who need to be back in the classroom.

Velasco added that Santa Ana students are the ones who need to be back in the classroom the most but will be the among the last to return.

“There’s so many struggles that people who live in Santa Ana face that you wouldn’t see in other South OC cities,” Velasco said. “They don’t need to go back to the physical, they want to do that. Whereas here in Santa Ana, we need to but we understand the health risks. We have the most to lose if we go back and we get infected and we bring it home to our families.”

Palacio said the school district received over $70 million dollars in Coronavirus assistance from the federal government.

The district has been providing Chromebooks and Hotspots to students who need them. 

“My school offers hotspots. They can give you a free hotspot but I got one and it’s not the best to be honest,” said 16-year-old Omar Villa, another student at Santa Ana High School.

Omar Villa is one of many Santa Ana students who have been doing distance learning since the start of the pandemic. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Leal said the district’s long term solution to internet connectivity issues is their hybrid instructional model which they hope to start offering in January if Coronavirus rates continue to decrease. The district is also looking at providing more tech support for students.

Villa said what excites him about a new school year typically is the chance to meet new people and now he barely gets to talk to anyone.

“I try to encourage conversations in breakout rooms but the thing is, it’s always just silent. No one says anything. I know people that are super social and now with online school they’re introverts,” Villa said.

Despite this Villa too thinks it’s not yet time to reopen.

Students who are learning to speak English also face challenges with distance learning.

“Online learning is hard because you get distracted easily, and also because all the teachers only speak english,” said 16-year-old Kaylee Hernandez, another student at Santa Ana High School. “ I know that not everyone speaks Spanish, but it would be helpful if someone at the school could help us.” 

Hernandez says the pandemic also presents special challenges.

“Since I am going to school from home, I have added responsibilities. I have to clean, cook, for my brother and dad. We live in a 1 bedroom house. My dad and I share a room, which is also our living room,” she said. “Privacy can be hard because I’m in a small space, sometimes my dad doesn’t have work because of the pandemic so he stays home and I have school, so the space becomes tight.”

Kaylee Hernandez lives with her father in a one bedroom home where she attends her classes online. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Hernandez said after classes she messages her teachers to translate for her which they do. When she was in school Hernandez and her non-english speaking friends would all help each other.

“We have a high concentration of English learners so we do have support for them. But again, because of our kind of online environment, reaching them isn’t always easy as before,” Leal said. “It’s one of those things where we have to find those students or those students have to reach out to us because in this environment, it’s just harder to work with students one on one.”

Leal said finding students who need additional help has been a challenge regardless if the student speaks English or not.

The district launched a learning lab pilot program on Nov. 9 at three schools which they plan to scale up by the end of the year. The lab will allow a small group of students with the most needs to come to school and do their distance learning from there under supervision and with safety measures in place.

The labs debuted at Madison Elementary, Valley High School and McFadden Intermediate School.

Leal also said there are wellness centers opened at schools where students can go for mental health support as well. Due to the pandemic, schools are scheduling students to use the center to limit the amount of students inside.

Palacio said there is more the district can do to support students and that they need to.

“This is a kind of a learning experience for us and we’re learning as we go. We’re not alone. School districts are all going through it,” Palacio said.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

Julie Leopo is the Director of Photography for the Voice of OC. Contact her at jleopo@voiceofoc.org

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