When high school senior Jesse Yebra needs to get away from it all, he goes on long drives to pick up food in his old neighborhood on the other side of town.
“It’s just relaxing to me. Like music on, windows down. Just driving, cruising anywhere. Like, if you ask me to go anywhere I’ll just go anywhere I need to go,” said Jesse, who recently turned 18.
He and his two younger sisters, Jessette and Jesseña, have been in virtual learning since the start of the pandemic. Standing in the front yard of their house on the near North East Side of San Antonio, the teenagers describe the long months of online school as both boring and frustrating.
The stress and strain of living through a pandemic — while learning virtually for an entire year — has hurt the attendance records of many Texas students, including the Yebra siblings’.
Districts have ironed out some of the problems with access to technology identified early last year, but some of the challenges of learning from home aren’t easy to solve. Still, despite the Yebra family’s struggles with virtual learning, they’re not ready to go back to the classroom.
“I feel like in person’s better for me. I went for a week still in-person because I had testing to do and I liked it,” Jesse said. “But the whole, like, Zoom stuff — I’m not real comfortable with that. So that’s why my attendance isn’t as great. But my grades are good.”
Jesse and his younger sisters do their assignments, but they’re not always on Zoom. And that’s the main way their district counts attendance.
The Yebras find it difficult to keep track of all their passwords and Zoom links — and what link to use when.
“If you’re not on (and) if you like, don’t do certain things, then they’ll count you absent the whole day,” said Jessette. She’s 15 and in 9th grade.
“I do as much percent as I can. Like, if there’s a bunch of links, I’ll do all of them. But if I don’t know them, then I’ll try my best. But sometimes it’s hard to do it.”
Jessette and her younger sister Jesseña are also self-conscious about being on video on Zoom. They’ve never met any of their teachers or classmates because they’re in a new school.
“I get so nervous when I join,” said Jesseña, who’s 13 and in 8th grade. “Because they want me to talk and I don’t know anybody.”
Jessette’s half-grown cat, Prince Valiant, pounces on leaves in their front yard at our feet while we talk. He’s their pandemic pet — a bright spot in a challenging year.
Their mom, Trista Yebra, said she tries to help her kids stay organized, but the situation is overwhelming for her too.
“I have three kids, so it’s not just one password; it’s all their passwords. And then they (each) have eight teachers,” Trista said.
She encourages her kids to take breaks to de-stress because she knows they’re doing the best they can — she’s right there with them trying to learn the technology. But it’s not the kind of situation she wants to punish her kids for.
“They’re not going to learn yelling and screaming,” Trista said. “I’m on them, but not like if they were going to school and skipping. Like, ‘What are you doing? You’re grounded. Give me the phone.’ It’s not like that. That dynamic is not even on the table.”
Back in November, Trista got a phone call that took her by surprise. It was a nonprofit working with her kids’ school district in San Antonio. They wanted to find out why her three kids were missing so much school and how they could help.
“And I was like, ‘Why?’ You know, we’re trying to figure out why (because I was with the kids) on the computer,” Trista said.
That’s when Trista found out the kids were being marked absent because they weren’t attending their Zoom lessons. Until then, the Yebras thought everything was fine because they saw their kids doing schoolwork.
Emily Martinez helped the Yebras figure out why their attendance was poor. She works for the nonprofit Communities in Schools. Her job is to help families reconnect to school during virtual learning.
“They’re not doing well sitting in front of the computer,” Martinez said. “A lot of them are not motivated. But the families are scared. They’re afraid to send them back during this pandemic.”
Martinez said it’s pretty common for the kids she works with to miss their Zoom classes. Sometimes their internet cuts out right when they need to log in; sometimes the kids don’t log in at the right time.
Internet access has been one of the biggest barriers to virtual learning since the beginning of the pandemic. And it continues to be a problem.
“We’ve got some big families, and that’s a big challenge,” Martinez said. “Seven, eight kids in the household, and trying to get everybody logged on to their devices, sharing that internet space.”
‘We Can’t Risk It’
Officials with the North East Independent School District, where the Yebras are enrolled, said they’re doing everything they can to help out.
Students who miss their Zoom classes can still get their attendance counted for the day if they turn in an assignment by the end of the day. However, there is an expectation that students will be on Zoom for the designated times for live instruction.
“It’s really important that our students are receiving the live instruction from the teacher. Nothing replaces that,” said Jennifer Gutierrez, executive director of elementary education at NEISD.
The district has partnered with Martinez’s nonprofit to reach out to families they see struggling with virtual learning and encourage them to come back in person.
But that’s not an easy decision for some families to make with the risk of getting the coronavirus still looming.
The Yebra kids want to go back to school, but their parents are worried they could get sick again. The whole family got COVID-19 in September.
“It hurts. That’s all I could say — it just hurts. And you can’t sleep because the pain hurts so much,” said Trista. “You don’t get rest when you have it. And then my husband, he was hurting — it would hurt him when he would breathe. And his body would just get so weak.”
Trista’s husband, also called Jesse, is an electrician. He couldn’t work — or bring in a paycheck — for six weeks while he was sick. Months later, the Yebras are still trying to catch up on bills.
“We had a family meeting, and my husband was like, ‘No, we can’t risk it. Because if I get sick again, then who’s gonna take care of this family?’ We’ve already been hit once,” said Trista.
The Yebras are afraid if the kids go back to school they could bring the virus back home. So for now they’re muddling through as best they can, taking it one Zoom lesson at a time.