Fourth grade teacher Tia Tsosie-Begay in her new classroom. 

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman first announced March 15 that schools would be closed short-term and then a final announcement came on March 30 that schools would be closed for the remainder of the semester. 

Many Tucson students returned to the classroom in late March in little digital squares on Zoom and other video conference platforms from their homes, the first time they've seen their teachers and classmates in weeks. 

For those with internet access, they log on to their schools' learning portals and complete tasks virtually, others complete assignments from work packets or books prepared by their district or teachers. This is what school looks like for the rest of the school year during the coronavirus pandemic — completely new territory for many students and their teachers. 

We spoke with three local teachers for a series about their experiences so far.

This is the first installment. 

Tia Tsosie-Begay, teaches fourth grade at Borton Elementary School in TUSD

The emotions hit Tia Tsosie-Begay two weeks ago, on a Tuesday afternoon while standing in her empty classroom at Borton Elementary School. The fourth-grade teacher broke down in tears looking around the room trying to make decisions about what to take home. At that point school closures had only been announced through April 10 and the veteran teacher of 16 years had only been told to prepare for remote teaching and to collect whatever she might need from her classroom.

She didn't know what format she'd be using, what content would be covered or if she'd be able to return to class again. 

"It was really heartbreaking, and it was heartbreaking for a lot of teachers to go back to their classroom," she says.

In the end she took binders of things related to her prep for National Board Certification, expensive LEGO robots that she wanted to keep safe, books about teaching math using models and a classroom cooperative learning book.

She also took a copy of "Rebound" by Kwame Alexander, the read-aloud book the class was in the middle of before they left for spring break on March 12, the last time they were all together and before any school closures had been announced.

Some of her colleagues had made big lists of things and were taking home crates full of supplies.  

Many students don't have internet

Then she started making calls to parents and students. Many students rely on school for food so her first priority was to ask if they had enough food resources and about their well-being and how they were feeling. She also checked to see who had access to devices and internet connectivity, doing what she could to help prepare her class for the transition to learning online, even though the district hadn't yet shared what curriculum they would be teaching.

The big thing being considered was equity and figuring out how students who don't have online access could have the same opportunities as their peers. 

"If they're not connected online, how are we getting the information to them? It makes our most vulnerable population even more at risk," she says.  

About 15 of her 20 students have internet access. But that doesn't mean reliable WiFi, many parents use data plans on their phones or other devices to access the internet. As of Monday, March 30, the first day remote learning began in earnest for TUSD, about 16 of her students were online and able to access learning materials that way.

For the other four, Tsosie-Begay had been calling to see how she could help and trying to help get them connected. She spent about an hour on the phone with one of her students trying to troubleshoot with him, but his internet kept dropping and audio was limited on the older device he was using. They had been working on getting him set up over the course of four days and ultimately decided that using a work packet the district was distributing would be better for him. His grandparents, with whom he stays, agreed. At that point there were still two families she hadn't been able to personally connect with. 

"My new job is practically 25 percent teacher and 50 percent tech support," she says. "The other part of my time is planning time with my teammates."

Learning to use Zoom

Last week Tsosie-Begay and her colleagues started trying to connect with each other and plan through Zoom, a program she had only recently used for a troop leader meeting set up by one of of her Girl Scout sisters. 

"The first meeting was like 'hey, look at us video conferencing!' What does this button do? Oh no, don't do that!" she says. 

Then they began to think about how to use the technology with their students, thinking about its shortcomings and coming up with classroom management strategies. Tsosie-Begay set up Zoom meetings with her students and families so they could get comfortable with the technology and started to keep notes to add to her classroom norms.

Her students learned to enter the meeting on mute, to take turns talking and how to raise their virtual hand when they wanted to answer a question. They learned that Zoom classroom time isn't show and tell with your pets time, that even if you're on mute the whole class can still see the funny faces you're making and perhaps most importantly, that you have to wear a shirt to a Zoom meeting. 

The district released the fourth grade math content on Saturday, March 28 and the English Language Arts content on Sunday, March 29. The content was based on standards that are most frequently assessed on standardized tests and benchmarks, but it was all content her class had already covered earlier in the year. 

"Instead of doing new content, we're going back to review old content," she says. "I'm supposed to be in geometry at this point, I'm supposed to be doing angles and vectors, but instead I'm going back to teaching multiplicative comparison which is one that we had done earlier in the year. So it's more review and less new content." 

She says it makes sense to review instead of teaching something new because teachers and students alike are all adjusting to this new format. 

"There are so many things that we have to teach our kids how to do, so if the teachers take at least two to three Zooms to really understand how to work in a Zoom, then our students are going to take about a week to learn how to use Zoom in an educational environment," she says. 

"I think that as teachers we kind of felt like we got the rug pulled out from under us, but then as we started to work in this remote learning... I  felt like 'oh, we still are good teachers, we still know how to teach routines, we just need to put it into a new format,'" she says. "So, in my brain I just had to make that switch and now I feel like OK, I know what I'm doing now, for the most part." 

A new way to learn

Tsosie-Begay's weekly schedule for her first week of classes included two Zoom meetings a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon so that students could attend the one that worked best for them. That's where she goes over the assignments for the day, a combination of six different tasks that students can do in whatever order they choose.

Three of the assignments don't need to be turned in and include things like, finding ways to connect with nature — keeping in line with Borton's outdoor learning focus — playing virtual instruments in place of the music classes they would have normally been taking, an art scavenger hunt their art teacher put together and independent reading.

The first day they had a math assessment in Eureka Math, one of the online learning programs the district uses, so she could see what students remembered and what they needed to review. She's starting a genius hour, where students will listen to NPR stories about animals with unusual talents and then eventually choose their own animal to research and present to the class about. 

The work packets for students who can't connect online align with the same standards Tsosie-Begay is teaching, but the actual content and lessons are different from what their peers are doing online. She's setting up conference calls with those four students so they can go over the packets together and answer any questions they have. 

"You're going to teach underwater"

All of her parents have her cell phone number and can call her during her office hours with any questions they have. 

"It's extremely overwhelming and I feel like I'm doing this massive overhaul on everything that I have learned to do," she says. "It's taking what you have been trained to do and kind of saying well, here's a whole new format. Instead of having small groups and being able to manage a large environment, now we're going to change up your environment, now you're going to teach underwater."

She also has her own three children at home, a sixth-grader, a first-grader and a preschooler who are also working on their own work.

She says it's been a lot of work figuring out the most effective way to get things done, but understands that this isn't something anybody was prepared to do. 

"This is not normal teaching, it's not even regular remote teaching... students did not choose to go into a remote learning environment, teachers did not choose going to a remote learning environment, instead we're forced into this environment based on the pandemic," she says. "And it's a different type of learning, a different type of schooling where kids are being forced to do things that they might not be comfortable doing." 

And there's also the grief that she and other teachers are feeling about the abrupt end to their school year. 

"There's certain things that you do for closure, like you would make a yearbook with your class, you give them little gifts for the summertime, you say those final words... and it's not gonna happen," she says. "There are kids who didn't come to the last day of school because they went on vacation early or they were sick and we won't ever see them until next year." 

Despite the stress and sadness that's been part of life the last few weeks, Tsosie-Begay is extremely proud of all the work educators and schools are doing to continue to support their children in all areas from making sure they can still get meals to being able to continue learning. 

"Give us some room to make lots of mistakes because we're all learning new things. We're learning what works and what doesn't... we're doing our best to communicate. I don't think there's a teacher out there who's just like 'well, this is it. This is the end of it,'" she says. "I think that every teacher really is trying to make the best of the situation at this point."  

She's also encouraged by all the ways she's seeing families and kids are spending quality time together and making learning fun instead of frustrating. 

"I've seen parents be like 'oh my gosh, my kid was so bored they built this thing out of boxes,' and I'm like 'Yes! We need creative learning', or 'Oh, my god, my kids are so bored we went for a long walk for the third time this week,' and I'm like 'Yes! We need to be outdoors, we need to be with our families.' It's almost like a revitalization of things we used to do all the time. They're all really positive and great things," she says. "Families are cooking together again, they're eating together, they're creating art and they're finding new ways to be a family." 

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