For 12th-grade science teacher Jamie Suzuki ’14, COVID-19 is a double-edged sword. It presents her with a unique teaching opportunity for her medical microbiology course, where she can connect what's happening in real life with the course material. But, at the same time, the virus—and the resulting lack of resources—poses her with unprecedented challenges.

“A lot of our kids don’t have internet access or laptops or computers,” said Suzuki, who works for Waco Independent School District’s (ISD) Career and Technical Education Department in Texas. “One of the biggest questions is what is online teaching going to look like when not all kids have access to the internet throughout the day.”

At Waco ISD, most of the students come from homes with limited means and resources. Waco’s median household income was $37,735 between 2014 and 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, $22,558 below the national average. When the schools closed, the first thing that the administration did was make sure that the free breakfast and lunch program continued to reach students, most of whom depend on it, said Suzuki. Then teachers and administration collaborated to identify the needs of students entering the virtual classroom on April 6.

Did the students need a laptop? Did they need an internet connection? Where were Wi-Fi hot spots around town to work from?

“There definitely is a resource gap at our school that you might not see at other schools in [the] district because we are not a one-to-one campus, where all students have an iPad or a computer,” she said, noting that the school has been providing devices for its students’ use during this period.

Jamie Suzuki
 

“For a lot of them, school is the place where they get to be a kid, and they get to hangout with their friends … It just worries me that that chance is kind of taken away from them, just their opportunity to worry about themselves, what they’re studying.” —Jamie Suzuki ’14

In the three weeks before going online, Suzuki set up her online classroom and touched base with her students. Suzuki and her colleagues, teaching the same group of more than 100 students, tried to reach out to every one of them to make sure they were equipped to continue their learning from home.

I miss all of you—that’s how Suzuki started off all of her messages to her students. She checked in with them about how they and their families were doing, shared resources they might need, and reminded them that she’s there if they need anything—including toilet paper (she was just joking).

Suzuki tries to bring some humor to her exchanges with students, knowing these are difficult times, particularly for her seniors, who have been thinking about prom and graduation for years.

“Especially the students we have that are first-generation-to-college students and sometimes the first ones in their family to graduate high school,” she said, knowing the graduation ceremony is an important milestone for the entire family. The school announced April 8 that the prom has been canceled.

Many of her students have adult-sized responsibilities outside of school, Suzuki said, from working to taking care of younger siblings. “For a lot of them, school is the place where they get to be a kid, and they get to hangout with their friends,” she said. “It just worries me that that chance is kind of taken away from them, just their opportunity to worry about themselves, what they’re studying.”

Moving online, Suzuki’s students will have a lot to juggle during this time, too. Some of them will be sharing a laptop with others in their family or continuing to work—maybe longer hours than usual.

“A lot of them have responsibilities that you need to consider when you put the courses together as well,” she said, a compassionate teacher, bearing in mind her students’ varying circumstances as she restructures eight sections of her medical microbiology and pathophysiology courses. “Picking out what are the most important things I want to teach them, keeping it simple, keeping it reasonable, [and] keeping it where every student can be successful have really been the focus of the past few weeks,” she said. But she’s also thinking about how she could transfer her courses back to in-person sessions. “I’m hopeful I’m going to get to see them again.”

Until then, she’s also looking for opportunities to build community within her online classroom. “Whenever I talk to my students now, they just say that they miss their friends, they miss being at school,” she said. “[I’m] looking for opportunities for them to share pictures of their pets and different fun things like that in the online space and take advantage of that; you might get opportunities that you wouldn’t get in the classroom.”

There is one more advantage of online teaching that’s emerging from technical difficulties. Because holding a Zoom or Google Hangouts meeting with her regular-size classes—about a dozen or so students—would be too burdensome for their connections, she’s holding smaller sessions.

“How many times do I get to sit down with three or four students for twenty minutes at a time?” she asked. “I’m excited for stuff like that to happen online.”