Carl Marano opened the door and stuck his head into Roberta Roybal’s health class just after lunchtime Tuesday at Santa Fe High School, asking how the internet connection was functioning.
“It’s still not working,” Roybal glumly replied.
Marano, Santa Fe High’s principal, dropped his head.
On the day when Santa Fe Public Schools fully opened its doors to all students for in-person instruction for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic hit the state, administrators, teachers and students came to a sudden realization: The internet still ruled education.
There was still a first-day-of-school vibe on district campuses, as more than half of Santa Fe’s students finally saw their teachers and principals in person — some for the first time. Yet, it was muted by the struggles some teachers had as they connected classroom students to their remote-learning counterparts.
Neal Weaver, the district’s director of digital learning, said one of the content filter programs that controls the websites individuals can access on each school’s internet connection blocked students and teachers from accessing their online classrooms. He said the primary filter was shut off by midmorning, which improved connectivity, but it was still hit and miss for some students and teachers.
“The good news is this wasn’t a capacity issue,” Weaver said. “Our sites are ready, our infrastructure within our schools are ready. It was just one of those technical issues. It was just bad timing.”
Aaron Abeyta, a history teacher at Milagro Middle School, said he had taught remotely from his classroom for the past month and experienced no issues until Tuesday. He adjusted by talking with in-person students about his expectations in the classroom so as not to penalize his online students for missing a day of instruction.
By the afternoon, though, the connections had improved significantly as he led remote and in-person students through a discussion of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
“You just gotta adapt, dude,” Abeyta said. “It’s about adapting and improvising and expecting things to go wrong. I mean, the internet has been pretty reliable until — of all things — today.”
If anything, the day underscored a trait many teachers have developed as a result of the pandemic: adaptability. Juliet Salazar, an English teacher at Santa Fe High, used her own cellphone data to connect online students to her in-person classroom, while government teacher Carlos Caldwell produced a video of his lesson for remote students to review.
Chris Eadie, who teaches human geography and psychology at Santa Fe High, accessed the online teaching platform using his cellphone to communicate with remote students. Forgetting he had done that, however, he walked out of his classroom before a voice caught his attention.
“I hear a voice in my back pocket, saying, ‘Eadie, are you there? Eadie, can you pick up? Eadie, I got a question,’ ” he said.
Feliz Sandoval, a special-education teacher at Nava Elementary School, posted math problems on a whiteboard and printed out worksheets for her in-person students while addressing the connectivity problem.
Nava Principal Marc Ducharme said Sandoval’s seamless adjustment showed how well she understood her students.
“I guarantee she knew exactly what each of those students needed and where they were at [academically] when she printed those out,” Ducharme said.
The internet issues might have dominated the day, but schools provided a glimpse of what in-person learning amid a pandemic looks like. Most classrooms provided at least 3 feet of space between students to maximize space. Some classes, like Salazar’s freshman English class, had as many as 17 students, but others had as few as five.
In some cases, grade levels were combined to accommodate the low number of students returning. Nava and Milagro both used internet cafes for students whose teachers had not yet returned to the classroom, while Santa Fe High did not because Marano said it had enough teaching staff to accommodate the roughly 700 students who attended.
Ducharme said about 120 out of Nava’s 183 students returned to the classroom along with about two-thirds of his teachers and staff. Milagro Principal Brenda Korting said 170 of her school’s 460 students were in attendance, but she declined to say how many teachers came back to the classroom.
Superintendent Veronica García said 57 district staff members were at various schools to supervise classrooms of teachers who had not yet returned. Teachers have until April 19 to return to the classroom, and García said she expects at least 90 percent of teachers and staff will return by that date.
García and Weaver were among the supervising group Tuesday. Weaver, who was at Santa Fe High, said it was a refreshing break from what his day normally is like.
“It’s great to be back in the classroom,” Weaver said. “I come from the classroom, and I am very familiar with working with high school students. It gives me that connection to the classroom, which we all need.”
Some students, though, expressed reservations about the district’s in-person teaching format.
Marquita Valdez, a Santa Fe High sophomore, said she felt her classes had more of a test-taking atmosphere and didn’t find them engaging. Fellow sophomore Badr El Badri said the 90-minute block schedule was too long, adding he might return to remote learning.
“I’m here to get my grades up, but I think I just might go back,” El Badri said.
Santa Fe High senior Faris Wald said he returned because he has six classes and learning in front of a computer screen for seven hours isn’t productive.
“I just think the education will be that much better in person,” he said.
Milagro history teacher Abeyta said he recognized teachers might be more inclined to connect with in-person students, but he will try to include remote students in discussions.
“I think that is one of the things that will come as I figure out what works,” Abeyta said. “As I get more experienced, I will remember to engage them more.”