Children First: How Tulare County educators are finding solutions for distance learning

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- In the rural Tulare County town of Orosi, families are adjusting to life during a pandemic.

Eight-year-old Heidi Gonzalez misses her classmates.

"I've been telling my mom, 'When are we going to go to school?'"

Her mother helps the third-grader and her little brother learn from home. The day starts with logging into Zoom so they can communicate with their teachers.

"Having two log on at the same time, I have a third-grader and I have a first-grader," says Leticia Gonzalez. "Which it's just a challenge to have them, help both of them at the same time."

Less than a mile away, Heidi's teacher, Mrs. Vasquez, delivers lessons to 22 students from an empty classroom at Golden Valley Elementary School.

"It can be lonesome," she said. "I'm blessed enough to have a co-teacher in my classroom, but other teachers, I know they're struggling being just in that solitary confinement all day long. So, we're anxious to have our students back. We want them back."

Until it's safe to return to campus, more than 4,100 students in the Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District are learning from home.

The transition to iPads and Chromebooks was bumpy at first.

"Many of our community members are your field workers," says Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District Superintendent Yolanda Valdez said. "They work in packing houses. They're out very early. We're seeing that older siblings are the one filling in in the support of this distance learning, we're seeing grandparents filling in."

"The fields have always been hard for everything and everyone who works doing this," says Javier Rojas. "We all know it's hard and tiring, too."

Rojas works in the fields while his wife stays home with their three children. He values their education.

"I don't want them working here, under the sun," he said. "I want them to have a better education so they have good jobs."

A good education means staying connected. Internet access is an issue for families living in rural areas.

Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District invested in technology, connecting students and families with MiFi hotspots and other devices.

The district created a drive-thru system supplying tech support. Families were also offered computer literacy classes.

Children First sponsor, Tulare County Office of Education, is creating the Central Valley Learning Network.

Click here for more Children First stories on distance learning.

The internet service would provide coverage to all 100,000 students in Tulare County.

"We're a county the size of Connecticut, that's a large distance to cover," says Tulare County Superintendent of Schools Tim Hire. "We've done a study of where all the students are based on the addresses of the students, and then trying to locate those multiple antennas in areas where we can get great coverage."

As Tulare County Educators get creative with videos and virtual classrooms, students like Heidi discover new ways to learn with apps like Reflex.

"They're like math games and they're really fun," she said.

And if anyone needs a break, the Go Noodle app offers a virtual recess.

"When we see the kids been staring at the screen a little too long, we'll get them up and start moving," Mrs. Vasquez said.

The journey of educating minds and inspiring futures in this digital age has its setbacks, but there's always room for lessons on kindness and compassion.

Mrs. Vasquez has advice for teachers who may struggle with technology.

"Extend yourself," she said. "Grace and extend it to everybody around you. Understand this is an unchartered territory; we're learning together. Mistakes are going to be made, but we're going to come back, we're going to bounce back and this will eventually end and we'll come back that much stronger."

Click here for more Children First stories on distance learning.
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