I recently went to visit one of my students who lives in a migrant labor community near the border of our school district. This was already my 18th visit to a home in this area in the past three weeks. Going into this visit, I worried that students in this community were generally disinterested or unengaged in remote learning.
I knocked on the door, and the student came out. He politely told me that he hadn’t logged in for three days because it was impossible. I asked to see his Chromebook so that I could show him how easy it was to log in.
As I entered the house to help, his mom immediately greeted me and thanked me for checking on her kids. She insisted I have water, because, as she said, “No one comes into my house without receiving a gift.” She started making fresh flour tortillas with beans and melted butter. Even though this family was of extremely limited means, they were happy to share and thankful I was there to help their son.
I sat down with the student, and we removed profiles, deleted cookies, and got to the business of logging in, only to see the dreaded loading circle of death spin and spin endlessly. Ten minutes later, we were still waiting to log in to studentVue, the first step in getting into his class.
I asked who his internet provider was. He told me that they do not have internet; he has a MiFi, a wireless router that acts as mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. I called tech support to inquire. The student said he had already done that, and their recommendation was to place the MiFi in a higher place to pick up a better signal. Since they live on the outer limits of our district, their signal is the weakest. I asked him to show me where the MiFi was located. He showed me that he had already elevated it as high as possible, on a ladder in the middle of the kitchen.
At this point, we were 20 minutes into the process of trying to log in. Finally, the student tells me, “Mr. Pimentel, I know how to get in.” He went into the other room, and I could hear him tell somebody to get off the computer. I heard a little voice whining that she doesn’t want to. When he comes out, two little girls follow him, timid and disappointed that they have been asked to leave their own class. But sure enough, within 30 seconds, he finally managed to log in to studentVue.
Now successfully logged in, my student began to tell me more about his sisters. He told me that it is his responsibility to get the girls ready in the morning, log them in to their class, adjust the MiFi for optimization, and make breakfast. Mom gets home around 1:30 p.m. from her field job, and dad doesn’t come home until 9:00 p.m. or later depending on how his second job painting homes on the side goes.
He told me that every now and then he walks over to the McDonald’s in his neighborhood so he can log in and check on Google Classroom for his latest assignments. He told me he loves the smell of the french fries as a bonus, but he can’t leave the house to do this too often, as it would leave his siblings alone. He said he tries to do his world history first because it is very interesting to him. At this point in our conversation, the wonderful smell of tortillas, butter, and beans was mixing with a bitter taste in the back of my nose. I’m holding back tears.
This student has seven F’s, but he is passing world history. He says it is more important for his sisters to succeed in school and have a bright future, because he’s already learning how to paint homes. His dad is hopeful he can get a job with their crew.
I don’t ask that we give every kid an A just for trying and being themselves. What I am asking, however, is for everyone to listen to their stories, even when they may not immediately tell you about the things they are struggling with. There is a reason for hold harmless, and it is not to “gift” students an education without proof of knowledge. It is because addresses in communities like my student’s have a very different reality than most. It wasn’t until my 18th visit to this community that I fully realized this. In just about every other house I had visited in this area, I also heard little voices talking to their teachers.
I am currently working with our technology department to get T-Mobile hot spots as opposed to MiFis in that area, but it will take some time. In the meantime, I encourage all school leaders and teachers to reach out to your kids; tell them that this is hard for all of us and that we care for them, and we can’t wait to see them again.
I know you’re trying hard, but we must always remember to step back and understand that our students are, too.
And of course, this is just one example of the real challenges school leaders—and most important, our students—are facing during the pandemic. We must encourage Congress to provide additional federal funding to our schools, and we can do just that through the National Principals Month Action Alert. Join me in this fight by contacting your representatives today.
Rich Pimentel is an assistant principal at Indio High School in Palm Desert, CA. His opinions are his own.