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Isabel Suarez is working hard to get through senior year.
For years, she has arrived at school before the first bell to get extra help or to work on projects with friends, and crammed her schedule with activities like yearbook photography and college preparation courses.
The 18-year-old Pflugerville High School student plans to be the first person in her family to attend and graduate from college. She wants to study music theory and production, likely starting at Austin Community College before transferring to a four-year college.
But a towering obstacle stands between Isabel and her next step: more than half a year of virtual high school during a pandemic that has touched everyone she knows. Isabel babysits two younger siblings while their mother is at work, on top of completing scholarship applications and homework assignments in between Zoom classes. She’s failing a couple of classes, including one she must pass to graduate. Add that to missing out on early morning tutoring sessions and quality in-person time with her teachers, and Isabel sees a bigger challenge in meeting her goals.
Isabel loves taking care of her siblings, but the additional responsibilities pile onto her already high mountain of tasks, bringing instability to each day.
“Usually maybe you get behind in classwork, but you can easily schedule tutorials or figure out a plan. Now it’s like that plan is so uncertain … because you don’t know what tomorrow can bring or what new courses or material that’s going to be brought in class,” she said.
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Her mother, Amy Selvera, works as a mail carrier for the Postal Service, and her schedule is often erratic. Selvera leaves the house between 8 and 9 a.m., sometimes arriving in the afternoon or late at night in busier seasons. Both of her younger children have breathing problems, including asthma and allergies, and keeping them home felt like the safer option. She feels simultaneously proud at how much her daughter has taken on to help her siblings and worried about the impact on Isabel’s education.
“She gives them lunch. She makes sure they eat. She helps them study. She teaches them and then she goes, and she does it herself, and just tries to teach herself,” Selvera said. “She’s just really strong to be able to do all that so that I can get back to work.”
Isabel is not alone. As COVID-19 continues to ravage Hispanic, Black and low-income communities in Texas, many of those parents have hesitated to send their children to school in person. Despite the stakes for Texas’ most vulnerable students, the state failed to properly prepare for remote learning this fall, wasting time by issuing conflicting guidance and entering into political squabbles. Now, many students learning from home are failing multiple classes and wracked with anxiety, unable to succeed in a broken system. The burden of Texas’ missteps falls on students like Isabel and her siblings, who are working as hard as they can to meet the demands of an abnormal year.
Isabel is currently failing English and calculus, and her grades are much lower than before the pandemic. Last grading period, she got a 90 in English, a class she needs to graduate, but now she is way behind on assignments and often feels teachers are handing out work faster than she can complete it. She has also missed out on the milestones of a typical senior year, like homecoming week and football games. Isabel, known in her family for being a social butterfly, once had ample opportunities to talk to her friends in person. Now those have narrowed to none.
“I was looking forward to my senior year, just living out a typical student experience. And very much this year, as it’s my last year of high school,” she said. “And not having that this year, it’s definitely been a bummer, something I will for sure miss.”
One morning last month, when her English teacher ended a Zoom lesson early, Isabel planned to use the time to catch up on her work. But when she signed off, she found her fifth-grade brother, Jay, waiting for help with some math problems. So she switched from student to teacher, writing problems from Jay’s worksheet onto a large whiteboard her mother set up in the front room.
She spent so long helping him with math that she missed 10 minutes of her own calculus class, one of the hardest in her schedule especially with the limited interaction and engagement of online learning.
Later in the day, after three hours of Zoom classes interspersed with short breaks and whiteboard lessons with her brother, Isabel still had to chip away at a stack of homework assignments, prepare for the next day’s classes, sign up for a calculus tutoring session and start gathering materials for scholarship applications.
The transition from senior year to college is generally precarious for students without much knowledge about how higher education works. Studies show low-income, first-generation students are nearly four times more likely to leave higher education after the first year than their peers — especially if they start at two-year institutions. Those students are less likely to be academically prepared or receive financial support from their parents.
Already, Texas leaders are seeing the effects of the pandemic on an already shaky pathway. The number of high school seniors filling out the federal financial aid application for college is down by nearly 15% compared with last year. Counselors are struggling to connect with students virtually and provide them with information. Especially concerned about low-income, Hispanic, Black and rural students, Texas recently launched a program that gives counselors more resources to pass along to students and immediately answers students’ questions online.
Selvera had expected Isabel’s older brother, now 22, to make it to college. When he was young, he took care of Isabel when Selvera was delivering mail, sometimes until 1 a.m. Learning came easy to him, but by high school, he was struggling.
Selvera has no doubt Isabel will go to college. “She’s a go-getter. When she wants something, she works really, really hard,” she said. “And it’s definitely a good feeling being her mother and seeing that in her.”
Isabel is part of a college preparation program at her school called AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, which took her on field trips to college campuses and guided her through the complicated financial aid process before the pandemic shut down classrooms last spring. This year, on top of classes, Isabel is writing essays and searching for scholarships and grants.
She is applying to one four-year college, the University of Texas at El Paso, in addition to Austin Community College. But she is set on going to the two-year community college, which will let her save money, and taking on a part-time job while she studies. She knows many students get derailed starting at a two-year institution, but especially given the pandemic’s massive upheaval, community college was a “better fit” for her needs.
At the beginning of the school year, Daniel Dawer, Pflugerville High School's college prep coordinator, resigned, telling his students in a letter that he didn’t feel the district was taking safety seriously. Isabel, who had known him since middle school, was shocked but understood his decision. “It made me take into perspective how much this pandemic is really affecting a lot of people,” she said. Pflugerville Independent School District has told The Texas Tribune it is doing as much as possible to address safety concerns and will address failures to comply on an individual level.
Two of Isabel’s family members got COVID-19 this year and fully recovered. Her mom and dad, a construction worker, could easily be exposed to the virus. Staying home, despite its challenges, feels to Isabel like a way to help her community stay safe.
Isabel’s anxiety has grown during the pandemic, sometimes manifesting in physical “aches and pains.” She’s not always sure of the root cause — school, family life or just being a teenager — and that makes it feel even more intense. “You can’t pinpoint it, and it’s just tapping in. I don’t know what to do,” she said.
She takes “brain breaks” when she feels the pressure is too heavy, practicing on her new ukulele and singing, writing or drawing to refuel in between classes. Sometimes she takes walks or sits outside in the fresh air.
“I know if my focus is not all there or I’m feeling stressed, that either I’m not going to put out my best work or I’m not going to gain the best understanding on things when I’m working,” she said. “So I think it’s important to kind of do something to help regain your focus, regain your motivation.”
She also feels better when she’s working on how to fix the problems she and her peers face. Isabel has recently added another activity to her full schedule: a group called “Students Demand Change,” trying to improve remote learning in the district. They wrote a letter to the school board asking them to reduce the amount of “busy work” students are required to complete, change grading guidelines to remove penalties for late assignments and make time for students and teachers to connect with one another.
One evening in early November, Dawer, who helped put the group together, read the students’ words aloud to Pflugerville ISD board members. “Lack of motivation to complete work has increased as students are learning how to regulate their own schedules without the guidance of an in-person teacher or role model,” he read. “Let’s not forget that we’re also in a global pandemic, which has taken a massive toll on the stress level and mental wellbeing of many students and families.”
The district is providing “reasonable opportunities” for students to bring up failing grades, including redoing certain assignments and attending tutoring sessions, said spokesperson Tamra Spence. Students who have not turned in work on time are allowed to submit the work before the end of the grading period. District leaders are considering requiring remote learners who fail classes to attend in person, but have not taken action on that yet.
Isabel will continue advocating and hopes it changes things for the better. “As students, we see many problems that are happening, and now we’re also stepping up to the plate and we’re going to work towards finding solutions.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso and the Austin Community College District have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.