August 2021 marked the beginning of the first full school year with in-person learning across Southern California. For many people, it started with high hopes of recovery from 18 months of disrupted learning.
Then in April 2022, KCRW asked how Angelenos’ relationship with school changed this academic year. They revealed challenges, including COVID surges, staffing shortages, and students who just seemed to have lost interest in school.
High school art teacher Danielle Riniolo admits that maybe her expectations for the first day of the school year might have been a teensy bit too high.
“I envisioned this slow motion run to each other — ‘I couldn't wait to meet you for a whole year!’ I thought it would be a really joyous reunion,” she tells KCRW.
But she adds, “I think everyone was so shocked and traumatized by the pandemic. [Although at first] everyone was really excited to be back, a few days in already, I was getting students who were like, ‘I’m bored, I don't want to be here.’”
Excitement giving way to reality
Jamie Garcia has been teaching for eight years, and she was just as fired up as Riniolo on the first day of classes at Alliance Burton Tech High School just west of Watts. “There's always that excitement: the new school supplies, new people. I'm a sucker for new school supplies,” she laughs.
She looked forward to seeing her students' faces in the flesh.
“Even if it's half the face, the eyes?” she says, acknowledging that schools required masks to be worn throughout most of the academic year. “Their makeup is on point. The eyelashes are on point. Everybody is showing up,” Garcia says.
But sometimes the eyes weren’t enough to make a connection with a student: “[I had] students come up to me that I had last year saying, ‘You don't remember me?’ I was like, ‘Did you turn your camera on? Because I don't.’”
By the time the Omicron surge hit in January, those feelings of excitement faded away. Students had to stay in their assigned classrooms and get back onto Zoom, even when a teacher was leading a lesson right in front of them.
And while the situation was tough on everyone, student mental strain became her number one priority. “What matters is: ‘Are we okay? Are the students okay?’” she says. “Can we continue to build relationships and prioritize that, instead of prioritizing test scores? Because we already know what the tests are going to tell us. They're going to tell us that, ‘oh, they're not on track.’ And [it’s] like, really? For two years, they weren't in school. They're not on track? How remarkable.”
Needing better customer service from schools
Evelyn Aleman, whose daughter is a senior this year at Grover Cleveland High School in Reseda, hoped that a return to in-person classes would draw her daughter out of an emotional slump she’d entered during the lockdowns. But that didn’t happen, and Aleman says she felt the school didn’t make enough of an effort to help her daughter. She got so frustrated that she started a Facebook group for LAUSD parents who needed help, many of whom are Latino immigrants.
“They'll go ask the school [for help]. The school may not know who can help them,” Aleman says. “It's a lot of pointing fingers, and our families get frustrated, and so they don't engage.”
She continues, “[LAUSD] will say the resources are there, but our families don't have time to go looking for those resources, quite frankly. We need someone to call them up and say, ‘How are you doing? How's your child? What type of support do you think your child needs? How can I help you?’ We need that level of customer service really from the school district and from the schools and in their language,” she says.
Fourth grade teacher Aimee Katz says that when she first got back into the classroom at Harding Street Elementary in Sylmar, her kids weren’t exactly acting the way she remembered them.
“I think the surprise was just how much the attention spans have shrunk,” she explains. “Kids don't know how to act in school anymore.”
She adds, “We had to take a step back and say, ‘Okay, we need to work with, how do you walk down the hallway? How do you behave appropriately in the restroom? How do you talk in class? How do you deal when something doesn't go your way on the playground? You can't curse somebody out or hit them.’ They didn't know what was appropriate and wasn't appropriate, because you can get away with more things at home than you can at school.”
Some teachers close the books for good
The stress from the 2021-2022 school year became so hard for art teacher Danielle Riniolo that she got burned out. Public school teacher politics were a hard pill to swallow.
“I became incredibly jaded really fast because I entered a profession that was supposed to be, or expected to be, extremely selfless. I was ready to be extremely selfless. But I wasn't ready for so much animosity from the public at large,” Riniolo explains.
She describes what she calls the overnight vilification of teachers during COVID.
“I put 100% into my students,” she says. “I find them medical care outside of school. I advocate for them when other people don't believe in them. I walk them home when they're afraid to go home because something's going to happen. I adopt their cats when they're having trouble. And then to still see comments on social media saying, ‘Teachers should just quit if they don't like the job.’” Riniolo decided that would be the best decision for her after all.
She adds, “I got burnt out to a level where I'm beyond recovery at the moment. All I could think about: I need to have a life outside of my job. And I'm clearly not able to do that in this situation.”