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'Virtual learning is not awesome' | Texas teachers open up about starting school year during the pandemic

Teachers across Texas spoke to KHOU about the beginning of a very different school year.

HOUSTON — They were afraid of dying alone, they were worried about everyone’s health. They had too many unknowns going into the school year. These were just some of the concerns several teachers across Texas shared with KHOU 11 when they spoke to us in August.

RELATED: Texas teachers want to get back in the classroom, but these are their concerns

Now, the schools have been in session for either a few weeks or several days, with in-person, online-only and hybrid instruction solutions. KHOU 11 checked in with all the teachers we talked to before. Several were able to share their thoughts, as the new school year has kicked off.

“Virtual learning is not awesome,” said Jeremy Bennett, who’s been teaching at the same Dallas-area school for 18 years. “I'm glad that we have the option. It's not a complaint. I haven't had a chance to really forge any bonds with my kids yet. And that's what the beginning of the year is really about for all of us, is being able to establish those relationships with our students, get to know them well.

“Virtual learning is what we should be doing.”

Virtual learning is also not for everyone. Parents and teachers had the first taste of that in the spring when the school year abruptly ended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coming back to school in the summer of 2020 is presenting similar challenges.

“What I'm seeing is a lot of our at-home learners, they are not doing their part,” said Rebecca Flowers, middle school English teacher in East Texas. “Children who are very tech-savvy, they are not logging on.”

“I had one of my kids today, he disappeared,” Bennett said. “His camera was on. He was gone for about five minutes. And ... he sat back down in his chair, (I was) like, ‘hey, where did you go?’ It's like, ‘oh, my mom wanted me to do something. And then I rode my scooter around for a little bit, but I'm back.’ I was like, ‘OK.’ I mean. What are you going to do?”

“The hardest thing I've ever done in my life, teaching virtually and face to face at the same exact time,” said Chelsea Hughes-Martinez, a U.S. History teacher. “I think I've cried on the way home every day. Not even just because I'm sad, but because it's just so frustrating because you feel like your hands aren't big enough to catch everything. And you know that your kids in the room aren't getting all of you. You know, your kids online aren't getting all of you. I'm just trying to be somebody my kids can lean on and we can kind of get through this together."

“It is so hard for me not to hug and love on children,” Flowers said. “I am more tired than I've ever been. I am working harder than I ever had. But I am so thankful for my kids and serve my community.”

Flowers added she was satisfied with her district’s response to the pandemic and grateful for the community support the schools have received, including enough supplies so the students don’t have to share.

Rhonda Jennings, a middle school special education teacher in North Texas, said she found it easier to teach from school.

“It’s been better with special education because my kids can’t all be taught virtually,” Jennings said. “I was so sure, (I said) ‘I’m not going back,’” she said. “And then I saw one of them, I’m like, ‘oh babies!' And so, I got mixed emotions.”

Jennings said her school was talking about bringing back some of the students for several hours per week.

“I think it would be lovely to have one on one time with these two students,” she said. “I would love it. I miss them.”

At the same time, Jennings has been a teacher for a long time. She said she’s at the stage of life where she’s ready to get out of the classroom and do more oversight, she called it. Jennings said she felt like teachers needed to have a bigger voice at the decision-making table.

“My hobby is going to be attacking all the things that don't make sense with public education,” she said. “Because I think teachers need to be treated better, I think students need to be treated better. There needs to be more accountability. I'm an artist and I would like to do that for a living now."

“With half of our student body in-person and half online, we’re doing the best we can,” said Joseph Greer, a teacher at a small private school in Houston. “We’re learning, some things are going to work for us, something aren’t. I’m having to change some of my testing policies for this year. I do everything on Google classroom. I’m not touching any papers this year.”

Gaby Diaz, a Houston-area teacher, told KHOU 11 she chose to quit one school district and move to another school. She said she didn’t feel safe.

“It was a difficult decision, it makes me really sad,” Diaz said. “But I will drive anywhere to work for a district and a principal who’s going to keep me safe.”

But Diaz had a brighter note to add as well. She said for the first time, after 15 years in teaching, she felt teachers were being treated as human beings.

“We have communities that are finally like, ‘Oh, you have a pulse, and a family, and a life. You would like to not die.' We're like, yeah, yeah. We also wanted to not die when there were, like, you know, mass shooters that you just like, hey, you go in the corner and you'll be fine,’” Diaz said. “I feel like we’re finally viewed as adults who have meaning in their lives and families. I feel like we’ve finally reached this beautiful place of empathy where we finally realize the idea of a public school is that we are in it together.”

“My only final request is that the governor continues to maintain a requirement for masks,” Diaz added. “I may very well consider just leaving the career. If I have to walk into a building where people can pretend that they live in a personal freedom bubble, where the germs don't get out. I hope the governor will do right by Texas teachers. It's my final thought.”

“I’m with Gaby, I’m with her,” Hughes-Martinez nodded.