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Teresa Ramirez of Clackamas, a mother and bilingual educator, prepares her family and classroom to go back to school online

As both a school employee and mother of five, Teresa Ramirez has seen first-hand the challenges of distance learning.

When Oregon schools first transitioned to distance learning last spring in response to COVID-19, the 45-year-old Clackamas resident was hopeful it would end quickly.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Teresa Ramirez is mother and a Spanish instructional assistant at El Puente Elementary School in Milwaukie."The beginning (of COVID-19) wasn't that bad. I thought it was going to be over soon," Ramirez said.

After school districts across Oregon extended the distance learning mandate through the end of the 2019-20 school year, however, Ramirez began to feel more uncertain about the future of her children's education. Then, this summer, the state decided to start fall instruction online.

"It's like a ride," she said. "You never know when you're going to get there. The kids (ask), 'Are we there yet? Are we there yet?'"

Ramirez works as a Spanish Instructional Assistant at El Puente Elementary School in Milwaukie. This fall, Ramirez will facilitate a remote Spanish reading and math group for El Puente students. She's excited to begin her work as an Instructional Assistant again, although she said she is nervous to teach online for the first time.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Teresa Ramirez and her five children. From left counterclockwise; Lilly, 8, Damian,12, Nicolas,13, Leo,16, and Abi,18.Ramirez also has five children engaged in distance learning this fall. Ramirez's eldest daughter, Abigail Alejandra, 17, is heading to Eugene for her first year of college at the University of Oregon. Her son Lorenzo, 17, is in high school. Nicholas, 13, and Daniel Maxwell, 12, both attend Rock Creek Middle School in Happy Valley. Lilian, 8, attends El Puente Elementary School in Milwaukie.

Ramirez said that for her family, COVID-19 distance learning has been difficult.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Teresa Ramirez walks with her youngest daughter, Lilly, 8, to check in with school as Nicolas,13, and Abi, 18, appear in the background at their home in Clackamas.One major challenge was adjusting to new technologies. When schools closed last March, her five children were all sharing the family's one computer to do their work. Later, North Clackamas School District loaned laptops to her kids to finish the school year.

But Ramirez said her kids would often get distracted on the computers. She wanted to help her children with their online education but sometimes didn't know how to navigate Google Classroom or other online platforms.

Parental oversight was another issue. Ramirez's husband, Lorenzo (same name as eldest son), works full-time as a deliveryman, and Ramirez occasionally would head back to school to help clean classrooms or retrieve school supplies students had left behind.

When she was not home, she said, her kids neglected their schoolwork.

"Nothing was done," she said. "And then I would get emails from the teachers saying that they didn't turn in their work."

She said kids need the support of their parents to succeed in school. "We as parents, if we don't help our kids, they're not going to get anything done," Ramirez said.

Distance learning compounds some challenges already facing Oregon's Latino community.

According to the 2018 U.S. census, Portland's metro population is 12 percent Hispanic or Latino, the area's largest minority group. Latino students make up 19 percent of the students in the North Clackamas School District. At El Puente Elementary, where Ramirez works, two-thirds of the students are Latino.

Ramirez said many local Latino parents work in restaurants or other low-wage jobs. Some have to work a second job to supplement their income, making it difficult to be home with their children during the day.

Parents who do not speak English as a first language may also have a harder time helping their children with schoolwork. Nearly 20 percent of Portlanders report that a language other than English is spoken at home, according to the 2018 U.S. census.

"My first language is Spanish. It is also another challenge for me," said Ramirez, who conducted the interview in Spanish. "Like, sometimes (thinking), 'OK, what does this mean?'"

Nicholas and Daniel, the middle schoolers, said distance learning makes it harder to ask questions and get help from their teachers.

"I feel like I had more help going to school (in person) than with online school," Nicholas said. "In school they would help me and stuff, it would be easier. Now, (it's) not knowing in online school, and just having to guess. And asking people, but they won't know, either."

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Teresa Ramirez has help on her laptop from sons, Nicolas,13, and Damian,12.Daniel said the excitement of learning from home quickly wore off last spring. "At first it was fun because I could just wake up and get ready instead of having to hurry to go to school. But then it started getting boring, because all we did was just stay inside," he said.

Ramirez's youngest daughter, Lilian, 8, took a creative approach to her distance learning. "Sometimes I feel like I wish I was there (in class), sitting on the carpet, reading a story with all my friends," she said. "Sometimes I imagined that. But I'm sitting in my room watching a video, pretending that all my classmates are sitting around me."

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Teresa Ramirez looks over the shoulder of her youngest daughter daughter, Lilly,8, while she does her homework.This summer, Ramirez said her family mostly stayed at home due to COVID-19. Most of her kids' summer sports and extracurricular activities were cancelled. She said her kids were not very motivated to leave the house, even for a walk.

Daniel said he worries that he will not be prepared as school starts again this fall. "I don't really feel so good, because I'm not prepared. I haven't been doing much, so I feel like I need to practice more to get ready," he said.

Nevertheless, Ramirez is excited that her kids are returning to school, albeit at a distance.

And, she's happy that her kids, who used to complain about going to school, are also excited. "It was funny," she said. "They realized that school is fun, that it's important, now that they have nothing."

Natalie Skowlund is a freelance journalist. Funding for Pamplin Media Group's reporting on the impact of distance-learning on Oregon's Latino students comes, in part, from the Google News Initiative.

A COVID-19 start to college

Abigail Sanchez Ramirez of Clackamas will start her first year of college this fall in front of a computer, amidst a pandemic.

In late September, Ramirez plans to move into a dorm and begin her freshman year at the University of Oregon campus in Eugene as the first person in her family to attend college.

This milestone, however, will not be quite like the 17-year-old had imagined.

"Back in June, I was thinking, 'Oh, I'm just going to go to school, everything's going to be back to normal,'" said Ramirez, who grew up in Clackamas and attended La Salle Catholic College Preparatory high school in Milwaukie. "It hasn't. It's kind of our reality now."

Last month, UO officials announced a switch in its fall semester plan. The university originally anticipated offering an in-person option for classes with fewer than 50 students. Now a majority of classes will be conducted remotely, with exceptions for classes that require an in-person component, such as labs and studio classes.

Given UO's switch to primarily remote learning, Ramirez said she considered living at home during her first semester at college.

"I've been seeing all the other schools shutting down. Kids coming to school and then leaving two weeks later just because of the [COVID-19] cases rising in those first two weeks," she said. "I was really scared that it was going to be me."

Still, Ramirez has decided to move into the dorms. She said she wants to take advantage of her chance to go to college. She knows there will be some risk but said that she thinks it will be safe as long as everyone follows the rules.

The University of Oregon has procedures in place to reduce the risk of infection. Students will be tested multiple times during the fall semester and are required to wear masks on campus. The campus will be open to students but not the general public.

Ramirez is excited about her class schedule, which includes classes she has always wanted to take such as writing and sociology. But she's concerned about starting college via remote learning.

"The one thing I'm most worried about is falling behind in classes, not being able to be as efficient in school for the rest of my years," she said. "I feel like this is really going to hold me back, in a way. I've never been there before. I don't know how things work … I don't know what systems they use."

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