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Woodburn High School student Gesta Hernandez talks about her scholastic adjustments and decisions amid COVID-19 school closures

COURTESY OF GESTA HERNÁNDEZ - Amid COVID-19 closures Woodburn High School senior to be Gesta Hernández, carved out space on the kitchen table at home for school work, but on sunny days, she often prefers the backyard table.When COVID-19 closures began mounting last March, the changes had dramatic effects on students—attending school in the traditional manner they had always known was no longer possible.

Moreover, "attending" school by way of a new, unfamiliar and untested method became vital.

"It was very challenging because it all happened so very quickly," said Gesta Hernández, a Woodburn High School senior-to-be. "I remember I was going to school, following my routine and it was getting close to spring break, and then this pandemic hit the United States and Gov. Kate Brown was saying we can't be in the same room with 15 other people."

At the time, Gesta thought she was merely facing an extended spring break. But it turned out to be much more.

"We were out early for spring break, and I figured I would have extra time to study," she recalled. "Then we never went back to school, and it was really weird."

Initially, many districts instituted supplemental learning. But as it became clear that the pandemic issue was not going to ebb anytime soon, distant learning became the standard — and the challenge.

"Distance learning is significantly different than supplemental learning, and while teachers had started the work for engaging students in those types of activities, this new direction requires a different approach on our part in order to serve students" as distance learning mandates emerged, said Gervais School District Superintendent Dandy Stevens.COURTESY OF GESTA HERNÁNDEZ - Amid COVID-19 closures Woodburn High School senior to be Gesta Hernández, carved out space on the kitchen table at home for school work, but on sunny days, she often prefers the backyard table.

In addition to ensuring students had computers, largely rural Gervais looked at securing a number of WiFi hot spots to ensure accessibility.

The technology element of the shift to distance learning was not a problem for Gesta; going into her freshman year, her godparents furnished her with a laptop computer, and her family has WiFi at home. The latter is especially useful as her sophomore-to-be brother, Juan Diego Hernandez, was facing the same situation.

Also, Woodburn School District made it a priority to ensure any student without means would be provided a school-issued computer.

"Some of my friends had to get a school laptop, but I think they all have access to WiFi," Gesta said. "I don't know anyone who doesn't."

Gesta carved out some space at the kitchen table where she could work, and on sunny days when she felt pent up, she set up her school lessons at table in the back yard. But space, lesson plans and technological resources are only part of the education package.

"I didn't realize at the time how much of a schedule everyone had, and how important that is," Gesta said. "Our routines were thrown off, and everyone didn't know what to do."

Her father, Juan, helped as best he could and encouraged Gesta and her brother to stick with their routines to the best of their ability.

After she finished her school lessons, Gesta said she had to be creative with her time. Not only was school upended, but she had been working at an ice cream shop in downtown Woodburn, and the shutdowns nixed that job.

Another part of that structure was having access to teachers — someone available when the inevitable questions surface.

"I am not really good doing everything online, and it's hard for me not being able to communicate (in person) with my teachers and ask them questions. That is very difficult," Gesta related. "I feel like how our grades were last year, it just threw everything off. I actually did very good first semester."

Gesta said the first semester grading was the traditional GPA scoring grades, but by the end of the year grading switched to a pass, no-pass basis. She is unsure how that will affect her GPA.

Beyond the grades and routines, Gesta said she missed competing in track and field — she is a sprinter on the WHS track team. Not having the interaction with friends provided another void.

"Yeah, definitely for me I miss interacting with my friends … some I haven't seen since March," Gesta said. "And definitely teachers, too. I miss seeing the teachers and staff at the school and interacting with them. I just feel like we didn't realize how good we had it."

With her senior year on target to begin in the same manner her junior year ended, Gesta has some tough decisions to make.

"This is definitely not what I expected in my senior year starting off," said Gesta, who stands to be the first person in her family to graduate from high school. "For my situation, I have enough credits to graduate a semester early, so I am debating [about] the option to graduate early if we go back to school. It's a hard choice that I have to make soon."

Tradeoffs to consider include seeing her friends and participating in track, which was waylaid entirely this past spring. On the other hand, graduating a semester early would provide Gesta a jump on college.

She is enrolled in the early college program through Chemeketa Community College, studying English and mathematics.

"If I were to keep the early college program, I can enroll (in college) next year as a sophomore," she said. "But that's something that I do think about. If I go through early graduation, I can't participate in any sport, so I'm debating on it."

Meanwhile, she has found another job — this one at the Woodburn Premium Outlets mall. Once all her study options sort out, Gesta envisions pursuing a degree in psychology, a mental health-related field or possibly business management. She is considering Portland State University, Linfield College and the University of Oregon as possible schools.

Perhaps, she hopes, the experience of negotiating through isolation and other changes in 2020 will ultimately provide insight as she pursues her selected field.

"I'm really drawn to psychology and mental health," Gesta said. "I feel like mental health is a very big issue that sometimes teens afraid to talk about. Our school counselor helped me with that, helped guide me toward that path."

Fortunately, that guidance came before March.

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.

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