Had life gone as planned, Yuni Lopez would be a nurse by now.
And, given the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, that career choice would have generated quite the extraordinary first year out of college.
But that doesn’t mean the last 12 months have been anything but unusual for the graduate of the NIU Department of Special and Early Education.
During her first semester on the job as preschool special education teacher, Lopez walked the Chicago Public Schools picket lines last fall while her union staged a 14-day strike.
Working with children with developmental delays wasn’t in the plans, either, but “it’s something I love. It only took me two to three weeks to think, ‘I never thought I’d be doing this, but now I can’t see myself doing anything else.’ ”
Now Lopez is teaching remotely in accordance with the Illinois stay-at-home order while she strives to overcome a general lack of Internet access in the neighborhood where her Marquette School of Excellence students live.
“Coming into teaching – coming into my field – I knew that I’d have to be very flexible and accommodate to different things. I just didn’t know that in my first year I’d have to be this flexible,” Lopez says, “and I didn’t realize how flexible I really could be when it came teaching. I’m doing better than I thought I’d be doing when it comes to being put into pressure.”
Teaching technically began years ago.
“Right after I did my confirmation, I became a Sunday School teacher. I did that for a really long time,” Lopez says. “I went into college thinking I wanted to be a nurse, but after putting some thought into it, I realized I would not have the guts to be a nurse. Seeing children sick and hurt is not what I want to do. It would probably break my heart.”
Knowing that she still wanted “something revolving around children and helping them,” she enrolled in the Early Childhood Education program.
“I went back to teaching Sunday School in my second year of college, and I kind of had that ‘aha moment,’ ” she says. “I got to see that little light bulb go on and, especially with the little ones, it’s a nice feeling to have and a feeling that I want to keep having.”
Lopez now plans to pursue a master’s degree in Special Education to enhance her preparation to work with that population, although after a year of unexpected challenges, it would seem she’s already prepared for anything.
October’s walkout, for example, spurred “emotions of uncertainty.”
Every day, she wondered when she could return to the classroom? When would she see the children again? Would she even still have a job?
Yet those two weeks also taught her “that teachers are a really tight-knit community,” she says. “I didn’t expect to come out of the strike with as many friends as I did. It was a really good bonding moment between my pre-K team and finally putting names to faces,” she says.
“After the strike, the community inside the school felt like a family,” she adds. “The fact that we all struggled and triumphed together brought the teachers and my school together.”
She also believes that the strike was justified in its protest of unequal conditions between schools in Chicago and its reminder that teachers on the front lines – and not politicians – know what it means to “put children first.”
“We wanted to work, but we just couldn’t because the environment that a lot of the schools had wasn’t adequate for their children to learn in,” Lopez says.
“Working in the neighborhood I work in, we’re lucky enough to have three social workers, where other schools don’t even have one full-time social worker. Our kids are able to talk to someone when something happens, which we’re blessed to have, but other schools don’t have the same thing,” she adds. “We were not fighting for our own students. We were fighting for all of the students.”
That fire inside remains stoked this spring as Lopez and her colleagues navigate COVID-19.
For Lopez, the obstacles of that “new normal” are more than technological.
Children ages 3, 4, and 5 don’t understand the threat or even the concept of a pandemic, she says, nor can they square that with their love and excitement for school. Those few with Internet access who are seeing Lopez on their computers constantly ask her when they can come back to their classroom.
“Every time I have to tell them, ‘No, the school’s not open,’ it kind of breaks my heart,” she says, “and I can see it breaks their hearts.”
Meanwhile, children typically need assistance from their parents to log in for virtual learning – and most also require the interest of their parents to have them participate.
“It’s really been a struggle to get everyone to go to the virtual lessons. We’ve only had eight out of 37,” says Lopez of the half-day classes that enroll 18 children in the morning session and 19 in the afternoon.
“Parents are tired of me messaging them,” she adds. “I’m in daily communication with the parents – at least one call every day – and this past week, I sent over 300 text messages. We’re texting constantly.”
To complicate matters, children with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) experienced sensory overload on the initial Google Meet and “most did not want to come back.”
Fifteen children logged in that first day, she says, and without knowing how to “mute” and “unmute,” all talked at the same time.
Lopez now is trying to interact one-on-one with those with IEPs, although because much of the that instruction involves physical, hands-on materials and prompts, it’s “definitely going to be harder. That’s something we can’t do through the computer.”
Troubling her the most is thinking about students without the Internet.
“We don’t know how they’re doing. We don’t know if they’re eating. We don’t know if all the work we’ve been doing to learn their ABCs and to count, if they’re still doing that or if they’re falling behind,” she says.
“Our school has made us send in packets and worksheets so those kids without Internet access can just go into the office and can at least do some academic work at home,” she adds. “I’m still lesson-planning, still recording them, still putting them up on the ClassDojo, but then I also do the ‘other side’ of that work for students without Internet access.”
As her first year of teaching nears its end, Lopez calls herself fortunate to still live with her parents and grateful for the company of her sisters also bunking in the family home. She’s enrolled in virtual therapy “to keep my mind positive,” and has taken up a new hobby of embroidery.
And she’s celebrating every bit of sunshine she can find.
“Seeing the faces of my kids, even if it’s just through the computer, is a morale booster,” she says. “I try to look forward to next year, and hopefully, by September, we’ll be back. That’s what I start to think about when I get low.”