Odessa – The New York Times


student 1

It’s going to be 50 degrees outside.

student 2

I can’t forget my Airpods.

student 1

It was freezing this morning.

student 3

I’m sorry. Let’s get them all.

student 1

Right here.

student 2

Whoa, listen to that.

[laughter]
[chatter]
annie brown

On a crisp Friday last October—

student 1

Does anybody need deodorant? I have spray-on deodorant.

student 2

Man. Oh, you’re breathing hard.

student 1

It’s cucumber. You can— Because I got tired of smelling like coconut.

annie brown

—a notably normal scene was playing out in the old band hall of a high school in West Texas.

student 2

Joanna, how do you take this off? Never mind, I got it.

annie brown

School had just let out for the day, and the members of the Odessa High Marching Band—

student 1

Can you zip me up?

annie brown

—were getting ready for their first game of the season.

student 1

Do I need to suck it in?

student 2

Probably. There we go. Good job.

annie brown

And they were giddy—

student 1

Ow you zipped up my hair. Ow. Ow, yeah, you zipped me up.

annie brown

—as they pulled on their new bright red uniforms.

student 1

Whoo! Are we getting on buses? All right, guys, we gotta go.

annie brown

—then filed out the door to board the bus waiting outside.

student 1

There’s one spot left. There’s one more spot left in there.

[engine hums]
annie brown

And as the bus made its 7-mile journey across town to the stadium—

student 2

Oh we’ve got to do our song, the— our tradition.

[humming]
annie brown

—they sang.

student 2

(SINGING) And shine a little beamer with the red top down. Dogs were all a-barking and a-wagging around.

annie brown

—got sentimental about the passage of time.

student 4

It feels like just yesterday I came in as a freaking freshman. I didn’t know how to play.

student 2

Sitting on this but going down Main Street to Ratliff with—

annie brown

And briefly—

student 4

You know, it’s crazy. About a year ago, we probably would have never thought there would have been a pandemic.

annie brown

—discussed current events.

student 2

I always thought like maybe like when I was like mid-age, you know, something would happen. But I don’t really consider it like a big deal, you know. It’s just kind of like—

student 4

You can’t just like give up your whole life because of that. I mean, you’ve gotta keep conscious, you know. You can’t just sit there and go oh, I’m not gonna—

annie brown

Listening in on these students, that discussion was kind of the only indication of the strangeness of this year. In every other way, the ride was remarkable for just how unremarkable it was.

student 5

Did I show you the nose ring? My mom won’t let me get it.

student 6

I want to get a nose ring.

student 5

I tried the filter, and I saw it. It made my nose look big. I was like, nah. And then I tried to—

annie brown

Because as other high school students across the country were logging off their computers for the evening, finishing up another day of remote learning from their beds or their kitchen tables, these students unconsciously were participating in something of an experiment.

teacher

Everybody please keep your mask on.

student 4

Yes, ma’am.

annie brown

All the way back before the beginning of the school year, Texas was one of just four states to mandate that public schools must offer in-person learning—

speaker

[HUMMING]:

annie brown

—making possible moments like these— reminders of what so many other students have had to sacrifice this year.

announcer

Ladies and gentlemen, the Ector County Independent School District and Odessa High School are proud to present the award-winning Odessa High School Broncho Marching Band.

[cheering]
annie brown

But it would only be a couple of weeks later, in the aftermath of a moment of normalcy just like this one, after a bus ride just like this one, that it would become clear that the story of Odessa High School this year, like the story of all school re-openings, is a story of trade-offs—

speaker

And I said, shut down both buses, quarantine all students. If it were up to the health department and it gets to that level, they’re going to want to shut the entire band down.

annie brown

—and that this experiment was going to get a little more complicated.

speaker

As far as I could tell, we were prepared. We just didn’t realize that we were not.

[band music]
annie brown

From The New York Times, I’m Annie Brown. This is Odessa.

archived recording

We are not throwing our kids’ bodies, our teachers’ bodies in front of Covid to stop it. Virtual school, 38 years teaching, does not work. This is unsafe. We should not be in those school buildings. The risk of spread in schools is low, and the harm that we are doing to our children is high.

annie brown

While more and more schools across the country are attempting to reopen their doors, Odessa High School has been open since August. And for the past six months, we’ve been reporting remotely, through Google Hangouts and audio diaries, through phone calls and Facetime tours, documenting what happened as the experiment unfolded.

Today, in part one, the school year begins in Odessa.

Do you remember the first time you visited Odessa? The first time you saw it?

scott muri

Yeah. So I was coming in for a job interview to go meet with the board of trustees. And I remember flying into the airport. And I rented a car and then drove to the City of Odessa. And the further I drove, the less interested I became. Because I was looking to my left and looking to my right, and it just didn’t look like Houston, or Atlanta, or Charlotte, or any place that I’d ever been.

annie brown

This is the superintendent of the school district in Odessa, Texas. His name is Scott Muri. And before this job, he had worked in school districts in several big cities with large budgets and large metropolitan areas. Odessa, Texas was not that.

scott muri

So a colleague of mine made a statement, oh, you’re moving to the land of no trees. And I was like, what do you mean, there’s no trees? And oh, yeah, there are no trees out there. Well, sure enough, there not a lot of trees in this area. It is flat.

annie brown

Did you see, like, oil rigs and things like that?

scott muri

Everywhere. Oil rigs everywhere. You know, this town is embedded in an oil field.

annie brown

Odessa sits on the most productive oil field, not just in Texas or the United States, but in the world. Production had been booming for several years when Scott visited. And still, over half of the kids in the school district qualified for free or reduced price lunch.

scott muri

But then when I unpacked the situation and looked at the needs, you know, this is one of the lowest performing districts in Texas. It had the potential to be taken over by the State of Texas and—

annie brown

Because it was doing so poorly.

scott muri

Yeah, correct. Academically, yes, yes, yes.

annie brown

Confronting challenges was not something new for Scott. He had recently led a school district in Houston through the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. And he had a demonstrated track record of helping to close achievement gaps. And so before the 2019 school year, the district in Odessa wanted him to come in and turn it around.

scott muri

The problem solver in me, you know, that’s an interesting challenge. If I could do something to help prevent that, that’s interesting to me.

annie brown

So despite the no trees and the oil rigs everywhere, he took the job.

scott muri

This was a board that recognized their school district is in crisis. And they’re willing to do whatever it takes.

annie brown

Of course, they had no idea then that they’d be facing a much greater crisis than they’d imagined.

Within months, Covid hit, and schools scrambled to transition to remote learning. And Scott watched as his students slid even further behind.

scott muri

In fact, we have evidence that suggests that especially our kids of poverty— and this is across the country— could have lost up to one year of learning. It just can’t happen.

annie brown

And so even though the Covid numbers in Odessa were higher than in much of the country, with the positivity rate climbing to 19 percent during the summer, when the governor of Texas announced that public schools were required to offer in-person instruction, Scott was on board.

scott muri

Our kids were already behind their peers across the state. And we as a system have to be committed to bringing as many of our kids back in a face-to-face environment as we can.

annie brown

So late last summer, as the district prepared to phase students back into the classroom, Scott agreed to let us follow along.

scott muri

But if we see numbers in any area starting to increase because of actions that we’ve taken as a school district, then we will reverse our course. We’ve told our folks all along, you know, yes, we’re turning school on face-to-face. But we could just as easily turn it off over a weekend.

annie brown

All right.

scott muri

All right, ladies. Appreciate you.

annie brown

Thank you so much, Scott.

scott muri

Have a good rest of the day. All right.

annie brown

You, too.

scott muri

Bye-bye.

annie brown

Bye-bye.

annie brown

One of the first people the district connected us to was a teacher— a teacher who’s sort of on the front lines of this mission to not let students fall further behind this year.

naomi fuentes

It’s August 12, 2020, first day of school. I’m actually calm this morning. On the drive to work I was jamming to the radio, singing along. People were looking at me weird, I don’t care. It was good. [INHALES, EXHALES] Deep breaths. Yeah. Ready or not, the kids are going to show up— some. So we’re doing—

annie brown

This is Naomi, or better known as Ms. Fuentes—

naomi fuentes

Let me tell you. Love the face shield. You know why? Because I don’t have to worry about my hair. So super fast to get ready in the morning. Just put it up in a bun.

annie brown

—a relentlessly cheery college prep teacher at Odessa High School, who started sending us audio diaries and hopping on Google Meets as she got ready for classes to begin.

naomi fuentes

Let me show you around the room so you can kind of see what we have to do. So let me flip the camera. OK, please excuse the Blair Witch vibe going on. I— or my husband, I should say, put up a clear shower curtain around my desk so when I have to conference with my students, there’s at least a little barrier.

annie brown

She had created a protected space around her desk and got some special supplies.

naomi fuentes

We’ve got some cleaner, sanitizer, tissue—

annie brown

But what I immediately noticed on our Google Hangout was just her special touch.

annie brown

Is that a tombstone that I see behind you?

naomi fuentes

Yes. On the floor, there’s a “rest in peace” tombstone on the wall. It says “mausoleum.” I have a Chucky doll, decorate him for every season. And y’all should see my dolls. They’re scary. Like, my dolls are scary. And there are even noise sensors, so when you slam a door, they’ll speak.

annie brown

Naomi loves morbid things but can’t quite explain why.

naomi fuentes

Maybe if I analyze myself, it’s the whole parents being strict on religion thing and I’m like rebelling. But I love it. And people always mess with me. They’re like, well, you’re the happiest dark person I know.

annie brown

But behind this cheeriness, behind the tombstones and the 64-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer—

naomi fuentes

Yeah, I’m really scared, nervous, overwhelmed. Don’t know what to expect.

annie brown

—she’s scared. Naomi’s husband is considered high risk. And she has a one-year-old grandbaby at home who recently had heart surgery. But like Scott, she has her own reasons for being on board with this plan.

annie brown

Did you think about potentially not going back because of how nervous you were?

naomi fuentes

Actually no. Yeah, I don’t think I would ever just leave. Even as scared as I am, I wouldn’t leave. O.H.S. is my home. And it’s O.H.S. and nothing else.

annie brown

Naomi herself went to Odessa High School nearly 30 years ago. And for as long as she can remember, the school has had a reputation of struggling. Today, not only does Odessa High sit in one of the poorest performing districts in Texas, but based on its test scores and college readiness, it was also ranked in 2019 by an education nonprofit as the third worst high school in the entire state.

naomi fuentes

It’s almost like that’s how they were raised. You’re going to O.H.S. That’s the sucky school, I guess. And the kids feel that. The kids, that’s been ingrained in our locals’ minds here.

annie brown

So despite her fear of the virus, Naomi is determined to show up for her students.

naomi fuentes

I was always told that your body reacts the same when you’re nervous and scared and frightened as it does when it’s excited. So I’m going to say I’m excited for this new school year and all that it entails. No matter how we’re feeling, we’ve got to put the kids first. And we’ve got to take care of the kids. And that’s what we do naturally. That’s why we’re teachers— the kids, you know. We’re going to teach the kids, we’re going to love the kids, and that’s it. Period. We’ll see what happens. OK.

So many people logged in. Let’s see. Hello, Kayla. Hello, Jesse. Hello, Delaney.

annie brown

As students start phasing in, Naomi has somewhere between one and eight students who actually show up in the classroom each day. Another dozen or so sign in remotely.

naomi fuentes

I figured I would put some music on while we wait.

annie brown

Because while teachers had little choice about returning to the classroom, students and families did. And many of them opted to stay home.

naomi fuentes

Hello, Armando. Hello, Bill.

annie brown

Which means her job is to straddle teaching the students in person and the students online.

naomi fuentes

OK.

annie brown

And through her voice memos—

naomi fuentes

Let’s go ahead and get started.

annie brown

—we hear how it goes.

naomi fuentes

OK. Maria, we’re going to start with you. Can you read us your quick write?

Maria?

maria

I say no, because I’m too involved with a lot of things.

naomi fuentes

OK. Honest— honest answer. Very good. That is awesome. Thank you. Armando.

Is Armando on— I get stressed. Like, you know, my armpits start sweating a little bit. I’m like, are you there? What’s going on? Just answer. We’ll move on. We’ll come back to you later. Andre, did you get to do the quick write? I don’t know whether you caught that. Gaspard, how about you? In my mind I’m thinking, OK, I know it doesn’t take that long to unmute. You’re awfully quiet. Hope you didn’t go take a nap. Nani, how about you? Dom?

dom

Sorry, miss, I’m eating a corn dog. Let me show you.

naomi fuentes

Do you want us to come back to you?

annie brown

Naomi rarely knows what her students are doing on the other side of the screen, because they almost always have their videos off.

naomi fuentes

Bill. Bill showed up. OK, Bill. All we did was we watch the— my stuff’s still not working. My computer—

annie brown

And she doesn’t require videos to be on, because it would take too much bandwidth. 39 percent of kids in the school district don’t have access to reliable internet.

speaker

Yes, ma’am. Like nothing— it’s not letting me do anything. Look.

naomi fuentes

Hmm. OK. Yeah, that’s something weird happening there.

annie brown

For the first several weeks of school, the virtual students are requiring a lot of Naomi’s attention. You can see her struggling to figure out how to split her time.

naomi fuentes

OK. So those of you online, when you’re done, just remember Wednesday— OK, like, it looks like I’m paying attention to both at the same time, when in reality when I’m focused on answering questions in the chat, I kind of can’t worry about the kids in front of me. All right. So now my face-to-face peeps. OK. Alexis.

alexis

Mm-hmm. I did, yeah.

naomi fuentes

And then someone would— in front of me would ask a question, so I’d step away. I’d be like, OK, I’m going to step away, and then go help them. And I would forget—

student

We said prejudice, but—

naomi fuentes

Hang on. Hold that though. —I have kids online still. Yes?

student 2

Ms. Fuentes. I’m saying it’s— or I finished it, but I’m not sure if—

naomi fuentes

I don’t know if I mentioned this, because it happened Friday. But I taught for 10 minutes on mute until one of the kids chirped up in the chat and they were like, is she talking to us or just the kids in the classroom?

student 3

Ms. Fuentes, your screen isn’t changing at all.

naomi fuentes

It’s not? OK. Because they couldn’t hear me. I was muted the whole time. Can y’all see it now?

student 3

Yes, ma’am.

naomi fuentes

Awesome. OK. So let’s start over.

annie brown

By the beginning of October, it was clear that this toggling back and forth between in-person and virtual students was a problem for many teachers across the system. The resounding message coming from district leaders was, we have to do better. But Naomi was feeling at a loss for how exactly to do that.

naomi fuentes

OK. You want us to be up and engaging to the face-to-face kids. I get it. But most of us, most of us, don’t know what that looks like. Train us. We’ve gotten virtual training on how to do that virtually, and we know how to do that face-to-face. But how the hell do you blend it? How the hell do you blend it? There’s this— and I’ll email it to you— there’s this TikTok going around with a clip from Schitt’s Creek, which I love that freaking show.

archived recording (schitt’s creek – moira rose)

Next step is to fold in the cheese.

archived recording (schitt’s creek – david rose)

What does that mean? What does “fold in the cheese” mean?

archived recording (schitt’s creek – moira rose)

You fold it in.

naomi fuentes

It’s like the enchilada scene where they’re making enchiladas.

archived recording (schitt’s creek – david rose)

I understand that. But how— how do you fold it? Do you fold it in half like a piece of paper and drop it in the pot, or what do you do?

archived recording (schitt’s creek – moira rose)

David, I cannot show you everything.

archived recording (schitt’s creek – david rose)

OK, well, can you show me one thing?

archived recording (schitt’s creek – moira rose)

You just— here’s what you do. You just fold it in.

archived recording (schitt’s creek – david rose)

OK. I don’t know how to fold broken cheese like that.

archived recording (schitt’s creek – moira rose)

And I don’t know how to be any clearer. You take that thing that’s in your hand,

archived recording (schitt’s creek – david rose)

Uh-huh.

archived recording (schitt’s creek – moira rose)

And you—

archived recording (schitt’s creek – david rose)

If you say “fold in” one more time—

archived recording (schitt’s creek – moira rose)

It says “fold it in.”

naomi fuentes

This TikTok is like, this is what we’re feeling. It’s what we’re feeling. I haven’t even seen how it’s supposed to look. And maybe I missed an email, or I missed a training or something? I don’t know. Yeah, I don’t know. I know I say that a lot, but I truly don’t know.

annie brown

Of course, she hadn’t missed some intensive training. There was no email that could explain how to do this, leaving teachers like Naomi feeling like they were navigating this for the first time on their own.

naomi fuentes

Ugh, I don’t— I feel very inadequate. I feel like I’m not doing well at all. And I don’t know. I don’t know what the secret is. That’s what is killing me, because I’m them. You know, I’m these kids.

annie brown

Like a lot of her students, growing up, no one in Naomi’s family had been to college. And now she teaches students who need a little extra support in getting there. And she knows how the small things, like having a connection with just one teacher, can make the difference.

naomi fuentes

I feel bad. Because usually, I know a lot about all of them. And I don’t this year. Like, if I were just to see them in front of me, I’d be like, who are you? Because I’ve just seen your picture. You know, and that’s sad. It’s— the magic is not happening. This is not what teaching is. I— I don’t know.

I have that imposter syndrome, like— OK, I don’t ever think of myself that way, that I’m great or I’m good. But this has kind brought it out in a open, like, see, you’re really not that good of a teacher. Because, look, you can’t even adjust to virtual teaching. So yeah. That’s my thought right now.

annie brown

Mm-hmm. Do you have the sense that other teachers are also struggling?

naomi fuentes

Yes, I do. But I don’t— I don’t know. Even though I know they’re struggling— I do, I know they’re struggling— I still feel like I’m not— I’m still not as good as them.

annie brown

Yeah.

naomi fuentes

But I do try to— you know, I do try to be positive. Like, I’m all about things will get better, this is just temporary. And as soon as you figure it out, it’s— yeah. But it is tough. It’s tough to have that— that mentality right now.

annie brown

Yeah.

[music]
naomi fuentes

Have you already turned it in or is that something you need to talk to the teacher about?

annie brown

In years past, Naomi says that she’s seen her role not just as a teacher, but as a kind of counselor to her students, too.

naomi fuentes

Are you there?

annie brown

And part of the problem is that now, she doesn’t even know what’s going on in their lives.

naomi fuentes

They won’t talk about how they’re feeling. But sometimes when they don’t show up, either online or in class, that’s when I’m like, I wonder if something happened. Because I know oil field is big here. Like, it is so big here. And so I know the majority of the kids, they’re struggling with that. Maybe their dad was laid off of the oil field, or it slowed down— like, my husband wasn’t laid off, but it’s slowed down, way down, from what it used to be. They’re having to deal with that, having to make extra money for their parents. A lot of them are having to work. A lot of them log in from work, if their job lets them.

annie brown

How do you know that kids are working jobs?

naomi fuentes

Well, I could see them when they log in. I’m like, where are you? And they’re like, oh, I’m at work. Because there’s stuff happening in the background. They’re not in a quiet, still place. I did ask. Like, I did go through and ask all of them. And so I did like a little survey. I’m like, hey, do you work? Where do you work? How many hours a week do you work?

annie brown

How unusual is it to have kids working? Like, was this happening like that before Covid?

naomi fuentes

No, I don’t think so. I don’t remember these many— many kids working. Definitely not during the day. Yeah, no, definitely not.

joanna lopez

I would go into work. I would clock in at 12:00 in the afternoon. And so I’m already in the class. The classes that I don’t have to have my camera on or my microphone on, I would just like have my earbud in, and I kind of hide my phone and be in class, and then still be working, be making the smoothies or taking people’s orders.

annie brown

For kids like Joanna Lopez, a senior at Odessa High School, the problem with working your first job during class time is that it’s hard to listen to your econ class while trying to remember how to make a Mango Magic.

joanna lopez

I always mix up these two orders, which is the Bye-Bye and the Berrylicious, because they sound the same. And they look the same. There was this one time. It was like really busy, And there was a lot of people waiting on their order. And I think I was supposed to be making a Bye-Bye. Instead, I was making a Berrylicious. And that one has like the meal powder, and like it has protein and everything. And a lot of people are picky about that. There were still people in line screaming at me. I was trying to listen to my teacher. It was just— it was a lot. It was stressful that day.

annie brown

Did your colleagues know?

joanna lopez

Yes. Because they were also in school.

[laughs]
annie brown

Joanna is one of the students who opted to go remote this year, who was balancing work and school simultaneously. She was 17 when we first started our calls with her.

annie brown

Hello, Joanna.

joanna lopez

Hi.

annie brown

Is it real light outside there?

joanna lopez

Yes.

annie brown

That is amazing.

annie brown

She would sit cross-legged on her bed after school, her dark straight hair parted down the middle, frequently checking for notifications from the many group chats she’s on, and sounding a lot like any teenager— bored with her hometown.

joanna lopez

There’s not a lot of things to do here in Odessa. Basically, the only thing there is to do is like the mall, or just go to Target and walk around and see where you can find.

annie brown

And when she talks about growing up in Odessa, it’s clear that her life has been tied to the cycles of boom and bust that define the city.

joanna lopez

My dad, ever since I was little, he moved from company to company, but he would be doing the same thing.

annie brown

She remembers her dad coming home from his job in the oil field, his boots smelling of oil. And she remembers noticing when she was 11 or 12 that the industry seemed to be taking off.

joanna lopez

I mean, there was a point where it was this really big thing where we got a lot of oil. And so people were making a lot of money. And that’s when people were starting to come here for the money. My dad had gotten a raise. And I think he got in a higher position. So he was making pretty good money. So we were at a very comfortable spot.

annie brown

How did you know that things were more comfortable?

joanna lopez

Yeah, we used to live in a trailer park in like a duplex. But then there was like a trailer park behind us. So it wasn’t really like a good neighborhood to live in, because there was a lot of stuff going on. So when my dad got that raise, we were looking into houses, and we found one.

annie brown

They moved into a one-story red brick house with an awning over the front door. Joanna was excited to have her own room for the first time.

annie brown

Did you move to this house that you’re in?

joanna lopez

Yes. I used to think it was so big.

annie brown

And she remembers a shift in the family’s approach to everyday things.

joanna lopez

We didn’t really worry about going to the store and be like, we can’t afford this, or we might not have enough. And so I guess that’s when I realized, like, we’re good.

annie brown

And this is how things had been for the family for the last few years. Things felt possible. Joanna had been talking about becoming the first member of her family to complete college, to become a psychologist or a veterinarian. But this, of course, was only one half of the boom-bust cycle. And Odessans are all too familiar with the other half.

archived recording

It’s like someone hit the switch, and all of a sudden layoffs already start, all of a sudden the city starts to slow down. And you can literally feel it.

annie brown

Workers skip town. And “For Sale” signs appear on lawns and in the windows of shops.

archived recording

I think what we’re in right now is kind of an emotional freefall. I’d like to have it over with. Could we please get to where the bottom is?

annie brown

The cycle is so familiar to Odessans, that after a particularly bad bust in the ‘80s, a bumper sticker became popular in town that read, “God grant me one more oil boom, and I promise not to screw it up.”

archived recording

U.S. oil prices plunged below zero on Monday, hitting a new record low. A penny a barrel. I mean, this is something that most people on the street didn’t even think was possible. Never seen anything like it. It closed at negative $37 per barrel. Wow.

annie brown

But coupled with the public health crisis, nothing had prepared Odessa for the kind of economic devastation the pandemic brought over the summer. The sharp decline in demand for oil and the city’s dependency on it meant that as the American economy was shutting down in response to the pandemic, Odessa’s was cratering.

archived recording

As of June, we have the highest unemployment rate in the State of Texas. The unemployment rate tonight is the highest in the state sitting at 13 percent, just a stark difference from where we were just a few months ago having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state.

joanna lopez

I think I was like in my room doing homework. And my dad came home early. He was just, like, you know, sad. I kind of just overhear the conversations, because my room is like right next to the living room. So I kind of just overheard.

annie brown

Do you remember what you heard?

joanna lopez

I just remember my dad telling my mom that he got laid off, and that he’s going to try to get in unemployment. But he was struggling a lot with that. So he was like, might as well just try to look for another job.

annie brown

How did you feel overhearing that in your room?

joanna lopez

I mean, seeing my dad sad kind of made me sad. I guess that’s when I also realized, like, this Covid thing is very serious. You know, they also kind of told me like, you need to start working also. And so that’s when I started looking for a job.

annie brown

It was late spring when things started getting tight for the Lopez family. So Joanna began working at the smoothie shop to help pay for her car. And when the summer ended and Joanna had a choice to make about whether to go back in-person or stay home, she chose to stay home and started signing into classes from behind the smoothie bar.

annie brown

How do you learn anything if you’re not actually in the class?

joanna lopez

I would say I didn’t really learn anything. I was kind of there for my attendance. I kind of do struggle a lot with keeping up with my schoolwork. So I feel like it would have been easier for me to go to school. Yeah, it’s very hard for me to try to keep up. And so I’m just struggling.

annie brown

Joanna said she had started turning in assignments late or not at all.

annie brown

Do you have a sense that other kids are also turning in stuff late?

joanna lopez

Yes. I see it all over Snapchat.

annie brown

Like, how does it show up on Snapchat?

joanna lopez

Like, they would post their grades. I’m like, that’s not something to post. I wouldn’t post my grades. I would be embarrassed. I mean, they’re not ashamed. Good for them, but—

annie brown

Do you feel shame?

joanna lopez

Sometimes I do. Because I feel like I’m not working hard enough.

annie brown

Is that what you think the problem is, that you’re not working hard enough?

joanna lopez

Maybe. But then, I don’t— I can’t find the motivation to sit down and actually do my schoolwork.

annie brown

Uh-huh.

joanna lopez

Like, you kind of just like lay down in bed on your phone and like, I’ll just do it later.

annie brown

At the end of the first six weeks of school, Superintendent Scott Muri started to get some actual data back about how kids across the district were doing academically.

scott muri

The grading period ends in a couple of weeks. And so we’re seeing some data that is a bit disturbing. The learning is not happening in a way that it should.

annie brown

And what it showed was that what Joanna and the students and Ms. Fuentes’s class were experiencing was happening across the district. The in-person teaching seemed to be helping, but only to an extent.

scott muri

So the failure rate is higher among our virtual kids than it is face-to-face. And that’s simply because they’re not turning in assignments. We have to continue to exhaust every pathway to figure out how we cut the learning losses for kids and accelerate learning a bit more.

annie brown

It was striking that for a school that had reopened, six weeks into the school year the problems they were facing were not about the health risks posed by the kids who came back, but about the learning loss, especially for students who chose to stay home.

It wasn’t clear what Scott would try and do to change things.

scott muri

But we have to give extra attention to our seniors this year to keep them engaged. Some of them are so close that they may or may not graduate.

annie brown

What was missing for so many students was the motivation.

scott muri

Those seniors that need extra motivation in order to come to school every day, and in this case in order to turn their computer on, sometimes for those seniors, the motivator is a teacher in the building, or it is the social interaction that they have in the building, or it is the extracurricular that they engage with in the building. And for some of those kids that are at risk, that doesn’t exist.

annie brown

They were missing the points of connection.

scott muri

And I’m afraid it may be a bit easier for those kids just to drop out or fall off the radar. And that is disturbing. This cannot be a reason that our kids fall further and further behind their peers.

annie brown

But there was one thing that was motivating Joanna to come to school every day— the same thing that would lead her to being on a bus headed to a stadium on a crisp October Friday.

joanna lopez

I love band so much.

[crowd cheering]
[band music]
annie brown

Coming up on Odessa—

archived recording

Well, our high Covid numbers are triggering some changes around Medical Center Hospital in Odessa.

annie brown

While the city faces a growing health crisis—

archived recording

The I.C.U. at Odessa Regional Medical Center in Odessa, Texas is at its capacity with Covid-19 patients.

annie brown

—we continue following the school district’s experiment.

speaker

Right now we’re seeing some things that we don’t like. The number of cases is on the rise in our community.

annie brown

—and the debate, not just over reopening schools—

speaker

It’s the third down.

annie brown

—but restarting the football season.

speaker

Tackle made by number one, Brandon Manning—

[whistle blows]
speaker

This specific area— I think you have seen Friday Night Lights, right? So you know this specific area, how important high school football is. I don’t think there’s any part of this world where it’s as important as it is in West Texas. Think that there were too many people invested too heavily in that to actually be able to shut down something that big. So make sure that’s part of what you guys are thinking about and what that means to them.

annie brown

Sure.

speaker

How much that means to them.

annie brown

Yeah. We will. We will make sure not to miss that.

speaker

It’s a Bronco horse-down.

[crowd cheers]
[music]
annie brown

“Odessa” is produced and reported by Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Soraya Shockley and me; with help from Mitch Borden and Diana Nguyen; edited by Liz O. Baylen and Lisa Tobin; engineered by Chris Wood; fact-checking by Ben Phelan; original composition by Dan Powell and Marion Lozano. Special thanks to Larissa Anderson, Cliff Levy, Dana Goldstein, Kate Taylor, Clifford Krauss, Apoorva Mandavilli, Ken Belson, Laura Kim, Nora Keller, and Lauren Jackson.



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