Odessa is a four-part audio documentary series about the reopening of a West Texas high school during the pandemic – and the teachers, students and nurses affected by the process.
Over the past six months, The New York Times has documented Odessa High School students back to class from afar through Google hangouts, audio logs, phone calls and FaceTime tours. And as the country continues to debate how best to reopen schools, Odessa is the story of what happened in a school district that was among the first.
Listen to Odessa
Welcome to Odessa, Texas, home to one of the most productive oil fields in the world. It’s a booming city, and right now the city is just starting to recover from a collapse.
A series of bankruptcies in the oil industry and low gasoline prices have left the community and its students struggling. With limited resources, Odessa school district officials fought to prevent disadvantaged students from falling behind. But when Covid-19 closed the school doors in the spring, those vulnerabilities were laid bare.
In Part 1, we introduce you to a teacher who struggles to deliver instruction in person and online, a superintendent trying to protect the district, and a student trying to finish her final year on her phone – while working simultaneously.
These are the people you will meet in this series
Joanna Lopez, senior at Odessa High School
“The problem with your first job during school hours is that it’s hard to listen to your economy class while trying to remember how to make a magic mango.”
Joanna is trying to finish her final year of high school from home – and while working at her part-time job. But she still has a physical link with the school: the marching band. “The group was the first place I felt welcomed,” she says. “I actually had friends in the group. My first boyfriend was in the group. My first grief was in a group. So it taught me a lot, not just about music, but just about life.
Naomi Fuentes, teacher at Odessa High School
“It’s almost like starting all over again. I’ve been teaching for 14 years and it’s like it’s my first year, my first day of teaching, ”said Ms. Fuentes. “I’m really scared, nervous, overwhelmed. I don’t know what to expect.
In a struggling school district, meeting the needs of students is hard enough. But now Ms Fuentes is wondering how to help her students both in person and virtually – and to keep them from falling behind in the midst of a pandemic.
“Do you want us to be active and engaging with children face to face?” Ms. Fuentes said. “I understand. But most of us don’t know what it looks like. Train us. We’ve been trained virtually on how to do this virtually, and we know how to do it face to face. But how do you mix it?
The latest on how the pandemic is reshaping education.
Jimmy Olague, Deputy Director of the Odessa High School Marching Band
“I want them to learn to work hard and to keep striving, to push themselves so they can have better lives than they maybe have now.
Ten and a half years ago, the “Friday Night Lights” show put Odessa on the map. Football is big in the city, but at Odessa High School the award-winning marching band is a source of pride. Mr Olague, a deputy head of the group, tried to keep his students dancing during the pandemic.
Scott Muri, Ector County Independent School District Superintendent
“Anything we can do to keep our children positively engaged in the learning process, we will do it.”
When Governor Greg Abbott issued a mandate that Texas schools would offer in-person tuition five days a week, Dr Muri had no choice but to open the doors to his schools. Now he is faced with the challenge of not only keeping his students safe and ensuring that they graduate, but also trying to help them thrive.
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Odessa was produced by Annie Brown, Sindhu Gnanasambandan and Soraya Shockley; with the help of Mitch Borden and Diana Nguyen; edited by Liz O. Baylen and Lisa Tobin; designed by Chris Wood; original compositions by Dan Powell and Marion Lozano; and fact-checking by Ben Phelan. Special thanks to Larissa Anderson, Clifford J. Levy, Dana Goldstein, Kate Taylor, Clifford Krauss, Apoorva Mandavilli, Ken Belson, Lauren Jackson and Laura Kim.
Special thanks to the staff and students of the Ector County Independent School District.