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Feeling ‘devastated and isolated’ LA parents cope with prolonged school closures while trying to hold onto their jobs, homeschool their kids

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | March 25, 2020

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Magda Vargas’s daughter, a fifth-grader at LAUSD’s Elizabeth Learning Center in Southeast Los Angeles, being homeschooled. (Magda Vargas)

Updated April 2

Parents of the nearly 700,000 students attending traditional and charter schools in Los Angeles are facing an unprecedented disruption of their children’s routine and their daily lives with the shutdown of L.A. Unified School District’s more than 1,000 campuses.

One of the main concerns for district officials and educators trying to control the spread of the coronavirus was to make sure remote learning could be in place. That has turned out to be a significant struggle, with the Los Angeles Times reporting last week that some 15,000 L.A. Unified high school students had been absent online and failed to do any schoolwork while more than 40,000 had not been in daily contact with their teachers since the March 16 closure.

In a school district where over 80 percent of students live in poverty, the concerns for most parents are overwhelming. They range from keeping their kids safe and healthy, first and foremost, to how they will be able to juggle homeschooling while holding onto now-tenuous jobs that allow them to put food on the table and pay rent.

When California Gov. Gavin Newsom indicated last week that the school closures could extend to the end of the school year — and state schools chief Tony Thurmond echoed that on March 31 — parents’ anxiety soared.

“The governor’s saying that basically the school year is over, that schools won’t be ready to open back up until the fall. That came with a different sort of devastation,” said South L.A. parent Tunette Powell, who serves as chair of the school site council at her children’s school, LAUSD’s Baldwin Hills Elementary. “I think for multiple reasons. There’s the factor of just homeschooling your kids and parents being forced to do something that they’re not credentialed to do.”

Powell said she initially thought she was ready to handle homeschooling for a few weeks. But when she learned that may extend to April, and then days later, possibly until the end of the school year, everything changed for her.

“It’s very stressful. We’re new homebuyers. My husband and I just bought a home, so your bottom line is, there’s a mortgage in front of you that has to be paid, and there are kids in front of you who don’t deserve any of this, so they still have to be happy and they have to be content. And I think what I’m really trying to do is … My struggle is more so emotionally and internally with myself,” Powell said.

LAUSD and most school districts across the state — 99 percent of which have shut down, — are offering laptop computers and educational programming on TV so students can continue their education at home, along with a long list of online resources to keep their learning going. LA Unified and independent charter schools combined have opened a total of 144 “grab-and-go” drive-up centers where families in need can pick up bags with breakfast and lunch for their kids.

In the first week alone, L.A. Unified reported that almost a quarter of a million meals were served, more than any other food bank in the country, according to the district.

L.A. Unified reported that as of Friday almost a quarter of a million meals were served, more than any other food bank in the country, according to the district.

The district also announced a deal with Verizon to provide internet connectivity for all students who don’t have the service at home. “The digital divide is very real, as many as 100,000 of our students lack access to the internet at home,” Beutner said.

While access to technology and school meals are crucial, some parents said they feel more concerned about their children’s mental health and social-emotional stability during this crisis.

Mireya Pacheco, a mother of students attending schools in Pacoima, in the northern San Fernando Valley, said she is already feeling the frustration of not being able to ease her daughters’ anxiety.

She has two girls, one in 11th grade and the other in third. Her older daughter got really worried when she heard that the school closures may extend until the summer.

“They constantly ask questions about the news, they say they miss their friends, they worry about getting sick, about not passing to the next grade… homeschooling is not hard, but there are so many other things in their minds that distract them from focusing on learning,” Pacheco said in Spanish.

L.A. Unified announced that it was opening a phone hotline on April 2 that students and families can call “for help to manage fear, anxiety and other challenges related to COVID-19.” The hotline, at 213-241-3840, will be open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, the district said, and will be staffed by counselors and mental health professionals providing support in both English and Spanish.

Beyond those anxieties around school, Pacheco said her family worries that, on one hand, her husband could lose his job in a carwash, and on the other, that he could get sick with the coronavirus if he remains working.

“Frustration hits me really bad, she said. “He is exposed to the virus every time he has to get out to work, but at the same time, we need him to work so we can pay the rent, the electricity bill, food.”

She has been picking up school meals as a way to help the family save money for rent, in case her husband does get laid off in the days ahead.

Pacheco says she’s been relying on advocacy organizations such as Families in Schools for information and resources. She thinks they’re doing a good job, but believes the need is big and the response slow in coming.

She said that in her community, many people have already begun losing their jobs and have had to apply for unemployment benefits.

“That’s a big concern because many immigrant families don’t want to apply because they don’t want to become a public charge and affect their status,” she said, referring to the public charge immigration rule employed by the Trump administration, which penalizes immigrants who seek public assistance from federally funded programs such as Medicaid or food stamps by reducing their chances of obtaining a green card or fixing their immigration status.

Great Public Schools Now (GPSN) and over 20 non-profit organizations have collectively launched We’re One Family Los Angeles, a fundraising effort to help LA families most economically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic to cover food, rent and medical care.

Since launching on March 16, the fund has raised approximately $150,000 from nearly 300 individual donors with a match of $48,000 from Great Public Schools and additional donations coming in daily. In collaboration with the California Community Foundation and other groups, the distribution of those funds will be available as soon as possible for families that apply for assistance, a GPSN spokesperson said in an email.

“We saw an urgent need in the community and felt compelled to leverage our professional and social networks to do our part to provide some immediate relief to these families,” Ana Ponce, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “We hope this collective action inspires the public to support our efforts so we can assist as many families as possible during this pandemic. ”

Powell thinks that community-based organizations and cities are doing what they can to support families but they are limited by public health mandates in not being able to offer spaces such as libraries and museums, to support remote learning. “It feels isolating.”

“I want to do well for my kids but I’m trying to balance teaching them under these very stressful conditions and I feel like trying to balance that, my own sanity, with also trying to teach, so trying to worry about the job market, also trying to finish a program as a full-time student, that is where my stress lies,” Powell said.

She has three children, ages 5, 8 and 10. She thinks homeschooling the two older ones won’t be as hard because they already have a foundation, while getting her 5-year-old ready for kindergarten will be more of a challenge since children that young have very short attention spans.

One of Tunette Powell’s sons does his school work at home. (Tunette Powell)

Powell said that her third-grader was a little behind academically, so along with his teacher they have created a plan for him to catch up for the next few months to make sure he’s ready for fourth grade. He was also undergoing different tests for his hearing and speech, she said, because there are a lot of sounds that he can’t pronounce yet. The school district was providing those services, but now she will have to see if the family’s insurance will cover it.

Powell works as a program director for the UCLA Parent Project and is a doctoral candidate at UCLA in urban schooling. Her current job and her ability to finish her degree, which requires working with schools, and land a full-time position both depend on schools being open.

Powell is also a parent leader of Speak UP, an LA-based parent advocacy organization that joined the We’re One Family Los Angeles effort after hearing the struggles its parent members were facing.

“Families are just beginning to come to grips with the anxiety of potential illness, the demands of working from home or losing employment income because businesses are closed, while also making sure their children feel secure and are not losing valuable instruction time,” said Katie Braude, Speak UP founder and CEO. “We are working hard to help families find resources to address these unprecedented circumstances … to be a strong voice in that effort.”

United Way of Greater Los Angeles has also launched a Pandemic Relief Fund to support L.A. County’s unsheltered residents who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, and low-income individuals, students and families at imminent risk of homelessness.

“As our communities with low-income working families face job losses, school closures, and health care challenges, and our homeless neighbors and partners face unprecedented challenges during the pandemic, now more than ever we need to support those in need,” said Elise Buik, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

Last school year, LAUSD reported that more than 17,000 students were considered homeless. United Way estimates that currently, an estimated 59,000 people in Los Angeles are experiencing homelessness on any given night, without the ability to obtain consistent shelter or health care, and 1.7 million working families in L.A. County struggle in poverty.

United Way created a $250,000 fund from emergency reserves to spark additional donations that can be used to prevent a spike in homelessness by supporting low-wage workers, including domestic workers, street vendors, day laborers, and workers in severely impacted industries. The fund had passed $700,000 by late March, with contributions from the Blinkoff Corngold Charitable Fund, The California Wellness Foundation, Wells Fargo and anonymous donors.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said that the city was issuing a moratorium on residential evictions for people who lost their jobs or whose wages will be diminished due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Beutner announced an emergency investment of $100 million to be spent on making sure that every LAUSD student has a device and WiFi to access to learn from home as well as training for teachers and families. He also announced the creation of a fundraising effort to help students most in need during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Schools are the center of the communities we serve, and provide an important part of the social safety net for many families and their children,” Beutner said in a news statement announcing the LA Students Most in Need fundraising effort. “On an ordinary day, we serve more than 1 million meals to children. These are not ordinary days and we must continue to support those most in need.”

The Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation, the Ballmer Group and Richard Lovett, president of Creative Artists Agency, have each contributed $250,000 to start the fund. Tax-deductible contributions can be made to the California Community Foundation.

Gov. Newsom has ordered all 40 million Californians to isolate inside their homes until further notice and said that restriction could last “many, many months.” The governor said the state projects that 25.5 million people in California will be infected over an eight-week period.

“We are devastated by the news that this virus has reached this far to affect our children’s education as well as the society as a whole,” said Meshell Baylor, an LAUSD parent and member ofFamilies In Schools. “It may seem difficult to keep our children out of school, but I’d rather them be safe than infected. In 2014, when RSV virus hit my youngest son, he tested positive for it and we were quarantined at a children’s hospital. I understand this is difficult, but LAUSD is taking safety precautions to protect our children and faculty.”

The Education Trust–West released six specific steps schools can take to promote instructional equity and preserve student well-being, including ensuring equitable access to learning materials and addressing the specific learning needs of students with disabilities, English learners, and students in temporary housing.

“Schools closures are sweeping the state. These closures will have a wide-ranging and unknown impact on students, families, and educators. To mitigate negative effects, it’s critical that schools do everything in their power to ensure that closures do not exacerbate educational inequities,” executive director Elisha Smith Arrillaga said in a statement. “It is up to state officials, community members, school and district leaders, and teachers to work together to support all students, particularly the most vulnerable, during this trying time.”

A mom and daughter picking up grab-and-go breakfast Monday at The Dream Center Los Angeles, which provides educational services and assistance to those dealing with homelessness, hunger, poverty, addiction and abuse. (Socorro Cruz)

For LA parents, the schools’ closure has set a new normal, especially for working parents. They’ve gone from spending a few hours a day with their kids to spending at least 8-12 hours trying to homeschool them, feed them, entertain them, keep them active and find some type of fun for them within the wall of their homes. And outside when possible.

A walk outside the home for a few blocks down the street and back or riding in the car for a few minutes is now the new major reward for kids — and their parents, too.

Powell said she will continue to pick up grab-and-go meals because at least for now that’s been a fun time for her kids.

“To be in a line somewhere, so even though we stay in the car, it’s still kind of fun for my kids. It’s fun for them to just ride in the car and do something rather than just stay in the house.”

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