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I know how much this pandemic has devastated undocumented families because I grew up in one

Ana Ponce | May 14, 2020

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Ana Ponce on her 15th birthday surrounded by her family, (from left to right) her nephew, Manuel Barroso, her father, Vicente Ponce, and her mother, Antonia Echeveste. (Ana Ponce)

I can’t help but feel some guilt as I unpack the fresh produce sprawled out on my kitchen counter among my laptop and my son’s iPad with paired wireless headphones. I think about the family who is undocumented, where the parents don’t speak English, where they are struggling every day to survive so technology and internet access can’t be a priority.

In fact, the family I’m thinking about is my own.

I am the youngest of seven children. All but one of my siblings dropped out before middle school so they could work to support our family. We came to Los Angeles undocumented from Mexico when I was 4 years old. I was the first in my family to attend high school and the first to graduate college. My first profession was teaching, which allowed me to accomplish another first in my family — securing a job with benefits and protections. All of these milestones would greatly alter my life trajectory and all can be directly attributed to my education.

Before this crisis, low-income and immigrant families were already facing a severe pandemic: poverty. Many parents work multiple low-wage jobs, like my family, just to make ends meet, but with the hope that public education would help their children escape the same fate. Public education is the best pathway to exit poverty. I know because it worked for me.

So here I sit in the kitchen of the home I own with job security, but full of worry. I worry how children with backgrounds like mine will stand a chance after this pandemic. What would have happened if my parents had lost their jobs when I was a child? Would I have had to drop out like my siblings? Would I have been able to overcome months of lost academic instruction? Or if we had to suddenly move because we could no longer afford to live in LA or the U.S.?

Maybe I could have persevered through one of those events, but it’s hard to imagine overcoming them all at the same time. Yet that is the reality so many of our children are facing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their parents have experienced work hour reductions — or worse — have lost their jobs altogether, many with no public recourse or support. Children are trying to learn with limited or no access to critical instructional equipment or support while their parents are struggling just to keep them sheltered and fed.

This moment is particularly painful because the children of Los Angeles have been making hard-fought, albeit slow, gains on state tests and other meaningful data. In 2019, Los Angeles Unified School District students improved almost two percentage points in reading and math. Over the past several years, more students were graduating each year, fewer were missing school and, perhaps most encouragingly, there was a large spike in the number of high school juniors taking the SAT, a potential indicator of more students accessing a higher education.

Read more: California’s graduation rate rises, but there’s no improvement in students’ eligibility for state universities

The necessary decision to close schools for the remainder of the year will disproportionately impact low-income and immigrant students, but this is just one of several inequities in our society exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. These inequities require immediate and collective action.

That’s why the organization I lead, Great Public Schools Now, joined nearly 30 other Los Angeles nonprofits to launch One Family LA. We are working together to raise funds to provide direct financial assistance to families economically impacted by COVID-19. Every dollar to One Family LA goes directly to families struggling to cover the costs of basic necessities like food, rent, and medical care. We aim to relieve some of the financial pressures families are facing so their children can have a more stable environment to continue their education.

We have the opportunity to turn our privilege into action. One Family LA is just one of many local funds set-up to support families in need. All of us in a financial position to help our fellow neighbors in need, must. Then, in addition to getting families immediate financial support, we have to advocate and demand solutions to the societal inequities that put these families in such a vulnerable position.

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

We have to cure the pandemic of poverty. Even if you believe you are immune to poverty, then consider the anticipated economic crisis we will all face in the aftermath of COVID-19. We need societal structures to support us all. Short term, we must help thousands of families in need, but in the long term, we need to ensure there is a path out of poverty so we all have the ability to survive and thrive, if not avoid, the next crisis.

Ana Ponce is the executive director of Great Public Schools Now, an education grantmaking nonprofit in Los Angeles. 

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