Even in the most frustrating, hopeless, boring, grief-filled days of the pandemic, California families found slivers of joy.
In Los Banos, the Ruiz and Gutierrez family played indoor badminton and learned American Sign Language together. In the Lucerne Valley, 8-year-old Colton Reichow careened over the desert hills on his dirt bike and learned how to butcher a cow at his grandfather’s farm. In Los Angeles, Shari Abercrombie found a way to make math fun for her son with special needs.
And just about everyone in EdSource’s families project rediscovered the simple comfort of talking to each other. In the third installment of our year-long series “California Families Struggle to Learn,” on how families are coping with distance learning, we asked families for their bright spots: What’s helping them survive this most challenging of school years?
“Given the pandemic and all the chaos with presidential elections and school systems and going back into a purple tier in Fresno County, I would just say really for families to have a conversation of needing each other,” said Miriam Arambula, a mother in Fresno who lost her own mother to Covid in August. “‘Cause right now, it’s the time to really, really depend on those that love and care for you for just emotional support and listening.”
Nine-year-old Audrey Taito of Sacramento put it this way: “Spend more time with your family if you are stressed. … You could talk to them and talk about your feelings and open up to them. If you don’t tell them and keep secrets from your family, it feels like a lot of weight. You should let them know.”
Families found plenty of time for fun, too. They made cupcakes, played Twister and had living-room dance parties. Several credited their dogs with providing much-needed comic relief. Jessica Ramos, a high school senior in Oakland, even created an Instagram account for her terrier, Lucky, in which Lucky communicates with his dog friends.
The holidays are turning into a really poignant time for some families. Armanda Ruiz and her children in Los Banos, in the Central Valley, are planning to travel over Christmas to Mexico, so they can spend time with her husband, José, who cannot return to the U.S. from Mexico, after he was denied permanent residency.
Ruiz says she is worried about the risk of getting Covid-19 while traveling, but they miss José so much, she feels it is worth the risk.
“I’m afraid of getting my family sick,” said Ruiz. “But we want to go, because my kids haven’t seen him for a year.”
In San Diego, Moira Allbritton and her family have found delight in a furry, brown-eyed Chihuahua mix named Nutmeg. “I do credit the puppy,” said Allbritton, who oversees distance learning for her two children while her husband, who is in the Navy, is stationed on the East Coast. He wasn’t able to visit for Thanksgiving, but they are now planning for a longer Christmas visit.
Several families escaped the pandemic gloom by spending time together outdoors. The Myers family on the Yurok tribal land in Northern California ventured out for traditional cultural activities like gathering acorns and mushrooms. The Tran family rollerbladed and biked around their neighborhood in San Jose.
In rural Lake County, Ann Hoeffer and her grandchildren spend countless afternoons feeding apples to the neighbors’ horses, climbing trees, looking for hawks and deer and exploring the county back roads.
“Are we finding joy? We have to,” said Hoeffer. “Even when we didn’t see a way out of the situation we’re in, when it was like, ‘Oh my god, these kids are not going to survive this,’ we found a way.”
— Carolyn Jones
Kathy Lieu, Andrew Tran and children
Winter break can’t come soon enough for the family of Kathy Lieu and Andrew Tran to celebrate a holiday they know won’t be as joyful as in the past.
There’ll be no ski trip to Lake Tahoe for skiing and sledding, no big gathering with family at their new house in San Jose or at one of Lieu’s sisters. The Christmas tree will be sparer and 7-year-old Camdyn told his parents he may not write Santa this year, because Saint Nick knows he has been naughty.
“He says, Mom, I think I’ve been on the bad list. I don’t think I’m gonna get anything. You remember I was like frustrated, yelling,” Lieu related.
It’s true. Camdyn admits he’s gotten angry on Zoom when he’s quiet and doesn’t get called on while another boy unmutes his mic and makes noise all the time.
“I tell him, ‘I think Santa understands why you can be a little naughty,’ but he feels really depressed,” Lieu said. “I don’t know how to light up that spirit because usually on Christmas he likes to see his cousins. They meet each other, then go crazy.”
It’s been a long slog since March, spending more time together than they ever have. The Trans — tenth-grader Carly, seventh-grade twins Aidan and Karyn, and second-grader Camdyn — are a close-knit family. They’re at a point where, despite the age span, they can enjoy things together. Lieu and Tran build in time each week to ensure they do: game night on Fridays, when they play board games, Twister, The Game of Life and the card game Palace. For a while, the two girls were baking cookies and churros until Karyn became skilled at the popular computer game Minecraft and disappeared into her room.
Lieu, a software engineer who works from home, does her best to keep the kids from becoming sedentary. The family takes bike rides and the kids rollerblade together in the neighborhood, Camdyn fluidly skating backwards and forward, while Lieu jogs behind. Tran followed on a scooter until a branch on a sidewalk sent him flying. He ended up in a cast with a painful Achilles tendon injury and has been recuperating slowly.
For all their effort, though, they worry about what Lieu calls “pandemic fatigue” and their kids’ isolation. “What can we do now to make it more fun staying home? It’s like I’m running out of ideas,” she said.
“They learn online on their own, and they’re just with their family, then when you go outside, you’re making sure you are social distancing. When we go out to the park, and try to make friends with a family, Camdyn says, ‘Mom, you’re not supposed to talk to anyone.’ I feel like they’re becoming anti-social because they think it’s an acceptable norm.”
Before the pandemic, the girls went to swim practice. When they came home, they’d swap stories and talk about their day. Now they don’t see friends, and meet other students only in the constrained context of classes. There’s nothing to talk about, and they are withdrawing more, Lieu said. Their world is TikTok and social media.
Yet they also work well independently, so they’ve thrived academically. Aidan, though, has had a hard time. He makes friends easily and likes to joke around at school, Lieu said. “He wants to be the center of entertainment. He can’t just be quiet and listen to lectures.”
“Aidan can’t be Aidan,” Lieu said.
Tran, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam when he was 22, knowing no English, tries to put the pandemic in perspective. He has known hardship and privation. When he arrived in San Francisco, he and his five brothers and sisters shared a tiny apartment with another Vietnamese family in the Tenderloin. He worked to help out and put himself through City College of San Francisco and San Jose State. Now an engineer working on high-speed internet, he has shared his life, starting with bedtime stories, but the younger kids really can’t relate to it, having grown up in comfort, he said, with a catch in his voice.
For children, Covid-19 seems to go on forever. His father’s point — take nothing for granted but this, too, will pass — can only be learned from living through it.
— John Fensterwald
For Moira Allbritton and her family in San Diego, the key to surviving distance learning has been a furry, brown-eyed Chihuahua mix named Nutmeg.
“I do credit the puppy,” said Allbritton, who’s overseeing distance learning for her two children in San Diego Unified while her husband, who’s in the Navy, is stationed on the East Coast. “The kids are being very responsible, their grades are up, it gives them some perspective. And it’s been great for morale-building.”
After a tumultuous start to the fall semester, both of Allbritton’s children are heading toward the holiday break feeling more confident about school and life. Lucy, a seventh-grader, is getting straight A’s and B’s, and in many ways is thriving in distance learning. She’s become a skilled and enthusiastic cook, plays the cello and loves talking to her friends. She even likes P.E. — especially when her teacher assigns the class to juggle or dance to Rick Astley songs.
Her brother Charlie, who spends part of his school day in special education due to neurological disorders, struggled to adjust initially to remote learning but eventually prevailed. For months, he floundered in math, frustrated by the technology used in class and the difficult material. Before the pandemic, he was in an academic program designed for students with special needs, but in the fall the district placed him in a general math class with extra help available. Despite the tutoring and support, Charlie struggled to keep up with his peers. It seemed that no matter how hard he studied, he never quite grasped the material.
Terrified he wouldn’t pass the class, and therefore not graduate on time, Charlie was often in tears by the end of the day.
In September, Charlie Allbritton’s frustration with his school-related technology occasionally brought him to tears. Once the computer issues were resolved, his academic performance – and overall mood – improved.
But then the district provided Charlie some extra help — from a math teacher trained in special education — and a new computer monitor, eliminating his technology frustrations. Suddenly, all those trig equations and statistics formulas started to make sense, and by early December his math grade rose to an A-.
All of this, combined with the puppy, made for a very happy Thanksgiving at the Allbritton home. The only thing missing was the children’s father, who was planning on a quick trip home for the holiday but the plans got scuttled at the last minute. It was the third consecutive Thanksgiving he missed with his family due to his military duty. Instead, he’ll be home for a longer break over Christmas.
But all in all, Moira Allbritton said, life is pretty good.
“We read, cuddle with the puppy. Lucy cooks, Charlie spends a lot of time drawing. We have lots of calls to grandma and grandpa,” she said. “Overall, I just feel like a lighter person. I don’t feel like we’re behind all the time. The house just feels less … stressed.”
For Armanda Ruiz and her children, the pandemic is not the most difficult thing to live through right now. It’s the continued separation from her husband, José, who cannot return to the U.S. from Mexico, after he was denied permanent residency. The family is still appealing his case.
Every night, the Ruiz and Gutierrez siblings gather together to connect with José by video-call. Smiles spread over the faces of Elena, 20; Nathan, 18; Ignacio, 16 and Priscila, 10, as they laugh and talk with him. They say it’s healing and good to see José, since for several months he did not have internet, and they could talk with him only by phone. Still, it’s not the same as spending time in person.
“It does help when I talk to my dad through video calls, but it would be better if it was in person. There is [only] so much the video call can do for us as a family,” said Elena.
“Sometimes a physical presence would be greatly preferred over just a video call,” added Nathan.
Elena and Nathan are enrolled at the local community college, Merced College; Ignacio is a junior in high school and Priscila is in fifth grade in a special education class. All four of them are doing distance learning this year, connecting to their classes online from the family’s 3-bedroom trailer in Los Banos, in the Central Valley. Their mom Armanda has also been taking English classes through Fresno City College. They don’t expect to return to in-person school anytime soon, because cases have been rising in their county, as across the state.
Between classes, the family has tried hard to find new activities to do together to keep their spirits up, from learning American Sign Language through videos online, to playing badminton together outside. Now that it’s colder and windier, they’ve started dancing together with the game Just Dance on Xbox. They also watch movies together sometimes, Elena does cross stitch and builds puzzles, Nathan listens to music and Ignacio plays video games. Ruiz sometimes builds crafts with her youngest, Priscila.
“Some tips I can offer to others is to eat a good amount and to exercise for an hour of the day to keep themselves healthy,” said Nathan.
“What I recommend to get through these times are to find hobbies or keep doing things that make you happy since you’ll feel much better after doing those activities. Try new things to entertain yourself and interact with your family,” said Ignacio.
Some family members get regular counseling, and Armanda Ruiz has also begun doing some group therapy on the weekend. She’s thrown herself into her volunteer work with the school district, as a member of the English Learner Advisory Committee, and has gotten involved in many community groups that she wasn’t involved in before, even trying to learn more about civics and how to run for the school board or for the board of supervisors.
Despite the warnings about travel during the pandemic, the entire family is planning to fly to Mexico to spend time with José.
Ruiz says she is worried about the risk of getting Covid-19 while traveling, but they miss José so much, she feels it is worth the risk.
“I’m afraid of getting my family sick,” said Ruiz. “But we want to go, because my kids haven’t seen him for a year.”
The children are looking forward to being with their father and other family.
“I get to see my dad and have my family all together,” said Elena. “I don’t have to worry about my jobs, my school, or anything. I work hard so that at the end of the year I can be a kid and just enjoy my time with my family. My stress and insomnia will fade away during this time. I get to eat my favorite food, carne asada and pork fried rice.”
— Zaidee Stavely
Distance learning has often been difficult for Shari Abercrombie, but she has discovered at least one silver lining: new strategies for engaging her son Ian that she expects will help him learn even after the pandemic.
Ian, who attends WISH Charter Elementary in West Los Angeles, is a fourth-grade student with special needs. Abercrombie spends every day by his side, making sure he’s focused on class and doing his schoolwork.
The past nine months have frequently been frustrating for Abercrombie and her family, who, like many families in California, have had to cancel their holiday travel plans. They were supposed to visit friends in New Mexico for Thanksgiving before coronavirus cases spiked. Now they’ll be staying home and having a quiet holiday season. They are looking forward to holiday light drive-through events.
Abercrombie has also accepted that a return to in-person learning is unlikely for Ian until the infection risk is reduced which she doesn’t expect will happen until a Covid-19 vaccine is widely available, which likely won’t happen for several more months.
But keeping Abercrombie going is her obligation to be there for Ian. And in spending every day with him, she has learned more about Ian and his learning habits than she ever would have if he were attending school in person each day.
“I was always doing homework with him after school. But I have had to figure out, how do I engage him? How do I motivate him? What does he really know? And how does his mind work? And how do I get him to understand things in the most optimum way? And there’s no way I would’ve ever learned as much as I have learned in the past nine months,” Abercrombie said.
Abercrombie has figured out ways to keep Ian motivated that she said would likely “seem so silly to most people,” but are effective with Ian.
For example, Abercrombie discovered a system to get Ian to take part in push-up exercises during physical education, which has sometimes been a difficult class for him during distance learning.
Abercrombie has Ian do a wall push-up, a modified version of a regular push-up. When she and Ian press up against the wall, they then push off the wall together, completing the wall push-up, giving him a sense of enjoyment and accomplishment he hasn’t gotten from virtual physical education classes.
Other times, Abercrombie and Ian will be doing math problems. After each one equation he answers correctly, Abercrombie will give him a high-five.
“All these silly things are things that motivate him and keep him going. They’re so silly, but these are things that I can hopefully pass on to a paraprofessional when he goes back to school. Hopefully it will be easier to motivate him in class, now that I know so much more about how to keep him going,” she said.
— Michael Burke
Courtney Reichow Family
Distance learning hasn’t slowed down 8-year-old Colton Reichow. In a school year hallmarked by online classes and stay-at-home orders, he’s been using his free time to tear up the race track on his dirt bike.
“The bright spot in all of this is just being able to go out and race even with the new Covid-19 restrictions,” said Colton’s mom, Sarah Courtney.
Racing has been a big incentive to keep Colton on top of schoolwork, Courtney said, and he has to finish his work before he’s allowed to take off on his bike. So far, it’s paid off: Colton recently took home an award for being a Distance Learning Superstar and Most Improved in Reading at Lucerne Valley Elementary School, where he attends school in San Bernardino County’s high desert. The school recently held an outdoor socially-distanced award ceremony to honor its students who participate in online learning for three days a week and come on campus for two days a week.
“We could only bring two people per family to the ceremony, but they could still get awards and that was really cool for them and for us,” said Courtney.
Moments like that remind Colton of how much he misses being in his classroom full-time.
“I want to go back for a full five days a week again. I just want to learn more and be with my friends. It’s the second time I had this teacher, Miss Nelson, and she’s really nice,” he said.
Colton’s mom also hopes that her kid can go back to school for a full week soon. She recently had to put her own studies for nursing on pause to keep up with homeschooling, parenting and her own upcoming surgery. But with California’s most recent restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19, she doesn’t think that will happen any time soon.
In the meantime, the family is keeping busy and finding creative ways to keep learning and have fun.
“Lane and I have been playing Xbox, he thinks he’s playing but it’s a broken controller,” Colton said laughingly, referring to his younger brother.
On a recent trip to his grandpa’s farm, Colton and Lane got an up-close lesson on how to butcher a cow. Colton said he wasn’t thrilled about seeing the inside of an animal, but he’s been enjoying the steaks and hamburgers that came from it and that his family will get to enjoy over the holidays.
“It was gross and weird,” Colton said laughingly, “but my mom enjoys it.”
— Sydney Johnson
Miriam Arambula and daughter
Four-year-old Adaline Curiel wanted to make cupcakes to celebrate her grandmother’s birthday in November, so she got to baking with her mom, Miriam Arambula. It’s something she’s been doing lately to honor her grandmother, who passed away from Covid-19 in August.
She often draws photos of herself, her mom and her grandmother, and she makes sure her grandma’s framed photo remains clean. She also knows exactly how to make her mom feel better when Arambula feels sad about her mother’s passing — she’ll offer hugs, kisses and the framed photo she keeps dust-free.
“I don’t think Adaline realizes how much stronger she has made me just by simply understanding that I miss my mom and I miss her grandma,” said Arambula.
It’s been a tough year, and they’ve grown closer together while learning to talk through their emotions.
“I think it’s time for parents to really start connecting on an intimate and emotional level with their children so that when our child feels sad, they know it’s okay to feel sad or worried,” said Arambula, a social worker who works with veterans. “I want my daughter to be able to express herself when she gets older in a way that I wasn’t really able to when I was with my parents…just being Hispanic and being traditional, we eat a lot of our feelings, and we don’t talk through them.”
When it comes to learning, Arambula has updated her approach: she tries to engage Adaline right at the moment when she expresses a certain interest.
For example, when Adaline wrote the letter B on a piece of paper a few days ago and showed it to her mom, Arambula asked her to write the letter that came next. They kept going until reaching the letter G, which Adaline grew frustrated with because she couldn’t remember how to write it correctly. Arambula encouraged her to try again but avoided pushing her too much and paused on that lesson.
“If I could only engage my daughter for 10 minutes out of the day and do, like, legit curriculum then hey, I’ll take the 10 minutes as they come because they’re going to retain it,” she said.
At home, Adaline and Arambula like having dance parties while they clean their home during the weekends, and Adaline recently started having playdates with some of her cousins.
The playdates almost didn’t happen, because Arambula was hesitant to ask her sister if they could make the time to arrange for safe playtime. But Adaline needed the social interaction, so she reached out. Her sister readily agreed.
And that’s something Arambula advises for other families — don’t be afraid of asking for help. She acknowledged that some people might feel they will come across as weak if they ask for help, but that support systems, especially right now, are vital.
“Given the pandemic and all the chaos with presidential elections and school systems and going back into a purple tier in Fresno County, I would just say really for families to have a conversation of needing each other,” she said. “Cause right now it’s the time to really, really depend on those that love and care for you for just emotional support and listening.”
— Betty Márquez Rosales
Ann Hoeffer and grandchildren
For Ann Hoeffer’s family in rural Lake County, distance learning has been a frustrating cycle of tantrums, tears and bad report cards. But amid the chaos, her family has also found moments of grace — a new appreciation for school, their home and each other.
“Are we finding joy? We have to,” said Hoeffer, who’s helping raise her six grandchildren, two of whom have autism and receive behavioral therapy and other services. “Even when we didn’t see a way out of the situation we’re in, when it was like, ‘Oh my god, these kids are not going to survive this,’ we found a way.”
When the children aren’t doing homework, Hoeffer’s daughter, Amber Scroggins, leads them in extravagant baking projects. Their favorite is a gooey concoction involving brownies and cookie dough. For Halloween, the kids made masks out of recycled plastic bottles and then played “catch the monster,” a version of hide-and-seek that left the kids squealing with laughter.
Hoeffer and Scroggins always try to take a child along when running errands, so the child gets a change of scenery — after months of being stuck at home — and some one-on-one time with an adult. The younger two especially love trips to the bank, where the tellers coo over them.
The children’s grades are up, and the youngest child is now back to school in person, at least part-time.
But the activity that’s brought the most comfort is meandering walks on Lake County’s back roads. Away from the computer and stresses of school, the children can do the things children have always done: climb trees, throw rocks in the creek, play in the dirt, feed the ducks, run across the fields.
They feed apples to the neighbor’s horses, Whiskey and Jasper, and look for wildlife — turkeys, deer, hawks and even the occasional river otter.
“It’s been too much screen time for these kids. Life is not virtual,” Hoeffer said. “You need to feel the sun on your face, see the colors in fall, hear the wind in the trees. It’s the most amazing sound. … They love to feel free.”
— Carolyn Jones
Alexandra Mitchell,18, has had a rough beginning to her holiday season. The week before Thanksgiving she was diagnosed with Covid-19 and told to quarantine at home. The Shasta High School senior contracted the virus while working as a school intern at a local medical clinic.
Shasta High School in Redding and most of the rest of Shasta Union School District schools are open for in-person instruction in a hybrid model, with students at school half the week and in distance learning half the week.
The diagnosis and requisite 10-day quarantine meant Mitchell missed out on a few days of school, along with a Thanksgiving trip to Missouri to see her sister and a newborn nephew. Her teachers set up webcams in their classes, so she could follow along from home.
Luckily, Mitchell was asymptomatic, meaning she had none of the symptoms associated with Covid-19, although she was contagious.
Mitchell was happy she was able to return to school after Thanksgiving break with the rest of the students. It helped her avoid questions about where she had been. But some students, who knew about her diagnosis, were wary of coming near her, she said.
“I think there was a realization that this can happen to everyone, even though you do your best,” said Mitchell, who is conscientious about wearing a mask and social distancing.
The teen, who is earning her medical assistant certificate, has been working as an intern behind the front desk of the medical clinic. Mitchell didn’t learn she had been exposed to the virus until a teacher at her school told her the day after she worked at the clinic. The clinic had texted her, but her phone was broken. She was sent to a clinic and tested positive for Covid-19.
“I wasn’t frightened,” Mitchell said. “I was more in shock.”
Mitchell plans to return to her internship after the Christmas holiday so that she doesn’t jeopardize a planned trip to Texas to see her mother.
“I’m not going back now,” she said. “I don’t want to put myself at risk. I don’t want to be isolated for two holidays in row.”
The experience has been stressful for the senior and now she has concerns that her school will close again before she completes her finals. She has incorporated a few coping mechanisms into her life, including not thinking about the pandemic too much and raking her yard.
“I have been very invested in raking my lawn a lot because it gives me a reason to be outside, because I’m inside so much,” Mitchell said.
She advises other teens who are feeling stressed during this period to have some fun. “Find something non-stressful to do, something you enjoy and set aside time for yourself,” she said.
— Diana Lambert
Audrey Taito, 9 and her siblings would usually be reminiscing about their Thanksgiving trip to Fresno and planning their return for Christmas right about now. This is the first year the children won’t be able to see their great grandmother, although they had a Zoom call with her on Thanksgiving.
“It’s kind of sad,” Audrey said about not being able to see her extended family. “I do want to spend time with them.”
Instead, the fourth-grade student at Martin Luther King, Jr. school in Sacramento will spend the holidays at home with her immediate family. Audrey and her three brothers have been at home in distance learning since March.
“Online learning is kind of hard because I’m at home,” she said. “There are a lot of distractions. That’s why I prefer school. It kind of helps me to get my work done at school because I’m present with my class and I can’t turn off my camera.”
Audrey alleviates the stress of being away from relatives and friends and home in distance learning by drawing, taking walks with her brother Jayden, a ninth-grader who attends Kennedy High School, playing with Noah and William, her fifth- and sixth-grade brothers, or cuddling her dog Judah.
Jayden takes walks often, sometimes with siblings, but often alone to alleviate stress. “The walks help the most,” he said. “It gives me time for thinking.”
Noah plays basketball on a nearby court or plays video games to relax. He also says it helps him to feel better if he is able to cheer others up.
William is unhappy about not being able to go to school, play outside more or visit extended family, but he says he is trying to stay positive.
Rashida Dunn-Nsar does all she can to keep her kids occupied. Recently, the family watched “Ladybird,” a movie about a girl raised in Sacramento, and then took the children on a tour by car of the houses that were featured in the movie.
She is trying to compensate by giving them gifts all year round like phones they have already received. “I hate trying to express love with material things,” Dunn-Nasr said. “Anything that would give them some momentary happiness I will do that.”
Audrey says she just tries to be happy. “Since we are in a pandemic you should try to make the most of it,” she said.
But being cooped up with three brothers all day doesn’t always result in harmony, according Dunn Nasr. Sometimes, Audrey needs a little girl time, she said.
“Something that really makes me happy is when I go with my mom to take a ride, or we go pick something up,” Audrey said. “That’s fun because I get to talk to her.”
Audrey has sage advice for students feeling stressed about the pandemic and distance learning.
“Spend more time with your family if you are stressed,” she said. “You could talk to them and talk about your feelings and open up to them. If you don’t tell them and keep secrets from your family it feels like a lot of weight. You should let them know.”
Solano Martinez Family
Thanksgiving was quieter than usual at Leticia Solano’s house in Oxnard. Usually, her brother’s family comes over to celebrate with her family. But this year, she told them not to come. Her other brother, who lives with her family, had tested positive for Covid-19, and was isolating in his bedroom.
“How I wouldn’t love to celebrate with my brother,” said Solano in Spanish. “But I don’t plan to celebrate Christmas with the family either, because we shouldn’t get together.”
Still, Solano plans to put up a tree, exchange presents and make tamales or pozole for the family that lives with her.
“No matter what, I don’t let the pandemic get me down,” Solano said.
It has helped her to stay active in a local parent group called Padres Juntos and with Project2Inspire, a project organized by the California Association for Bilingual Education that trains parents to become leaders. Solano regularly participates in workshops for parents, sharing her own experiences to help others get involved in their children’s education. She’s gone to pick up food for other families in her neighborhood who have to work during the day, and she goes out of her way to help other families connect to online classes.
Soon, she’ll have one more way of helping others. Over the last couple of months, Solano took a class to learn how to be an interpreter in Mixteco, an indigenous language from the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico that is also common among many immigrant families in California. Solano learned the language from her parents, native speakers who moved to the northern Mexican state of Sinaloa, where she was born, to work in the fields. Recently, a counselor who works in the schools asked Solano whether she spoke Mixteco and told her she sometimes needs interpreters to be able to communicate with parents who only speak the language. Solano quickly signed up.
“I thought it would be easy, but it’s hard,” she said. Her last assignment was to record herself interpreting information about how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus into Mixteco. She hopes to soon be able to interpret in the schools or in community clinics to help her community.
Solano is hoping that her children, Mariacarmen, 9; Eusebio, 7; and Felipe, 5 can go back to school in the spring. On a recent survey from Oxnard School District, she chose hybrid learning, where her children would go to school in-person two days a week, over full-time distance learning. It is a challenge for her to help all three young children with distance learning, especially when classes are in English. She has to be present with them at all times, especially her kindergartner, Felipe. On a recent day, when she had a doctor’s appointment in the morning, she left her children at home with her teenage niece and her brother. When she came back, the kindergarten teacher told her that Felipe had not done much of his work, so she had to spend the afternoon making sure he finished it.
Still, Solano says some of her children’s peers are struggling more. Her husband is a farmworker, and Solano stays home with the children. She says that gives her time both to help her children with their homework and to play with them — building with Legos, putting together puzzles, or molding play dough. They also sometimes cook with her, mixing together fruit and condensed milk for a sweet treat, for example.
“My kids are doing okay,” she said. “I’ve heard from other parents whose children are really behind. It’s harder for those who have to work during the day to support their families.”
— Zaidee Stavely
In her senior year, 18-year-old Jessica Ramos has turned to humor in a dark situation
Amid the stress of the Covid pandemic and distance learning, Oakland senior Jessica Ramos and her family find humor in their terrier dog, Lucky, and the persona they’ve imagined for her.
During the last semester, Ramos started an instagram for Lucky, posting photos alongside captions as if quoting Lucky’s thoughts. Several of her friends have social media pages for their pets too, Ramos said.
“There’s been a lot of dogs hopping on social media which is pretty funny, it makes you think of what they’re saying,” Ramos said.
Even off the internet, Lucky’s imaginary inner-monologue has become somewhat of an inside joke for the family. Ramos said she and her mom Alma Ramos will take the dog on walks and joke about what they imagine she’s thinking — Ramos said she’ll never forget these walks.
“I’ve gotten to spend more time with my mom, who has been my rock this whole time,” Ramos said. “When we have our walks and seeing her start talking with my dog, I’m grateful for those small memories. I appreciate having my family and being able to be together and be alive and enjoy the moments because a lot of families are going through a lot.”
Distance learning came easy at first to Ramos, she said, but the longer it continues the harder it gets for her. Being on Zoom for hours at a time puts a strain on her eyes, she said.
“My eyes just can’t take it,” Ramos said. “It’s just very stressful when you don’t have face-to-face (lessons).”
She’s also frustrated with her AP government teacher, who she said is politically conservative and can be insensitive when discussing topics such as immigration. What she’s most looking forward to next semester is being done with that class, she said.
One of the ways she’s been coping with the stress is writing down her goals for the week, which she said helps her to focus.
“I usually take a day out of the week and write what I need to get done for that week,” She said.
On top of the stress of distance learning, she’s also applying to colleges and planning her future. She’s already submitted applications to the schools in the University of California and California State University systems, but she has her sights set on her “dream school” — Stanford. She wants to study education and become a teacher like her mother.
Yurok Tribal Lands
In a year when most routines have gone to the wind, holding on to tradition is more important than ever for the Myers family, who live on the Yurok tribal lands in far Northern California. In between homeschooling and work, the family of seven has carved out time to go hiking, gather mushrooms and acorns, hunt and fish.
But some traditions have been modified to prevent the spread of the coronavirus within the small rural community. This year, the Myers family held Thanksgiving dinner with only their household, unlike typical years when many extended relatives and friends would gather together.
“Everyone knows everyone here,” said Molli Myers, adding that she bought the smallest turkey she could find this year. “There’s a tag line here that our elders are our most precious resource, and we are trying to be more alert right now with the current spike in cases here.”
Molli, who works for a community health center, recently made the tough decision to cut back her hours to spend more time at home with her children who are doing distance learning, mostly by working with paper packets that they receive from their teachers because their internet service is spotty. Although having more time has helped her manage housekeeping and other responsibilities at home, homeschooling is still a major challenge for both her and her children.
“I thought taking time away from work was going to be a lot more successful. And at first, we did really well, but it’s just so hard. The kids don’t want their parents as teachers,” said Molli, whose son Re-wah Myers has an individualized education plan. “I’m not a special ed teacher. They have strategies and techniques to help kids learn and retain information, and I’m not that. So it’s been super challenging.”
Without steady access to the internet and limited contact with teachers, the family’s three high school students have also been struggling to find the motivation to do their schoolwork at home, she said.
Despite those ongoing challenges, this year’s holiday season has come with a bright spot: A major dam removal project on the Klamath River, which runs through the Yurok territory, has made significant headway. The Klamath River was one of the largest salmon spawning grounds in the country and has been a central part of the Yurok community’s food supply and livelihood for generations. But a series of hydroelectric dams built on the river in the 1900s has since decimated the local salmon species.
In November, a plan to remove four dams on the Klamath River in Southern Oregon and Northern California was put back in motion after facing a months-long delay due to regulatory uncertainties. Now, the dam removal project, which is the largest in U.S. history, is on track for 2023.
The news has brought relief and renewed hope for Frankie and Molli Myers, who met while fighting for the dam removal and have been working on the project for nearly 20 years.
“We are so excited about it,” Molli said. “This feels like a real quality step forward.”
— Sydney Johnson
December might just be the most “normal” month Mayra Guzman and her boys have had this year.
The few days she didn’t work during the year were spent solving problems related to distance learning: fixing the internet connection, picking up school work from campus and making sure her boys could log on to their learning platforms. But work in Fresno’s agricultural fields, where Guzman works, is slow during winter months.
“Today and yesterday that I was home, I felt strange,” said Guzman, who has time off for at least the next two months. “It’s rare being here during the day, because it’s been nearly a year since I’ve been home.”
The timing couldn’t be better. The family gets to reconnect after a stressful year, and it overlaps with her youngest boy’s preschool enrollment. She didn’t enroll him in school during the fall semester, because she was having a difficult time keeping her two older boys engaged in their own distance learning. But now she’ll be around to help 4-year-old Miguel Angel.
“During this time, I’ll be enrolling him in preschool and help him adapt to school — what he needs to do and how to use the tablet,” she said, referring to distance learning.“I’ll actually have the time to help him get used to it all.”
It’s time she hasn’t had this year with Jose Luis, 7 and Juan Manuel, 12.
They’ve both struggled to stay engaged with their schoolwork, but things are looking up. Jose Luis just wrapped up his second week back in his second-grade classroom at his Fresno Unified elementary school. Guzman can already see the difference in his approach to school, even though he only attends for about two hours twice a day.
“He’s so happy. He missed school, and it looks like he’s really paying more attention. With the teacher in front of him, he’s doing more of his work,” she said.
And Juan Manuel is in Mexico until January, staying in the state of Michoacan with Guzman’s parents, so he could change up his environment. He took his Chromebook with him and her dad set up WiFi in their home so he can continue logging in to his classes.
“This year was difficult, but I thought I’d have it much worse,” she said. It’s an outlook that she recommends for families this year: try finding the silver lining, even if it’s a thin one.
She and the two youngest boys are not wasting any of the time they now have together. Last week, they decorated their home for the holidays and picked up Denny’s for dinner, what the boys were craving that day. They’re now busy planning the upcoming months. Their time together during winter months tends to involve a lot of music and dancing, usually cumbias and Latin rock, and going on long drives while singing and drinking something warm.
And at the end of every day they’ll do the one thing that has remained constant for them this year — the boys will request a bedtime story, and she’ll make one up just for them.
— Betty Márquez Rosales
Sixth grader Kusema Thomas II is finally attending virtual classes but he has yet to catch up with the course work he missed over the first six weeks of school when he got lost in the system.
Except for the return of technical glitches that sidelined him for a week around Thanksgiving, Kusema has been able to attend school online regularly since early October.
But as the end of the first semester nears, his father has yet to resolve issues with Los Angeles Unified over how his son will be tutored for the six weeks of school he missed, through no fault of his own.
Kusema spent from the start of school in mid-August to the end of September repeatedly marked absent and given failing grades for classes he couldn’t attend but wanted to.
After delays in getting him enrolled, his family encountered a series of problems signing on and navigating classes at the Stephen White Middle School STEAM Magnet through LAUSD’s distance learning platform. The school and district failed to reach out to them even though Kusema was, by law, chronically absent and warranting immediate attention. The first contact was when his father showed up at school on his own on Oct 2.
The Thomas family lives in Carson, just south of Los Angeles. Every school day, Thomas, who works two jobs as a counselor, takes Kusema and his 4-year-old brother, Kadin, to their grandmother’s apartment in South Central L.A., where Kusema learns remotely with several of his cousins.
Thomas remains frustrated by the instruction that his son missed and the bad grades — mostly F’s — that Kusema got during his first two six-week report cards.
The attendance counselor at Stephen White Middle School has given him a form to account for the days that technology issues kept him from attending school. It’s good to clean his record of undeserved absences, Thomas said, but what about undeserved grades? Had the district investigated the reasons for his absences, his teachers would have known why he didn’t send in his assignments, Thomas said.
Thomas said the assistant principal, Michael Tarango, told him that Kusema should be able to pass his courses, if he continues as he has since early October, when he was first able to sign on. Thomas wants the F’s expunged from his interim report cards, and this week, Los Angeles Unified partially addressed his concern. It announced that no student in the district would receive a failing grade this semester until at least the end of January. Instead, students will initially be given an incomplete grade, with extra time to make up work and raise their grades.
Neither the school nor the district would respond to questions about Kusema, citing student privacy. In an email, a district spokesperson indicated that accommodations for poor grades would be made by a student’s teachers.
“Flexibility is being provided to all students to ensure missing/late assignments are accepted and accounted for along with the completion of current work,” the statement said. “If a student is experiencing challenges, our main instructional platform, Schoology, allows parents and students to contact teachers directly and resolve issues promptly.”
Thomas said the district has not reached out to him to offer tutoring and he remains concerned about his son’s learning. He said he was disappointed Kusema’s math teacher had not contacted him, even though Tarango had twice emailed all of Kusema’s teachers, asking them to do so.
The school offers tutoring for an hour after school four days each week. The district said automated phone calls have notified parents about tutoring and the principal mentioned it in weekly meetings for parents. One can sign up on the district’s website as well. Thomas acknowledged he stopped listening to automated calls after they continued to tell him his son had been absent from school.
Thomas said he’s not sure what he planned to do. He said he considers after school tutoring “like a punishment for my son, because now he has to take more time out of his day to spend in school, when he feels like it’s break time for everybody else.” Tutoring should be done during class time, he said — an offer the district hasn’t made.
On a positive note, the school did respond when a new computer glitch threw Kusema off-line the week of Thanksgiving break. It happened the day after EdSource reported about the family’s earlier troubles. The following Monday, a technology specialist diagnosed a couple of problem areas. Kusema had assumed he had made it on to Zoom, waiting for a teacher to let him in, when, in fact, he hadn’t. Afterward, Thomas met with Tarango, who discussed missed assignments that should be made up.
“I felt a little more encouraged when I left the school,” Thomas said. “Hopefully, we have left the technical issues behind us.”
It’s the non-technical issues that remain sources of contention.
– John Fensterwald
During a typical year, Kerry Martinez and her family, including her sons Ian and Alexander, would be celebrating the holidays with Kerry’s mother.
This year, though, Ian and Alexander for the first time won’t be seeing their grandmother for the holidays, a disappointing but necessary plan with Covid-19 infection rates at an all-time high in Los Angeles County.
Instead, the Martinez family has so far had a low-key holiday season while trying to sprinkle in safe family activities and outings whenever possible.
The day after Thanksgiving, Martinez and her husband took Ian and Alexander to a drive-in movie theater in Paramount. They saw “Croods: A New Age,” an animated movie about a prehistoric family and sequel to the 2013 film “Croods.” It is one of the only new movies playing right now.
The family stayed in their car during the movie but concession stands were open at the drive-in theater. They bought popcorn and sodas and brought candy from home. Ian and Alexander were delighted to get out of the house and have something to do, even if only for one night.
“They want to go out, they want to do stuff. So we’re trying to take them out when we can,” Martinez said.
Martinez and her husband also purchased new bicycles for their sons. They’ve been riding the bikes often with their dad, a safe outdoor activity during the pandemic. They sometimes ride the bikes around their neighborhood in South-Central Los Angeles, or they’ll take their bikes to Lancaster, a city about 70 miles north of downtown Los Angeles where Kerry’s sister lives, and ride them there.
Ian and Alexander attend KIPP Vida Preparatory Academy in South-Central. The school’s staff has tried to keep the holiday season as normal as possible for the students, Martinez said.
The school organized a spirit week this week, which included an ugly sweater day, a flannel shirt day and a pajama day, Martinez said. On Thursday, there was also a school-wide showing of the 2019 version of the “Lion King,” which the students watched over Zoom.
Those types of activities have helped keep Ian and Alexander in the Christmas spirit, Martinez said.
“Every morning they count down the days left until Christmas,” she said.
Once the holidays are over, uncertainty awaits for Martinez. She expects distance learning to continue for the foreseeable future, which may alter her own education plans.
Martinez was supposed to be a fifth-year student this fall at Cal State Los Angeles and on track to receive her teaching credential next spring. She already delayed those plans by one semester so that she could closely supervise her sons during distance learning.
Now, she’s considering delaying her education another semester, meaning she may not get her credential until spring 2022.
Martinez is anxious to get her credential and start teaching as soon as possible, but she also wants to be able to give her sons the attention they need during distance learning.
“My concern is that if I go to school, I have to focus on my school. So I’m not going to give them enough attention for them to do their schoolwork. So I don’t know if my children are going to have the education they have when I’m here,” she said.
The clock is ticking for Martinez to make her decision. She’s supposed to start her classes next semester in mid-January.
“I’m hoping I can go to school, but we’ll just have to see,” she said.
— Michael Burke
Carolyn Bims-Payne and Sons
Without access to their school’s running track, Oakland students Jaylon and Michael Lee have found an unconventional place to practice their 100-yard dash — the hallway of their apartment complex.
Jaylen, who is in fourth grade, and Michael, who is in seventh grade, recently sparked an interest in track and field, said their mother Carolyn Bims-Payne. To prepare for future track meets, the brothers have been running sprints through the complex.
“We live in an outdoor-type apartment complex, so it’s not bothering anyone,” Bims-Payne said. “It gives them the opportunity to be outside and get exercise.”
At this point in the school year, the students have “adapted to the circumstances,” Bims-Payne said. Though there have been a few shake ups — like Jaylen’s teacher switching from the Google Classroom online learning platform to the Seesaw platform — the kids haven’t had trouble keeping up with their schoolwork and have been getting good grades.
Still, the family is eager to return to in-person instruction, because the kids are missing out on crucial social time, Bims-Payne said.
“Our students don’t have any socialization with their peers,” She said. “You get on the computer, then it’s classwork. There’s a break, then you get back on and there’s more classwork, so to interact with other students would be great.”
Though Oakland Unified submitted plans to phase in in-person instruction in January to the Alameda County Office of Education, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell announced Monday that the district would delay plans due to the surge in Covid cases in the Bay Area. She said it’s unclear when in-person instruction can begin.
“I’m looking forward to seeing exactly how this is going to pan out because it feels very uncertain,” Bims-Payne said.
Her advice to other parents who are feeling uncertain is to be patient with both students and teachers.
“While it sounds so cliche, we’re all in this together,” Bims-Payne said. “We’re all experiencing our highs and lows and in-betweens together, and I believe the teachers are doing what is asked of them, and we have to be patient.”
One of the biggest upsides of distance learning for Bims-Payne has been being able to tune in to her sons’ classes to see for herself how they are doing. She shadows her sons’ classes a few times a week, she said, and reports back to the school’s parent support group.
Another bright spot has been having the time to sit down to a hot breakfast with her sons every morning, Bims-Payne said.
“One of things I truly value is being able to spend time with the boys,” she said. “Without the hustle and bustle, we’re literally sitting down, having a hot breakfast together, with bacon, eggs and toast.”
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