Patience, resilience and a fierce determination to succeed in school — and life. That’s what California families said they learned after enduring a school year like no other.

In EdSource’s final installment of “Education During Covid: California Families Struggle to Learn,” we asked parents and students to reflect on distance learning and the impacts of Covid-19 on their education and personal lives. Even the families who had suffered the most, who lost loved ones or grappled with financial hardship or were stymied by technology, found they gained valuable insights about their children’s education and themselves.

“I think if the pandemic wouldn’t have hit, I would still have been caught up in that mindset of living to survive instead of just actually living in the moment and enjoying (my daughter) at the age that she is,” said Miriam Arambula, a parent in Fresno whose mother died of Covid-19 in August. “I wouldn’t have that revelation or clarity of: Hey, life is going by fast. You don’t get time back.”

Arambula and several other parents we interviewed said that even after their children return to in-person school, they plan to work less and devote more time to home life. After a year of helping their children learn remotely, they feel more involved and invested in their children’s schoolwork and don’t want to give that up.

Some said the pandemic inspired them to connect more with their communities. Leticia Solano, an immigrant from Mexico who never attended school past the elementary level, managed to master the digital platforms used by her children’s school in Oxnard and help them with classwork. Now, she wants to help other parents by serving as a translator for those who speak Mixteco, an indigenous language spoken in Oaxaca, and assisting them with technology.

“Anything my community needs, I will do,” she said in Spanish. “If they need something, I am here to help.”

Three families are watching their children graduate from high school and embark on their futures. Nick-nekich Hillman, who lives on Yurok tribal land in Northern California, plans to train to become a firefighter. Alexandra Mitchell, who earned a 4.3 grade point average from Shasta High in Redding, is headed to UC Davis planning to become a doctor. And Jessica Ramos, an activist and student leader in Oakland Unified, plans to go to UC Berkeley with plans to return to Oakland as a teacher.

Ann Hoeffer, who’s helping raise her six grandchildren in rural Lake County, said her family has learned to lower its expectations and take life as it comes. And never give up.

“I hope to never in my life go through what we experienced this year,” she said. “But now we don’t panic. When things are tough, we don’t have full-on meltdowns. We know there’s a lot of amazing people – teachers, therapists, family – who support us, and we are resilient. We will bounce back.”

Carolyn Jones


Ramos Family

Oakland

Skyline High school senior Jessica Ramos is finally breathing a sigh of relief after an incredibly tough last year of school. Her motivation started to slip near the end, but with college on the horizon, she pushed past the finish line.

As a high-achieving student, Ramos had her pick between UCLA and UC Berkeley. The day before taking the stage at Skyline’s graduation ceremony, Ramos committed to Berkeley, where she was offered a full-ride scholarship and plans to study ethnic studies with a minor in education.

The main reason she chose Berkeley was the scholarship, she said. But also, it’s close to home and has a rich history of student activism.

“Being a first-generation student, it’s very hard when it comes to finances, so it was a big blessing,” Ramos said. “Another big thing is that I’m staying home, I’m staying local, close to my community and close to my mentees and mentors around the Bay Area.”

Credit: Andrew Reed/EdSource

Jessica Ramos with her mother, Alma, on graduation day at Skyline High school on June 4, 2021.

Ramos currently mentors seven Oakland Unified students, helping them with college and financial aid applications through a grant from Oakland Promise, a multifaceted initiative to help children get a college degree.  It provides students with scholarships, college savings accounts and college planning assistance.

Ramos said she hopes to offer students the support they need to navigate the college application process, which left her confused and stressed out. Over the last year, Ramos also struggled with mental health issues.

“My mental health was a big thing that made me suffer, even to my grades, but knowing I overcame that and being able to graduate was one of my biggest accomplishments,” she said.

Ramos confided in her parents and teachers, and she was able to get the mental health support she needed to get back on track.

Though she’s been involved as an activist since she was a freshman, Ramos said the past year has sharpened her activism. She advocated to rid the district of its controversial school police force, fought along other activists to get the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office to reopen the investigation into the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant at the hands of police officers, and helped organize a “Defund OPD” march to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s home.

Ramos said she’s taking a much-needed break this summer. Though she usually takes community college classes in the summer — she will be entering college with more than a semester’s worth of credit — she won’t be doing that this summer. She’s got a trip to Barcelona, Spain, planned in August — a graduation gift from her mother — and plans to hang out with friends and relax as much as possible.

She’s nervously looking ahead to her freshman year of college. She said she’s not eager to return to in-person classes after getting comfortable learning from home, but she is looking forward to meeting new friends.

To make the end of high school even more special, she was able to celebrate with an in-person graduation ceremony — something she had been advocating for months as a student director on Oakland Unified’s school board. 

But stepping onto campus for the graduation ceremony for the first time since schools closed was a bittersweet moment.

“It felt like the first day of school, but also the last,” she said. “It made me sad not having the campus, not having the nice events and the usual high school memories, but at the end of the day I made it through, and I think it showed us that students can persevere through a pandemic.”

One of Ramos’ biggest takeaways from the pandemic has been an even stronger commitment to her career path of being a teacher in her hometown — where she said there are not enough teachers of color.

“This whole pandemic has shown me what teachers can do and what they’re capable of,” Ramos said. “Since my teachers were so supportive of me, that’s what I want to be to future generations”

Ali Tadayon


Alexandra Mitchell

Redding

Alexandra Mitchell donned a white cap and gown, pulled a yellow honor cord around her neck and crossed the stage under the lights of Thompson Field in Redding on Friday night to celebrate one of the few senior milestones she has been allowed since the coronavirus pandemic closed much of the country 15 months ago.

Mitchell, 18, who graduated from Shasta High School with a 4.3 grade-point average, had struggled in distance learning. As a high-achiever she had been anxious about learning online and not having enough access to her teachers.

“School was very hard on her because it was her senior year,” said her mother, Carolyn Morphew. “She missed out on the latter half of her junior and two-thirds of her senior year. She couldn’t make the lasting connections you would with your peers. That was hard on her.”

Over time Mitchell said she began to appreciate the autonomy. “I guess I kind of figured out I can be a little more independent,” she said. “I don’t need to be surrounded by people all the time or have people around all the time.”

Despite that, Mitchell said it would be better if schools went back to teaching the way they did before the pandemic and didn’t hold onto distance learning.

“I’m more of a paper and pencil person,” she said. “The computer stuff I found to be more of an inconvenience and took a lot of time.”

Mitchell didn’t have to endure distance learning as long as most California students. The Shasta High campus, located in the northernmost part of the state where infection rates have been low, reopened at the beginning of this school year with students in two groups rotating onto campus two days a week for classes. In April, students returned to school campuses five days a week.

Mitchell, who aspires to be a surgeon, was excited when Covid restrictions in Shasta County relaxed enough that she could work at a local clinic earlier this school year. She wanted to earn a medical assistant credential through a school program. She even kept her positive outlook after she contracted Covid-19 while working at the clinic. Luckily, Mitchell had none of the symptoms associated with Covid-19, although she was contagious and had to be quarantined for 10 days.

Credit: Courtesy of Alexandra Mitchell

Alexandra Mitchell, left, and her friend Taiana Huff in their prom dresses.

Despite the hurdles, Mitchell was determined to make the most out of her senior year. So, when school officials decided to allow the students to attend a slightly delayed in-person prom on May 22, Mitchell decided she was going even if she had to go alone. She nearly had to make good on that promise to herself because most of her friends weren’t planning to go to prom. She eventually called Taiana Huff, a friend since kindergarten, and they went together.

One of the things Mitchell had wanted most this school year, to perform with the school band, came true the same week as the prom. Mitchell, who was president of the school’s band, played the flute and the drums in the school’s spring concert.

Last week Mitchell prepared for finals. She didn’t intend to let up on her studies even though she has been accepted at UC Davis, where she plans to major in life science and minor in music. Mitchell said she received all A’s during her high school career, except for two B’s – one in honors medical chemistry and one in AP biology.

It’s my pride,” she explained. “I don’t want my grades to slip even in this last week.”

Mitchell says the pandemic made her appreciate the faculty at Shasta High School even more than she did before. They were sympathetic about the challenges students were facing working at home and were always willing to be flexible when students had internet problems or other issues.

“They understood that things happen,” she said. “It’s not going to go 100 percent of the time.”

Mitchell will always remember how the pandemic disrupted her senior year. But she is grateful that Covid-19 infection rates are down and that her graduation was able to be more traditional. Mitchell dined out with her family before the ceremony, walked across the stage with family and friends watching and attended an all-night sober graduation party at the Elks Lodge. It felt almost like a normal graduation night, except for the masks.

Diana Lambert


Credit: Courtesy of Molli Myers

Re-wah and Sregon Myers work on paper-based homework and activities at their home in Northern California.

Myers Family

Yurok Tribal Lands

After a year of staying in, the Myers family is eager to soak up Northern California’s forested coastline with a summer of fishing, hiking, and celebrating with family again. 

At the top of the agenda are plans to celebrate graduation for high school senior Nick-nekich Hillman. 

“We want to have a big thing for him,” said Molli Myers, whose children attend Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District in Hoopa. “We are going to go on a family camping trip that first week of June, so it will be when we come back. This is really awesome for him. We are so happy for him.”

After the celebrations, Nick, who attended Klamath-Trinity’s alternative high school, will begin training as a firefighter — just as the state enters another fire season on the heels of a major drought that’s already been affecting ways of life for the Yurok community. Water levels are dangerously low in the region’s rivers and streams, causing a major die-off of local salmon and other fish. 

“It’s terrible,” Myers said. “We are having a juvenile fish kill up and down the river.”

In the last few weeks of school, Sregon and Re-wah Myers, the two youngest boys in the family, were thrilled to get back on the bus and get back to Weitchpec Yurok Magnet School again. “They are really super digging school right now,” their mother said. “Their school is just kicking butt, they have a great team there.”

But the teenagers aren’t sharing the same enthusiasm for returning as their younger siblings. High schoolers Sofia, Ghaas and Nick each returned for two days a week this spring after schools began to welcome small cohorts of students back. But the limited schedule made it difficult to connect with friends they were really missing. 

Freshman Sophia was placed in a different cohort from her boyfriend, who already lives on the other side of a nearby town, keeping them from seeing each other as often as they would like. Getting out of bed to go to a school where few kids are present doesn’t have the same appeal. 

But parents Frankie and Molli have found the time at home with their kids a bright spot in a long and confusing year. Now, Molli hopes to maintain her at-home schedule and stay involved with her kids’ education even after everyone returns to fully in-person instruction in the fall. 

“Sending the kids to school less, I just think it’s amazing. I like being around them and being able to teach them things too,” she said, mentioning activities such as gathering and basket weaving.

Despite some academic setbacks this year, summer school isn’t in the cards. Myers wants to focus on her kids’ overall well-being, help everyone readjust with in-person activities and immerse in their community again. 

“Summers are really epic here. We’re on the river, it’s fishing season, and this is the time when we do ceremonies and gathering for basket weaving. All of those are so critical to our family life, so I wouldn’t want to disrupt that anyway,” with summer school, Myers said. “Last year, we weren’t able to have ceremonies because of Covid, we were so worried. But that will happen more this summer.”

— Sydney Johnson


Credit: Courtesy of Ann Hoeffer

Ann Hoeffer at the park with her grandchildren.

Ann Hoeffer and grandchildren

Lake County

With six children home during the pandemic, Ann Hoeffer and her family have learned a lot about patience in the past year. But they learned something else important, too: having realistic expectations.

“We learned not to set ourselves up for failure. We learned how to support our kids where they are,” she said. “I hope the schools learned that, too.”

Hoeffer, who’s helping raise her six grandchildren in rural Lake County, juggled ever-changing distance learning and hybrid school schedules while trying to keep her family’s morale up during the toughest times.

It was not an easy year. Two of her grandchildren, Jesse and Gabriel, have moderate autism and struggled with behavior problems until it was safe for them to see their therapists in person. Irie, 11, had a hard time with math. Elissa, a junior in high school, missed her prom, school play and a host of other activities. All the kids suffered from frustration and loneliness at one time or another.

Credit: Courtesy of Ann Hoeffer

Gabriel,5, and Jesse,6, who both have moderate autism, swim during behavioral therapy.

Hoeffer hopes all five kids will attend school in person this fall. And that if they do, school will look a little different than it did before the pandemic.

She hopes schools offer more support for students who are struggling and that communication with families improves. On her end, she knows that she, her daughter Amber and Amber’s boyfriend, Cody, will be much more involved than they had been before the pandemic.

“There’s so much more we know now. We know about their reading levels, their math skills, their attention spans,” she said. “Cody is always asking, how’d school go? Did you finish your homework? Can I see your report card? That’s something new, and it’s made a huge difference.”

But most of all, Hoeffer and her family feel they’ve learned how to take things in stride.

“I hope to never in my life go through what we experienced this year,” she said. “But now we don’t panic. When things are tough, we don’t have full-on meltdowns. We know there’s a lot of amazing people – teachers, therapists, family – who support us, and we are resilient. We will bounce back.”

— Carolyn Jones


Credit: Courtesy of Rashida Dunn-Nasr

The Dunn-Nasr children (top to bottom) Audrey, Noah, Jayden and William.

Dunn-Nasr Family

Sacramento

A lot has changed for the Dunn-Nasr family in just the last month. When Sacramento City Unified reopen its campuses in April, Rashida Dunn-Nasr said she wouldn’t be sending her four children back this school year because of Covid-19 concerns. Now, Jayden, William, Noah and Audrey, who are in ninth, sixth, fifth and fourth grades, respectively, are all back on their school campuses.

Dunn-Nasr, who works full time, said she decided to send her children back to school in May after she realized they weren’t always participating in Zoom lessons and were getting increasingly depressed and anxious. She also discovered that they were opting to play outside with friends in the afternoons and evenings instead of completing their homework.

“They weren’t engaged, and I had to factor in the fact they had lost so much learning over the course of Covid,” she said. “We are going to get out of this pandemic, and I don’t want them to be illiterate or incapable of doing simple math programs that someone at their grade level should know. That was my concern.”

Now the three youngest children attend school on the Martin Luther King Jr. K-8 campus from 8 to 11 a.m. four days a week and the oldest son, Jayden, attends Kennedy High School. Everyone was eager to return to school except Audrey, who need a few more days of convincing before her mom could get her back on the school campus.

“Audrey likes it,” Dunn-Nasr said of distance learning. “She had a year of ‘If I don’t like it, I don’t have to do it.’ It’s as simple as walking away from the computer.”

In the few weeks Audrey has been back to school, she has acclimated to it and says she enjoys sitting with her friend Mia and seeing her teacher in person.

“It’s a lot better than staying at home at school,” said Jayden, who had never been on the Kennedy High School campus as a student. “ It’s easier for me to focus when I’m actually in the classroom. There are a lot of distractions at home.”

Jayden has wanted to return to school, fearing he was falling behind academically.

During the pandemic, the family struggled with internet connectivity and inconsistent schedules from their schools. The kids agree that there isn’t much about distance learning they want to be replicated in their classrooms permanently, although Jayden and Noah would like to continue to work on school laptops at school and at home.

Dunn-Nasr also had been reluctant to get her children vaccinated, concerned about the emergency status of the vaccine. She’s still concerned, but recently agreed to let Jayden, 14, decide if he wanted the vaccine. He recently received his first dose.

“We would have liked years of research, but I understand the pressing issue of Covid,” she said.

Dunn-Nasr is hopeful that vaccines will help schools return to normal but is fearful that the flu and cold season could bring another surge of Covid-19 or that variants of the disease will show up in the Sacramento community.

In the meantime, she will continue to ensure her children take precautions whenever they are outside their house.

“I will never let them go out without a mask,” she said, adding that she trusts her kids to keep them on when they are no longer mandated at schools. She is concerned about parents who won’t vaccinate their children or require they wear masks in public.


Credit: Andrew Reed/EdSource

Carolyn Bims-Payne with her sons Jaylen Lee, 10 (left), and Michael Lee, 12, (right) outside their Oakland apartment.

Carolyn Bims-Payne and Sons

Oakland

One of the biggest changes in Oakland mother Carolyn Bims-Payne’s life during the pandemic has been feeling more of a connection with her sons’ education. She has been advocating more for her sons when communicating with teachers, principals and district officials, and has a greater sense of appreciation for her sons’ teachers than before, she said.

Having recently been accepted into graduate school for social work, Bims-Payne said her experience last year inspired her to want to do her graduate school work at a school district — preferably a school district in low-income neighborhoods, she said.

“I want to help parents advocate and help parents of students who are in truancy,” Bims-Payne said. “So many children have fallen through the cracks because of their home environment, and the pandemic has exposed how great the need is for students to be in school.”

As far as summer plans, Bims-Payne’s sons, Jaylen and Michael Lee, 10 and 13, have their sights set on spending time outside and with friends after spending so much time isolated at home. They are kicking off the summer with an 11-day overnight camp where they’ll hike, camp and meet other kids their age.

Michael will also do a STEM summer program at Oakland Unified’s Edna Brewer Middle School. Bims-Payne said he wasn’t too keen on doing summer school, but she’s been pushing him to do it out of concern for learning loss.

“He’s not failing classes or anything, but I do think that learning retention has decreased, and this will give him the upper hand on getting some more support,” Bims-Payne said. “Plus he’ll be with his peers.”

Luckily, Michael’s school is structured so that his seventh grade teachers will move with him to eighth grade, which puts Bims-Payne more at ease.

Neither Michael nor Jaylen has returned to the classroom. Jaylen’s school offered an in-person option on Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 3 p.m., but Bims-Payne couldn’t make it work with her job schedule as a social worker.

Michael actually enjoyed distance learning, Bims-Payne said.

“I’m like, really?” she said. “But I think one of his big lessons was that distance learning will prepare him for attending college, when he may have an online class and will need experience using a planner more frequently and organizing his time.”

Time management comes naturally for Jaylen, she said. 

“He’s been really rigid: If it’s not on the schedule, it doesn’t exist,” Bims-Payne said. “For instance PE is PE, and he’ll tell me, ‘Mom, I’m not supposed to be doing work right now. It’s a break.”

Ali Tadayon


Credit: John Fensterwald/EdSource

From left, second grader Camdyn, dad Andrew Tran, mom Kathy Lieu, seventh grader Karyn, high school sophomore Carly and seventh grader Aidan.

Kathy Lieu, Andrew Tran and children

San Jose

Carly Tran glides through school the way she cuts through the water in the breast stroke for Silver Creek High School’s swim team. Effortlessly, efficiently.

Looks understate the effort. A report card with all A’s, which Carly expects she’ll get in her nearly completed sophomore year, takes discipline and a drive common with firstborn children.

Remote learning was a drag for many students this year, but not for Carly. Asked what she learned about herself this year, she said, “That I could adapt to any challenge. A lot of people find they really can’t learn on Zoom. I’m fine with it,” she said.

What was the difference between others and you?

“I think just finding motivation to go to class,” she said.

Along with a full load of courses at Silver Creek, Carly took AP Physics through an online program developed by the University of California. This summer, she will take two community college courses online, psychology and sign language. She’ll also teach swimming.

The youngest Tran, second grader Camdyn, has become more independent. Back in August, he’d complain that he couldn’t keep up with assignments; his hunt-and-peck typing method put him behind. He was frustrated and demanded that mom do it for him. Now he’s typing 50 words a minute and shoos her away.

But Covid has also been a difficult trial for the middle of the four Tran children, 13-year-old twins Karyn and Aidan. They’re smart, too, and also swim on Carly’s club team but have struggled this year, each differently, Andrew Tran and Kathy Lieu said. The twins don’t like to talk much about their year – at least with reporters.

Karyn has focused on school during distance learning – but only to the point of doing her assignments as quickly as it takes to get good grades, Lieu said. That has left Karyn with time on her hands that she spends alone in her room playing computer games like Minecraft and chatting online.

Before Covid, Karyn’s world was her school and swim club – several hundred people. Now, through chat platforms like Discord, it’s an infinite universe of conversations with unknown people from anywhere messaging all times of day. The dark unknown of social media worries Andrew Tran, her father.

Karyn has become more anti-social, Lieu said. “Distance learning has changed her,” she said. “She never used to stay in her room. She used to be excited about going to school. Now, it’s, ‘I don’t care.’ Aidan, on the other hand, “can’t stay focused” on classes or his homework, Lieu said. Aidan chats, he checks out YouTube. He’s constantly distracted. Unfinished assignments have piled up, and his grades have suffered.

Lieu, a software engineer who works from home, has spent much of her time for 15 months watching her kids closely. For young teens, going through mood swings of puberty, the pandemic has been particularly tough, she said.

“The twins got hit the most. Carly not much, and then Camdyn, he’s got friends, but at that age, he’s happy to stay home with mom,” she said.

Soon, all the kids will be in some form of summer school. Karyn’s accelerated math class will be rigorous. Lieu is hoping that the shadow of distance learning will lift when kids are back in class with their friends and busy with swimming and soccer. She, too, needs a break from constantly monitoring the kids. With final grades coming and a chapter of their life soon to end, Aidan offered words of consolation.

“Believe in me, Mom,” he said. “I won’t let you down.”

— John Fensterwald


Credit: Courtesy of Armanda Ruiz

Priscila Ruiz Ramirez, 11, at her ceremony for “reclassification” to show she is no longer considered an English learner.

Ruiz/Gutierrez Family

Los Banos

Resilience is the word that comes to mind for Armanda Ruiz when describing how her four children braved the pandemic. They all excelled in school, despite the challenges of distance learning and a prolonged separation from their father, who cannot return from Mexico after being denied a green card.

Distance learning was hardest for Priscila Ruiz Ramirez, 11, who is enrolled in a special education class. She finally returned to in-person classes in April, but at the beginning of the pandemic, she struggled with internet connection problems and technical difficulties.

“We need to learn from this,” Ruiz said. “I hope the teachers are more prepared now, in case another situation happens like this.”

This spring, Priscila was finally able to participate in the district’s ceremony to celebrate students who had previously been classified as English learners but are now recognized as fluent. Previously the district held students with special needs like Priscila, who has autism and speech delays, to the same standards as other students when considering their fluency. But after pressure from Ruiz and other parents, the district changed the rules so that it is possible for students with special needs to be considered fluent in English, even when they don’t pass all the tests.

Priscila’s older brother Ignacio Gutierrez Ramirez, 17, has been acing his Advanced Placement classes in high school, but he is hoping to be able to return to school in person for his senior year in the fall.

Ignacio said there’s nothing he prefers about distance learning. “Sure, there’s sleeping in, but I’d rather be focusing on class. I learned that it is much easier to do school in person than online,” he said.

Their second oldest sibling, Nathan, 19, got all A’s in the fall semester at Merced College, and during the spring semester has been trying something new, enrolling in a Japanese class. Nathan prefers distance learning and hopes to be able to keep on taking college classes online next year as well.

“I’m mostly like an introvert, so it’s kind of better for me to not socialize with people. I’ve been keeping up with schoolwork pretty well, better than before, and better than high school. But the problem is asking teachers for help,” Nathan said. “I’d like to see more mental health check-ins with the students, just to make sure everyone’s doing OK.”

Elena Gutierrez Ramirez, the oldest of the four at 21, appreciated the flexibility of online classes at Merced College because it allowed her to continue working as a cashier at Big 5 Sporting Goods to help support the family. They have struggled economically since Priscila’s father, Jose, who was the main provider for the family, went to Mexico two years ago to apply for a green card and was unable to return because the U.S. government determined he might become a “public charge” and depend on government benefits. He is currently appealing the decision.

Elena won’t be returning to college this fall because she joined the U.S. Army Reserve to better support the family. She will be attending basic training from July to November. She plans to take more college classes next spring.

“I grew in maturity and speaking up for myself, which was one of my goals I wanted to accomplish,” Elena said.

She has a role model in her mother, who this year will finish five years as the vice president of the District English Learner Advisory Committee, a group made up of parents, staff and community members that advises the district on how to best serve English learners. Every district in California that has more than 50 English learners is required to have a committee like this.

For Ruiz, the pandemic brought into focus the lack of transparency in how funding is used for English learners and other vulnerable students.

She is glad the district is planning to put more funding toward mental health. She also wants more one-on-one help for students, especially English learners, to improve their English and to work on subjects like math. “I think it is important to train parents on how to use technology to help their children, and English classes for parents so they can help their children with their homework. In addition, I think we need more training for parents on school budgets and how funding is used in the budget for English learners,” Ruiz said.

— Zaidee Stavely


Credit: Courtesy of Miriam Arambula

Miriam Arambula (left) and Adaline Curiel (right)

Miriam Arambula and Daughter

Fresno

“She’s not going to be little forever.” 

That thought has shaped Miriam Arambula’s life over the past year as she has reorganized her life to spend more time with her 5-year-old daughter, Adaline Curiel.

She felt a strong sense of urgency to slow down her work life when her own mother passed away in August after contracting Covid-19. With a job as a social worker that allowed for just three paid days of bereavement, she realized it was up to her to make the time to heal from the death of her beloved mother with whom her daughter shared a special bond.

Plus, Adaline will move on to kindergarten next school year, which means she’ll be attending a new school campus for the first time. She will be coming from Fresno’s Early Learning Center, which she has attended since she was 5 months old. 

Credit: Courtesy of Miriam Arambula

Miriam Arambula and her daughter, Adaline Curiel, plan to spend lots of time at a local park this summer doing one of Curiel’s favorite activities: feeding the ducks.

Adaline is ecstatic and often reminds her mom that they need to practice her numbers so she can be ready for kindergarten. But for Arambula, it’s a reminder that her little girl is quickly growing up. 

“I think if pandemic wouldn’t have hit, I would still have been caught up in that mindset of living to survive instead of just actually living in the moment and enjoying Addie at the age that she is,” Arambula said. “I wouldn’t have that revelation or clarity of: Hey, life is going by fast. You don’t get time back.”

That clarity changed a few things in her and Adaline’s lives. 

First, the pandemic-related school closures helped her be more involved in Adaline’s education. She was always highly involved, but direct communication with her daughter’s school wasn’t possible in the way that it was during distance learning. 

Their school district, Fresno Unified, rolled out a phone app for parents that lets them upload photos of work the students are doing at home for teachers to see. It also tells Arambula if her daughter has been dropped off and picked up from school, a particularly useful tool for parents who live in separate households. That type of direct contact with the school’s educators and administrators wasn’t quite possible before the pandemic because there was no app to facilitate it. 

That clarity also means she’s working a new job on a per diem basis. It means that Arambula does not take work shifts on the days when Adaline is with her instead of at the father’s home. And it means that she’s making many more memories with the girl than she was able to do when working full time with few vacation days. 

This summer, for example, they’re planning a few fun things: going to the beach, visiting Adaline’s favorite park in Fresno, perhaps even a trip to Disneyland. 

You’ll be able to find Adaline doing some of her favorite activities with her mom: feeding ducks at the park, hanging onto monkey bars and playing as much as she likes. 

— Betty Márquez Rosales


Credit: Courtesy of SARAH COURTNEY

Colton Reichow shows off two awards he took home for reading and distance learning at an end-of-the-year award ceremony.

Courtney-Reichow Family

Lucerne Valley

Sarah Courtney has been waiting for schools to return to in-person instruction all year. But now that her fourth-grade son, Colton, is back in class five days a week, the magnitude of the changes from this past year is settling in. 

“I thought things would be easier once he was back in school, but it’s harder in some ways,” Courtney said on a video call from her car on a recent afternoon after picking up Colton from school.

For better and worse, pickups, drop-offs and other busy parts of life are resuming again. But Courtney’s younger son, Lane, misses having his big brother at home during the daytime and is struggling with the adjustment. Meanwhile, she is still working to complete her own studies as a nursing student — and organizing an outdoor celebration for students at Lucerne Valley Elementary School in San Bernardino County on their last week of school. 

“I’m running around trying to get popcorn and cotton candy for their surprise end-of-the-year carnival,” Courtney said. “We have a bunch of homemade games. It’s so last-minute, but we wanted to surprise them.”

Credit: Courtesy of SARAH COURTNEY

A student at Lucerne Valley Elementary aims to sink a ping pong ball into a glass jar at the school’s end-of-the-year carnival.

Even with the return of some familiar stressors, Courtney and Colton are feeling energized about being back in class and getting outside this summer. 

“I’m ready for it all to go back to normal,” Courtney said. 

In the classroom, Colton has been getting his hands dirty with crafts and other hands-on lessons. He recently made tie-dye masks for an art activity and greeted his mom recently with a three-panel poster with drawings and information about the California Gold Rush. 

“I like being in class a lot more than online. It’s just a lot better. We can actually learn stuff rather than on the computer 24/7,” Colton said. 

Courtney was an involved parent before the pandemic, but watching her child participate in online class up close renewed her respect for teachers and made her want to get more involved in Colton’s learning looking ahead. 

“I realized I don’t have the patience to be a teacher. I had a hard time managing two, let alone all 25,” Courtney said laughingly. “But he needs help with writing and math, so I want to be way more involved in those aspects.”

Math and writing were difficult subjects for Colton in an online setting. But he has excelled at reading over the last year and found a new hobby in books during the pandemic, too. One of his favorites from the past year was Brian Selznik’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” an adventure story about a young boy with a knack for mechanics and tinkering. 

Colton’s own mechanic skills will come into play this summer as he expands his love for motorbiking with an all-new motorbike racing league. 

“These tracks are a lot different from the desert where I used to race. It’s got jumps instead of just desert and rocks. And it’s a lot more competitive,” Colton said. 

“It’s a whole different ballgame, so I’m excited for him,” said Courtney. “Nervous, but excited.”

— Sydney Johnson


Credit: Courtesy of Leticia Solano

Felipe Martinez continues to do distance learning from home, although his older brother and sister attend in-person classes.

Solano-Martinez Family

Oxnard

Leticia Solano can’t wait for all of her children to return to school in person.

“I don’t want them to go back to Zoom,” said the Oxnard mother. “It’s not the same as when the children learn by doing projects in school.”

Solano has three young children in kindergarten, first grade and third grade. She is as involved as she can be in her kids’ schooling because she herself was only able to study for a few years in elementary school in Mexico before beginning to work.

Even with all the will and eagerness to help her children with school, it has been a struggle to support all three young children doing distance learning simultaneously in their apartment, especially because Solano doesn’t speak English and couldn’t help them with schoolwork in English.

Currently, Solano’s first grader, Eusebio, and her third grader, Mariacarmen, go to school in person during the morning, but her youngest, Felipe, still does kindergarten only through his computer. The last day of school in Oxnard is June 17.

This summer, though Felipe will get a chance to go to summer school in person. His teachers are concerned that his speech isn’t fully developed — he often leaves off the first or last syllable of words — for example, he might say “mon” for “lemon.”

The pandemic forced Solano to learn about digital education platforms. “We all had to learn, whether we wanted to or not,” Solano said.

She was also inspired during the pandemic to help neighbors’ children get connected to their virtual classrooms, and to study to become an interpreter in her native language Mixteco, an indigenous language from Oaxaca in southern Mexico.

“Anything my community needs, I will do,” she said in Spanish. “If they need something, I am here to help.”

— Zaidee Stavely


Credit: Courtesy of Shari Abercrombie

Ian Abercrombie, right, with his physical education teacher outside of WISH Charter Elementary in West Los Angeles.

Abercrombie Family

Los Angeles

Shari Abercrombie has developed a new appreciation for teachers since last March, when schools in California were forced to transition to distance learning.

For more than a year, Abercrombie essentially acted like a teacher herself with her son, Ian, as he attended classes from their West Los Angeles home. Ian surprised her with how much he was able to accomplish learning from home. Abercrombie said she was particularly impressed that Ian, with her help, was able to complete tasks such as reading comprehension and assignments that required him to listen to a podcast and answer questions afterward.

But Abercrombie also said she couldn’t imagine having to do another year of distance learning. The past 15 months have been draining for her.

“I don’t know how to teach. I don’t have the patience. I don’t have the understanding of how to engage with a child in that manner above the level of a four-year-old, because we’re supposed to be teaching up until they’re four and then off they go to school,” she said. “The appreciation that people now have for teachers will be off the charts, I hope.”

Credit: Courtesy of Shari Abercrombie

Ian Abercrombie uses his family’s trampoline while taking a break from distance learning this spring.

Ian returned to part-time in-person instruction at his school, WISH Charter Elementary, in late April. Since then, it’s been even more difficult for Abercrombie to support him on the days he’s learning from home.

“Now that he’s been back in school, he doesn’t care about any learning at home,” she said. “I think he just doesn’t understand why half the time he’s there and half the time at home.”

Ian has several disabilities, including a brain malformation and an enlarged heart.

Abercrombie expects that Ian will be able to get into a better rhythm in the fall, when full-time in-person learning is expected to resume.

Abercrombie is also looking forward to this summer, when she, her husband and their two children, including Ian, are going on a three-week vacation to Costa Rica.

The trip will be a much-needed getaway for Abercrombie, who is also hoping that Ian will be able to get a lot out of the vacation.

Typically when the Abercrombie family has gone on vacations in the past to places like Madrid or Tokyo, Ian has “gone with the flow” as much as possible, but those trips aren’t always ideal for him because they often involve activities that Ian doesn’t enjoy, such as going to museums, Abercrombie said.

But because they’ll be spending most of their time in Costa Rica in nature, Abercrombie thinks this vacation will be one Ian can embrace. She hopes he will like seeing new animals and walking across the many hanging bridges that are in Costa Rica.

“I’m just hoping that this is going to be more about him. And I’m hoping that he will get a lot out of this experience,” Abercrombie said.

Michael Burke


Credit: Courtesy of Kerry Martinez

Alexander Martinez (left) and Ian Martinez (right), students at KIPP Vida Preparatory Academy in South-Central Los Angeles, head off to a day of in-person learning this spring.

Martinez Family

Los Angeles

Kerry Martinez is looking forward to the fall, when she expects she’ll finally be able to continue her education that she’s been forced to push off during the pandemic.

Martinez, a student at California State University, Los Angeles, is two semesters away from getting her teacher credential. But for the past year, she’s had to delay her enrollment so she could stay home and supervise her two sons, Ian and Alexander, with distance learning.

Ian is in transitional kindergarten and Alexander is in second grade at KIPP Vida Preparatory Academy in South-Central Los Angeles.

She said she had no choice but to take a year off from pursuing her credential because she’s more savvy with technology than her husband and felt she was the only one who could supervise her sons while they learned from home. Still, it’s been stressful for her to need to delay her own schooling.

“I want to get it over with,” she said. “I only have one more year.”

Ian and Alexander have returned to some in-person instruction as part of a hybrid schedule that’s been in place at their school since April. By the fall, they’ll be back in school five days a week and Martinez will feel comfortable going back to school herself.

“It will be less for me to worry about when I know that they’re going to be in school,” she said.

In some ways, the hybrid learning schedule, during which Ian and Alexander go to in-person instruction for part of the week and attend via distance learning the other days, has been more challenging than when they were in full-time distance learning.

Before, when Ian and Alexander were in distance learning all week, Martinez didn’t typically have trouble getting them to complete their assignments and pay attention in class. Now, when they’re not in a physical classroom, it’s difficult to motivate them, she said.

“They just feel like, ‘I didn’t go to school today, I don’t have to do any homework,’” Martinez said.

Martinez also said that, over the past year, she’s gained a deeper respect for her school and the teachers.

Martinez said staff at her sons’ school were always quick to fix any problems they encountered during distance learning, such as when Ian’s computer stopped working and wouldn’t turn on at all about halfway through the school year. By the next day, Ian had a brand new laptop from the school.

She also pointed out that teachers had to figure out new methods for instructing their students when classes transitioned to online learning. During hybrid learning, it has only been more of a challenge for those teachers, Martinez said, because each day half of their students are attending via Zoom and the other half is physically inside the classroom.

“They have challenges every day but they seem to figure it out,” she said.

Michael Burke


Credit: Courtesy of Kusema Thomas

Kusema Thomas and his son, Kusema Thomas II share time at their home in LA.

Kusema Thomas and Son

Los Angeles

The most that can be said about this trying year is that it will end better than it began for both Kusema Thomases, father and son.

In danger of failing in December, Kusema II will pass sixth grade and is on track to get an A in math, his favorite subject, his father said. His son’s mood has lightened, too, after living in the shadow of Covid. Next week, both Kusemas will celebrate their birthdays with a small party where cousins can play together for the first time in ages. Soon he will return to Freedom School, a summer program organized by the L.A. nonprofit Community Coalition that this year will mix online learning with in-person activities.

At a time he characterized as “the biggest struggle for me as a father,” Thomas said Kusema’s own determination not to let disappointment with school overwhelm him lifted his own spirits, too.

“I got to see this strength in my son that maybe I didn’t have at 11 years old because I didn’t have the support of my family,” Thomas said.

Kusema II spent the first two-plus months in sixth grade at his new school, the Stephen M. White Middle School in Los Angeles Unified, locked out of Zoom classes, marked chronically absent and assigned failing grades as his father struggled with a school and district slow to acknowledge the internet and sign-on issues that had put Kusema behind in his studies.

That changed after EdSource wrote about the family’s difficulties. An assistant principal and technology staffer reached out. By November, other than for spot glitches, Kusema was regularly doing remote learning. He got a fresh start with a new semester in January, with offers of help.

Credit: Courtesy of Kusema Thomas

Kusema Thomas II showed his strength during the pandemic.

His English teacher worked with him after school on reading comprehension for a while, Thomas said. And he did get some one-on-one math tutoring, although Kusema found the tutor’s instruction confusing. Thomas’s fiancée, laid up at home with an injury, was able to keep him on task.

Still, the overall experience this year was not good, Thomas said. Kusema had been looking forward to middle school, where he would meet new friends and socialize. But that hasn’t happened, and Thomas noticed Kusema showed signs of stress, like biting the corner of his mouth. “I felt my son was depressed when school wasn’t working out how it was supposed to be,” he said.

As with most middle and high school students in Los Angeles Unified, Thomas chose for Kusema to finish school remotely. Seven of Thomas’s co-workers at the two social service agencies where he works as a counselor contracted Covid. A close colleague died of it.

Deaths enveloped the family. He lost a close aunt and several uncles, including one who’d been a surrogate father. “It was a devastating year” for the family, Thomas said.

Kusema told his father he doesn’t want to return to the same middle school. While he doesn’t know how resolute Kusema is, Thomas is looking into other options, including charter schools. He’d prefer that Kusema stay within the district, he said, where he can become involved with other parents with similar or worse experiences with remote learning. The Community Coalition has asked him to speak at an upcoming discussion, he said.

“If I’m trying to work to fix the system, let me be in the LAUSD system – it has to be done from the inside out, you know?” he said.

— John Fensterwald


Credit: Courtesy of Moira Allbritton

Charlie  Allbritton’s teachers and tutors got him through a rough patch; sister Lucy has been bonding with their new dog, Nutmeg.

Allbritton Family

San Diego

These days, the key word at the Allbritton house is: relax.

“Before this year, I was always ‘Type A,’” Moira Allbritton said. “Now, I give myself permission to bite off only what I can chew. I’ve learned to detach from everyone else’s version of success.”

Distance learning was a particular challenge for Moira Allbritton’s son Charlie, 17, who spends a portion of his day in special education due to a neurological disorder. For months, he struggled with the technology involved with distance learning and was terrified he’d fail his classes. His days often ended in tears.

But with extra tutoring and help from his teachers, Charlie finished the year with A’s and B’s and is looking forward to summer. He’s going to spend a week in Washington, D.C., with his brother and father, who’s stationed there in the Navy, visiting all their favorite battlefields and museums. Then he’ll return home to San Diego and take an art class through UC Scout, an online academic program for high school students sponsored by the University of California.

He’s looking forward to his senior year at Serra High in San Diego Unified, as long as it’s in person.

“He’s got big plans for next year. Big dreams,” his mom said. “It’s the Year of Charlie.”

The Allbrittons’ youngest child, Lucy, who attends Grant K-8 school, survived the academic aspect of distance learning but missed her friends. Feeling isolated at home, sometimes she experienced periods of sadness.

Since she returned to school on a hybrid schedule, those issues have gradually vanished, her mom said.

“I’m already seeing improvements,” she said. “She seems more productive, more engaged with schoolwork, just happier overall.”

She plans to spend her summer going to Girl Scout camp, reading, and taking care of the family’s new puppy, Nutmeg.

And Moira Allbritton, who has three older children and whose husband isn’t due home for at least a year, plans to take it easy for a while.

“The other day I went to a bookstore and just wandered around for 45 minutes,” she said. “It was so nice. It felt … normal.”

— Carolyn Jones

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