The coronavirus has put Dina Abarca in a high-stakes Catch-22.
A single mother who lives paycheck to paycheck, she's grateful to still have a job. She works long days at the deli counter at Bianchini's Market in Portola Valley, carefully packaging meals that used to be offered at a self-serve counter and watching a staff member now dedicated to constantly sanitizing the store.
But the job means she can't be at home with her 4-year-old son who is on the autism spectrum and whom she worries will fall behind without the structured support of his preschool, St. Elizabeth Seton School in Palo Alto.
Her daughter, a 19-year-old San Francisco State University student, has become his daytime caretaker, along with Abarca's nephew, a junior at Bellarmine College Preparatory, and her oldest son, a 21-year-old Humboldt State University student, all living for the foreseeable future in Abarca's home in Belle Haven.
"Not knowing how long this will last — it's nerve-racking only because I'm not there with them. But if I were there with them, then I don't have a paycheck, which helps me support them," she said. "The only comfort that I have is I'm thankful I do have 40 hours of work."
Abarca is among the many low-income families in East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and east Menlo Park for whom the coronavirus is exacerbating the economic, educational and technological inequities that already loom large without the threat of a public health crisis. Many are hourly laborers, gardeners, house cleaners, child care providers or service workers now out of jobs. The safety net of after-school programs and nonprofits they rely on to support their children are closed. They might not have internet access at home or enough devices to share among multiple children now relying on online instruction for their education for the remainder of the school year.
Asminda Zalava has four children at each level of the school system: a fourth-grader at Los Robles-Ronald McNair Academy, a sixth-grader at KIPP Valiant Community Prep, a high school senior at East Palo Alto Academy and a college senior at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Her husband, who runs a gardening company, hasn't worked since the shelter-at-home order went into effect.
A stay-at-home mother in East Palo Alto, Zalava is preoccupied with the many unanswered questions about how the shutdown will affect her children's educational paths. The high school senior has been accepted to college, but will the school even be open in September? How will federal student aid loans be impacted? Will her oldest, the college senior, still graduate in June? Will her sixth-grade daughter, who has special needs, be ready to move onto seventh grade without individualized support at school?
"It is worrisome," Zalava said in Spanish. "The main thing is — education. We don't know how ... everyone will be affected."
Zalava said the online learning being provided to her children now isn't a replacement for in-person instruction, and she does worry about longer-term academic loss. Will her children be behind educationally when school is back in session?
"The longer it goes on, the longer our kids are away from individualized, consistent instruction," said Jenna Wachtel Pronovost, executive director of the Ravenswood Education Foundation, which raises funds for the Ravenswood City School District.
A student who was receiving guided, targeted reading instruction at school, for example, could fall behind, despite the district's best efforts.
"If they don't have someone who can guide them in this daily, targeted intentional way about developing their reading skills; if they don't have that person at home or can't access that person online, they're not going to get it," Wachtel Pronovost said. "That is not the case of families in other communities. They will find another way, whether it's because the parent has access or they have access to tutors. They will be able to find another way and our families are going to be just fighting to survive."
The Ravenswood school district is working to fill in the most-needed gaps for local families in need, from serving nearly 10,000 free meals last week to distributing donated Wi-Fi hot spots and district Chromebooks to make sure students have access to online learning at home. Among Ravenswood elementary school students, as many as half don't have internet at home except for a smartphone, the district said. Statewide, 20% of California's 6 million public school students lacked digital connectivity at home when the school closures began, a digital gap the state is now working to close, Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, said during a Wednesday press conference with Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The Ravenswood Education Foundation's new emergency fund, launched quickly after the schools closed to support students and families, has raised more than to $440,000. The fund is flexible but has so far supported food distribution, Target and Safeway gift cards for groceries, an emergency child care program and iPads for the district's youngest students.
"Ravenswood families and kids rely on schools to provide them their whole educational experience and many of their basic needs," Wachtel Pronovost said.
When St. Elizabeth Seton closed, the school sent Abarca's son home with homework packets and an iPad. His teacher has sent links for virtual activities, such as yoga and photo updates on the classroom hamster, to keep children occupied. But he struggles to stay focused on an iPad even for short periods of time, she said.
"By the time I get home he's overwhelmed and doesn't want to do any schoolwork. That has been very challenging for me," Abarca said. "I just feel like he's going to somehow fall behind because I'm not there doing the structure and what the school expects him to be doing on a daily basis."
For her older children and nephew, the online learning is mostly self-guided — "almost like homeschooling," she said. She has to take their word for it that they've completed their schoolwork while she's at her job.
Liz Gardner, a single mother who lives in Palo Alto, said her two sons rely heavily on support programs at JLS Middle School, both academic and social-emotional. They used to go to JLS' after-school Homework Habitat program to get help on homework and retake tests and saw Counseling and Support Services for Youth counselors.
"Since we're an (economically) challenged family, what is the academic expectation when we're so reliant on certain resources from the school?" Gardner asked. She's been out of work since July and receives financial support from her family to get by.
Gardner said she's grateful for the quality of education offered by the Palo Alto school district, having moved here for the schools, but as a parent is missing connection and communication while the schools are closed. She suggested the JLS principal use Zoom to hold a webinar to answer questions and talk with parents.
For many low-income families, local nonprofits have become critical lifelines of support and communication during the shutdown. Abarca received personal letters from the Foundation for a College Education and Peninsula Bridge, which help prepare low-income students for college, offering her family support and resources. They've helped her navigate Zoom, which she hadn't used before. When her older children weren't adhering to the stay-at-home order, she called a Peninsula Bridge mentor to talk to them.
"I rely on them, too," Abarca said of the nonprofits. "It's another way for me to be a little more at peace knowing I have that support as a parent and for the kids to have that, too."
Staff at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula in East Palo Alto, east Menlo Park and Redwood City are reaching out to students via phone, video and text to offer emotional connection and academic support. They're providing free meals, making sure students can access online schoolwork and helping high school seniors review financial aid packages offered by colleges, according to an email from CEO Peter Fortenbaugh. Twenty-three high school juniors took a SAT prep test online last weekend through the Boys & Girls Club, he said.
Palo Alto nonprofit DreamCatchers, which usually provides after-school tutoring and mentoring to low-income Palo Alto Unified students, has moved its services online, offering remote academic support. The nonprofit also is working to raise an additional $50,000 before the end of the school year in anticipation of growing needs from the students and families it supports.
East Palo Alto resident Stephanie Duncan, whose son attends Palo Alto High School through the district's Voluntary Transfer Program, has deeply appreciated the personal communication from the Foundation for a College Education (FCE). Staff from the nonprofit called both her and her children directly — her older daughter, a 20-year-old college student, is part of Foundation for a College Education's college program — to check in with them individually. A program director reassured her son, a senior, that important meetings about his college admissions process would still happen, albeit on Zoom.
In contrast, communication from the Palo Alto school district has been mostly districtwide email blasts, Duncan said. She hasn't yet heard from the special-education department how her son, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), will have his final individualized education plan meeting before he graduates. The district released a general update on special education this week and is awaiting further state guidance.
"With FCE, there's a touch that's different. There's a 'How can we help?'" Duncan said.
Duncan said she's giving Paly "the benefit of the doubt" when it comes to the distance learning that's been provided so far to her son. To this point, all work for all Palo Alto Unified high school students has been optional and ungraded. After spring break, the district will enter a new phase with higher weekly time expectations and some synchronous learning (that is, instruction in real time, such as live Zoom lectures) and a promise of "increased" special education services.
"Right now this optional learning, it might seem OK for my son, but when he has to buckle down after spring break and his ability to get what he needs … that's the unknown," Duncan said. "I just have to trust the system to some degree."
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In distress over COVID-19? There is help.
Anyone who is experiencing depression or heightened anxiety because of the public health crisis can find help through local resources:
In Santa Clara County:
• 24/7 Behavioral Health Services Department Call Center: 800-704-0900.
• Crisis Text Line: Text RENEW to 741741.
• 24/7 Suicide and Crisis Hotline: 855-278-4204.
• If you are experiencing an emergency, call 911 immediately.
In San Mateo County:
• Behavioral Health Services & Resources - 24/7
• Access Call Center - Toll-free number: 800-686-0101 | For the hearing impaired: 800-943-2833.
• If you are experiencing an emergency, call 911 immediately.
For seniors, people with disabilities: The Institute on Aging has a Friendship Line for people ages 60 and older and adults with disabilities who feel isolated: 800-971-0016.
For youth: A list of local resources for young people who need mental health support, as well as their family and friends, can be found here.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.