A student at Magnolia Elementary works on a class project. Magnolia is one of several schools in the Cajon Valley Union School District that offered child care to families over the summer. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

If we stop for a moment to judge the toll of the pandemic by the reaction of affluent, white families, we can see it has been a full-scale crisis in child rearing.

Even some families who already had one stay-at-home parent have been publicly distraught over the lack of safe, in-person instruction options for their children. They have seemed at times inches from breaking.

It’s easy to understand why. Most have lost access to the free, five-day-a-week child care of public schools that is a cornerstone of society. Keeping kids at home for six straight months is surely enough to break a person. But the stress must be deeply compounded by the knowledge their children aren’t getting the social and academic development opportunities that will help them grow into thriving adults.

But these parents who seem to have had the loudest voice are also the lucky ones. Most haven’t lost income, much less housing. They certainly haven’t gone hungry. They’re more likely to have help from a nanny or the luxury to choose not to work.

And in their defense, they seem to know it. “I can’t imagine what others are going through,” is a quote I have heard many times.

But now we can imagine it. A new survey of some of Los Angeles Unified’s most vulnerable families gives us a window into the lives of those who were struggling to survive before the pandemic.

Imagine, the child care of schools is gone. Imagine, the stress you feel over your children’s development. Imagine, you make less money than before the pandemic. Imagine, you don’t have enough food. Imagine, you were in the hospital with COVID-19 for a month or that you were forced to move – or both. Now, it’s getting clearer.

Researchers from the University of Southern California polled more than 1,100 families at 19 of Los Angeles Unified’s most under-resourced, disadvantaged schools. The schools are 89 percent Latino and 9 percent black. Of the families, 96 percent live near or below the poverty line.

Here is how they’ve fared:

  • 77 percent of families lost some of their income
  • 72 percent have experienced food insecurity
  • 27 percent have experienced health challenges
  • 28 percent have experienced housing insecurity

The psychic toll of living out those statistics – that is something hard to imagine.

Just this morning, I interviewed Kevin Yaley, the head of Francis Parker School, a private school in San Diego. The school has lots of precautions in place and students have – so far – successfully returned to the classroom.

Yaley said he is most struck by the children’s faces. These mostly affluent kids have been through a painful six months. But to see them regain some sense of normalcy and be able to socialize with their friends again seems to be having a healing effect, he said.

“I can see the benefit in the eyes of the kids – of them being able to be together, albeit six feet apart, in a familiar environment, where they feel safe,” Yaley said.

Cajon Valley Union officials told me the same thing, almost verbatim, after they were able to bring some students back to campus.

Not everyone is ready to go back to school. And that is likely even more true for Black and Latino families who have been hit harder by the pandemic. But as of right now, many don’t even have the option. Whiter school districts, as the Associated Press and Chalkbeat reported, are more likely to have made some return to in-person learning.

San Diego and Los Angeles Unified often have problems that mirror each other. And just like Los Angeles, San Diego Unified has a handful of schools that have been under-resourced and underserved for decades. We should assume there are thousands of families in San Diego Unified just like those in Los Angeles, who really are inches away from breaking.

Both Los Angeles and San Diego Unified have done big work in providing meals and laptops to families over the course of the pandemic. That’s important. But the examples of Cajon Valley and Francis Parker show there is so much more that can be done.

San Diego Unified officials say they will bring back 12,000 students for limited, appointment-based services by the end of this month, as a way to start evening the odds. Some homeless students and special education students will be among those eligible to return. The district’s special education coordinator sent an email to parents this week notifying them some of their children might be able to return.

Meanwhile, I’ve heard from four special education teachers: None of them has heard anything from their principals or the district about how or when these appointments might begin.

What We’re Writing

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at will@vosd.org or 619-693-6249.

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