We are young Californians. COVID has taken over our life, and life choices. Behind our masks, our families changed; our paths changed; our futures changed. These are our stories of a year of struggle and finding our way forward.
We are young Californians. COVID has taken over our life, and life choices. Behind our masks, our families changed; our paths changed; our futures changed. These are our stories of a year of struggle and finding our way forward.
When the internet signal at home isn't steady, Daphne Ramirez packs up and looks for a better connection. For the Coachella Valley High School senior, that sometimes means traveling to McDonald's or Starbucks to complete her assignments.
Katy Cornell, 26, is a kindergarten teacher at North Oakland Community Charter School. She told her story to Meghan Coyle.
As COVID cases in California climbed and I found out our school was switching to remote learning, there was a lot of anxiety, obviously. I think most of the country was feeling that, no matter what profession you had. Specifically, for teachers, I think there is a lot of worry about ‘Are we going to be able to teach over the computer?’ and more importantly, ‘Are we going to be able to support the social and emotional skills that students are still developing?’
It's my first year teaching kindergarten, and I’m learning how short their attention spans are and how engaging the lessons need to be for them to kind of get hooked in it. Some of my roommates teach middle school, and I'm finding it way easier to engage the kindergartners just because I can be silly. I sing songs in the morning, do greetings and just make it as engaging as possible. And all of them have their cameras on. No one is shy about showing up every day.
We're working on those everyday tech issues, which are frustrating, but the kids are pretty resilient, and they’re figuring out a way to participate, even if nobody can hear what they're saying. Some of the kids got Chromebooks that are super old. So when you unmute that student who has that, it's like this crazy audio sound that's kind of hard to decipher.
I definitely feel bad that we're not able to be in the classroom because I think they're definitely missing out on a lot of those skills like learning how to take turns well, sharing and just being near a bunch of kids. That piece is definitely harder to convey over Zoom, especially for kids who don't have siblings. I can tell a lot of them are like missing out on that.
I mostly miss seeing the older kids that I taught in the past or the kids that are always around the building. I’ve visited one of their Zooms before, but it's very different from popping into their classroom. So that bigger community I miss, but we're doing a talent show with the whole community. We do like weekly school assemblies, so there are brief moments to see each other, but it's definitely not the same.
“In some ways, though, there's a little silver lining. I have a little more planning time because I'm not monitoring children as long as I usually am, like at recess times. I have more time to kind of sit down and plan.”
I actually feel like I’m a little bit less stressed in some ways now than I was in previous years. The whole classroom management piece is interesting because I can just mute the whole class at the same time. Now when I’m done teaching the math lesson, I feel very calm, whereas I would usually feel amped up at the end of the day.
I feel like there are many self-doubts and I’ll be like, ‘That’ll be a fun lesson.’ But then I’m like, ‘Am I even teaching them the right stuff?’ I don't know.
When Jazmin Oceguera found out her mom had tested positive for COVID-19, she had a feeling she’d be next.
The next day, Oceguera — a 25-year-old Boyle Heights resident — started experiencing symptoms as well and was pretty certain it was COVID. At this point, she began to quarantine herself in her room. Five days after getting tested, she received her positive COVID results.
While some people who test positive can quarantine in hotels or away from family members, that’s not the case for many low-income families.
Oceguera lives in a three-bedroom, 1,300-square-foot rental house in Boyle Heights with her mom, grandmother, brother, sister and her mom’s husband.
Oceguera says she and her mom, Tania Sala, were always cautious and extremely worried about the rest of their family getting sick, especially her grandmother, who’s in her mid-70s and currently undergoing dialysis treatment.
“My brother sleeps in the living room, so there’s not really any other space he could really go,” Oceguera said. “We can't really afford renting another place, or family members wouldn’t take someone who you know lives in a household of people who have COVID.”
In many low-income families, like those in Boyle Heights, multiple generations live together in a small space, sometimes passing on the virus to others without knowing. According to the Los Angeles Times mapping project of neighborhoods, nearly 100,000 people live in Boyle Heights. The community has a population density of 14,229 residents per square mile, among the highest in the city and county of Los Angeles.
“We know that Latinos are most likely to be non-insured or underinsured, and there’s underlying conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease which are higher in low-income groups,” said Dr. Maria Anda, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
She says COVID numbers are disproportionately high in counties such as Los Angeles, Imperial County and the Central Valley, where many work on the frontlines of different types of sectors such as food service, retail, farming and warehousing.
For many, the fear of contracting COVID is real. According to the California Department of Public Health, Latinos account for 55% of the state COVID cases and 46% of deaths. This is disproportionally high compared to the Latino population share of 39%.
While quarantining, it was difficult for Oceguera and her mother to stay away from the rest of the family. The two women stayed out of the kitchen completely. The grandmother and siblings would cook meals and leave the food outside their bedroom doors. Because all of the family members share one bathroom in the house, everyone also had to be extra cautious about cleaning and sanitizing.
“It's hard. I think it affects you mentally, that you can't really come out of your room.”
After a two-week quarantine, Oceguera and her mother returned to get re-tested. When their results came back positive again, they continued to quarantine for an additional two weeks until they finally received negative results.
“There would be one day where I would feel okay like, this is going to be my last day and tomorrow, I'm going to feel great,” Oceguera said. “And then like, the next hour, I would feel so sick. It was like a big roller coaster.”
Both Oceguera and her mom recovered from COVID. The mother and daughter say they are grateful to have a supportive extended family, and they didn’t require hospitalization. They were also lucky enough to have jobs with benefits, and could use vacation and sick time while they were ill.
But even months later, Oceguera says she sometimes feels the effects and toll it took on her.
“I don't even have to be walking or running or doing anything,” Oceguera said. “I'll just be sitting down looking at my phone, and I'll suddenly feel out of breath.”
But even after all she’s gone through, Oceguera has mixed feelings about the vaccine.
“My plan, for now, is to wait a few months and see how people react to it. It definitely worries me, and I know a lot of people won’t take it,” she said.
“You have no internet connection.”
These words kept flashing on my screen over and over again. I had a presentation due for school, and my deadline to turn it in was narrowing. I pressed the refresh button, hoping the signal would finally work.
“An error had occurred.”
I threw my phone out of frustration, only to pick it up and try again.
I walked all around my house, hoping to find a small spot to get a connection to turn in my presentation. After what seemed like forever, I eventually found a little corner near the front door of my house. I had to position my phone just the right way in order to get two bars for it to work.
When I first started online learning, it was a struggle. I live in the rural community of Tranquility, about 45 minutes west of Fresno, and I don’t have internet access at home. My mom called my high school every day asking if there were hotspots available for me and my two little siblings who are in elementary school. Sadly, there were none available. So, we waited.
Last semester, I wasn’t able to meet virtually with my teachers and used my cell phone to complete all my assignments instead of the Chromebook my high school gave me. There were times I grew anxious thinking about what would happen if one day my phone didn’t provide service either because the connection is sporadic or it just shut down completely.
In larger school districts like nearby Fresno Unified, they have the funds to try and close the digital divide. But in rural communities like Tranquility where I live, closing the digital divide is much more difficult. One solution my school district proposed at the start of the pandemic was to add Wi-Fi to buses and roll them to areas around the community. But even then, they were not reaching every home. Students had to go to the buses to get internet access, but when temperatures reached 100 degrees and as COVID-19 started spreading, it was a problem.
There were times it was frustrating because I didn’t know what was happening in my classes. I turned to my classmates to keep me updated and to teach me the material. My friends and I had to become our own teachers. This routine of me asking my friends went on for about two weeks. We would call each other to go over the material, and they would share their notes with me through Snapchat.
It took about a month and a half after distance learning began for us to receive our hot spot. We finally had a good, stable connection for school.
We all have had trouble adapting to a virtual learning environment. I missed out on nearly two months of lectures and was faced with falling behind because of the lack of resources in my community. It’s easy to lose motivation, but despite the digital barriers I faced, I am proud of myself for staying on top and never missing any assignments.
"My education has always been very important to me. Being the eldest daughter of farmer immigrant parents, they push me to take my studies seriously and to never give up no matter the circumstances. This gave me the mindset to keep going even in a pandemic."
I’m a senior and my current goal is to pursue a bachelor's degree in psychology when I start college next fall. I want to provide my community with better mental health access and resources. I didn’t let myself fall behind when I didn’t have an internet connection, and I am certainly not going to fall behind now that I do.
Marco Romero is no stranger to activism. Since middle school, he’s been on the front lines – doing door-to-door canvassing – connecting residents in the Eastern Coachella Valley with resources they need.
But when the pandemic hit last year, the state’s shelter-in-place orders and social distancing guidelines changed how Romero communicated with residents in his community, but it didn’t alter his mission. Instead of meeting face-to-face, he relied on phone banking. Working with Alianza, a local organization in the Eastern Coachella Valley, he wanted to find ways to support residents who might be disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
“I want to see a change in these rural areas that I live in. [I want to] help my parents. They get paid below minimum wage. They came from Mexico — they came to see the American dream, but I don't know how that American dream looks like now.”
He admits there are a few challenges to remote activism.
“At home, you don't get that privacy — my family is here. And when you’re at the office, you can focus on making phone calls because everyone around you is doing the same,” he said. “You also don’t get to meet people in person [since] everything is online.”
Romero isn’t alone as many youth activists have been instrumental in connecting community members to resources during the pandemic in the Eastern Coachella Valley.
“The youth are bilingual; that's something really important to highlight,” said Patricia Carillo, project manager for Alianza. “I would say more than 50% of the calls have been in Spanish. It’s really great to see the students not only being able to work with English community members but Spanish community members, and how committed they are to the work that they do.”
Young adults in the Eastern Coachella Valley have been instrumental in reaching over 73,000 community members for efforts tied to Census and voting outreach, food assistance and other COVID-19 educational information, Carillo said. Specifically, they’ve connected over 1,300 families throughout the Coachella Valley to economic relief funds in efforts organized by Alianza, she said.
“When I was doing the calls, community members shared with me that they’re farmworkers who had just lost their jobs, tested positive for COVID, some parents had to stay home to take care of their kids because of distance learning, and some didn’t have money to cover their finances,” Romero said. “They would call back and say, ‘Gracias, porque necesitaba este dinero’ (Thank you, I needed the money). They're overwhelmed.”
Carrillo says that the pandemic has amplified the need for better Wi-Fi connectivity in rural areas.
“Many of the youth had to rely on hotspots to be able to continue the work with phone banking,” she said. “Connectivity issues have been very concerning for the youth that have to rely on hotspots or go to one of their family member’s homes to be able to connect and do the work from there.”
But Wi-Fi is just another layer of accessibility issues that people face, Romero said.
“Before COVID-19, I would gather a group of friends in my car and give them a ride,” he said. “We canvassed all throughout the ECV area. I would really like to see youth have more Wi-Fi, computers, stuff like that to be able to join community events. More people can be more involved if Wi-Fi is not an issue. Since everything is through Zoom, you can just click and join.”
Despite his passion, Romero, a freshman at San Jose State University, had to take a brief break to concentrate on school. But he has big plans for the future. After graduation, Romero plans to continue organizing in the Eastern Coachella Valley.
“There's a lot of injustices around the world. I love to do this work and motivate other youth to improve their community as well,” he said.
There are nine of us living in a two-bedroom apartment near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. In total, it’s five adults and four children. I sleep in the living room, which is next to the kitchen, with my 14-year-old sister. Three of us are in school, which during quarantine means learning online.
To say it’s difficult to be in school is an understatement. Here’s what it’s like:
During the day, my brother, a fourth-grader, and my sister, an eighth-grader, use the bedrooms to take their classes. While my parents and uncle are at work, my aunt takes care of her one-year-old daughter and my two-year-old brother in the living room. The house is loud, and I usually have to leave to find a quiet place to connect to the internet.
I returned to college last fall after taking a few years off to work. I’m 22-years-old, and it’s my first year at Los Angeles City College. I’m majoring in political science and hope to go to law school someday. While I took a break from school for almost two years, I decided to take 13 units this semester and become a full-time student again. I thought, mistakenly, that I would have more time to study because of the pandemic.
“Since there’s nowhere for me to work at home, I have to look elsewhere. I go to a park and just cross my fingers that I can get a good hot spot on my phone. I stay up late and do my homework when everyone in the house has gone to bed. ”
Before restaurants shut down again in November, I relied on coffee shops to connect to Zoom. I used Yelp to narrow down my decisions, to find out whether there was outdoor dining and a stable Wi-Fi connection. For months, I’ve struggled to find enough places to study because Los Angeles County only allowed outdoor seating. Coffee shops around Los Angeles are filled with students just like me. Spotty internet at the cafés is a constant issue and often affects my classes. My grades are suffering. Not to mention how much money I spend on coffee or food when I sit down to take a class or do homework. With limited seating available, it is hard to get away without buying something to eat.
The situation keeps getting worse and there’s not much of an end in sight, with winter and spring sessions still scheduled to be online. All I can do is just keep pushing forward and hope for the best.
After sustaining injuries during the 2019 football season, Joseph Christensen expected 2020 to be his breakout year. But then COVID-19 hit and the Laney College football season was delayed. For Christensen, it means his dreams of obtaining a Division I scholarship are on hold.
Adrianne Ramsey, 25, remembers the Thursday afternoon her employer announced they would close. She had worked as a field trip explainer at the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco, since 2018. She said the museum hadn’t unexpectedly closed its doors for an extended time since 9/11.
“I honestly wasn't surprised when (that) happened,” she said of the museum’s closure last March. “It was just kind of crazy.”
By May, the Exploratorium decided not to renew her contract, and Ramsey became one of the millions of Americans who lost their job due to the pandemic. Since she lost her job, Ramsey’s been living with family and working on independent projects, but she still doesn’t have full-time employment.
“It's definitely been tough,” she said. “I mean, if I didn't have my projects, I don't think I'd be sane right now.”
“The more frustrating thing is it's been (several) months, and I just feel like we've made very little progress as a country because we don't have a nationwide plan,” she continued. “It's just kind of depressing … just haphazard and pathetic.”
In December, California’s unemployment rate spiked to 9%, up from 3.9% the year before. The San Francisco Bay Area is far from immune: the Oakland-Berkeley-Hayward metropolitan area reported a 7.7% unemployment rate in December compared to 2.6% a year ago.
“The more frustrating thing is it's been (several) months, and I just feel like we've made very little progress as a country because we don't have a nationwide plan. It's just kind of depressing ... just haphazard and pathetic.”
According to Till von Wachter, an economics professor at UCLA and faculty director of the California Policy Lab, industries that disproportionately employ young people, such as accommodation and food services, retail, and arts, entertainment and recreation, have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has made certain types of activities much more dangerous than they were before, while others have remained relatively safe,” von Wachter said. “Many activities involving face-to-face contact with others or gathering in larger groups, also tend to employ younger workers … Black workers [and women have also] been hit exceptionally hard during the crisis.”
He estimates the COVID-19 crisis could lead to a loss of over $2 trillion in lifetime earnings and 23 million work years across the U.S. because losing one’s job cuts an average of 1.5 years off a worker’s lifespan.
While it’s been months since the pandemic began, many young adults who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 are still struggling to regain their footing.
San Francisco resident Laura Fernandez, 23, said applying for jobs was the most challenging part of being unemployed during the pandemic. When she was laid off from her job at an after-school program in August, she found many of the jobs she was interested in were either on hiatus or delayed in reviewing applications. Some employers took weeks to respond. She expected to dip into her savings while looking for work — but still, she said, it’s stressful to watch as her “savings get lower each time.”
After scouring LinkedIn and Indeed for months — and several stressful Zoom interviews— Fernandez found a part-time job at a Bay Area radio station. She’s returned to her job at the school as-needed but is still looking for a third job to make ends meet.
“It's been really stressful,” she said. “I knew that I still didn't have something solid … Once you get out of college, you're expecting to hopefully be able to land a full-time job soon, you know? So, it was hard.”
“Some moments of hope were just knowing that I and my family have remained healthy and that this too shall pass.”
Being unemployed in any circumstances can be mentally taxing, but Fernandez and Ramsey said the pandemic had taken an additional toll on their mental health. Both of them said it’s easy to feel down right now, mostly because the pandemic has curbed coping mechanisms like traveling and spending time with others.
But both have found ways to relieve stress. Fernandez spends time with family and has returned to hobbies like painting, video editing and photography. She’s been taking advantage of this time by going on hikes and bonding with her roommates.
Ramsey said she has tried to keep busy with independent projects while also trying to keep her loved ones safe.
“Some moments of hope were just knowing that I and my family have remained healthy and that this too shall pass,” Ramsey said.
The pandemic has forced many young adults to pick up a job while juggling online college classes. What that looks like for Eduardo Jaime: working part-time in the fields while navigating his third year at Cal State San Bernardino.
When 20-year-old Saul Soto decided to commit to community college last year, he never imagined there would be an international pandemic or that his mother, the family’s main source of income, would have her hours at work cut in half.
Soto’s mother, Araceli, is a single mom, waits tables at a local restaurant. When restaurants shut down in the spring, so did her work. Even when they reopened, her hours weren’t back to where they were before the pandemic. When restaurants closed again in November, open only for takeout and deliveries, her hours were reduced yet again.
Since the pandemic began, the family has struggled to make ends meet and disagree on what is most important. Soto thinks he should leave school entirely, while his mother wants him to continue with his studies. At the same time, all of Soto’s classes at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) are online and he’s finding it difficult to learn and stay motivated. Like many students in California, Soto struggles with a parent losing their job, a family member testing positive for COVID-19, the inability to pay rent and the possibility of losing their home.
“We’re not in a place where we can say we have security,” Soto said. “I tell my mom we’re just one paycheck away from getting kicked out.”
Many students like Soto have had to decide whether or not to continue in school due to the pandemic. Across the country, community colleges saw the steepest decline in freshman enrollment last fall with an 18% drop compared to 2019, according to a national survey. The survey, by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, found that students of underrepresented minorities and low-income students have seen the largest decreases.
California is no exception. In November, California Community College Vice Chancellor Lizette Navarette told the State Assembly that community college students had been the hardest hit in all of higher education — with a preliminary survey showing fall enrollment down 7% and full-time enrollment down 10%.
“Low income and older students were more likely to pause education for fall due to interruptions in income,” Navarette told committee members.
A COVID-19 student survey by the California Student Aid Commission of nearly 76,000 students found that 71% of college students reported a decrease in income due to the pandemic. Out of the students who participated in the survey, 46% said they experienced a change in their living situation. Rates were highest among non-white students.
“I need to work to make sure I’m able to provide for my family. It’s pushing me away from my education right now. As a man in the house, I need to help out.”
Soto says since the pandemic, he’s felt pressure to drop out of school and concentrate on working and helping his mother. Fall semester, he juggled five classes and 20- to 30-hour work weeks — trying to help his family out financially while still earning enough credits to eventually transfer to a four-year college.
On a typical day without classes, he works a six-hour shift at a coffee shop in Huntington Park, about six miles from his East Los Angeles home. Before the pandemic, Soto says he worked to have money to go out on the weekends, but now things have changed.
“I need to work to make sure I’m able to provide for my family,” he said. “It’s pushing me away from my education right now. As a man in the house, I need to help out.”
Eileen Le, one of Soto’s professors at ELAC, says she notices a shift happening in some of her classes. While her sociology classes typically have more women than men, she says she sees fewer male students in her Zoom lectures. Le believes many may be choosing employment over education, especially during the pandemic.
“The economic downturn post-COVID speaks to the immediacy of young men mostly, but women too, to hold school off and bring some money home,” Le said.
Meanwhile, Araceli Soto is worried about her son dropping out of college. She wants him to stay in school and work towards his degree despite their financial hardship.
“This pandemic will pass at some point, and if you’re prepared, it will be easier to find another job where you are paid more based on your academic level,” she said.
Her instinct is good. Nationally, the overall dropout rate for undergraduate college students is 40%, with approximately 30% of college freshmen dropping out before their sophomore year, according to educationdata.org. Money and financial problems are cited among the most prominent issues causing a student to drop out of college. According to the 2020 National Student Research Center High School Benchmarks Report, this is even higher for low-income and minority high school graduates, with only 28% of students completing college within six years.
Soto said he’s more worried about the present. “The future doesn’t matter if we’re broke and starving right now,” he said.
Now that restaurants have closed once again for in-person dining, Soto said he might have to find another part-time job. With work slow for both him and his mother, he feels he doesn’t have much choice but to take the spring semester off.
“I really wish I could do more,” Soto said. “I wish I could make my family happy by getting an education, but I need to make sure we have enough money, so we’re not broke.”
When the pandemic hit, getting a job as an essential worker was a risk Ivan Manriquez knew he had to take. For the teen, who works part-time at a Fresno grocery store, the job is a way to contribute to the family bills while trying to save for the future.
“I honestly do owe it to my mom to cover all of this for her because of everything she’s sacrificed for me over the years,” Manriquez said. “I’m 19. I don’t want to have to ask her for money.”
He uses his check to contribute to the rent, pay car insurance, gas, phone service and save for college. With his older brother moving out, Manriquez knew he would need to help pick up the slack financially.
Manriquez is one of the thousands of teenagers and young adults across California who are on the front lines working at grocery stores, fast food restaurants and big-box retailers. The work is demanding, but there’s also the worry that the job puts them at greater risk of contracting the virus.
In California, many of the essential workers are youth of color. According to the most recent data from UC Berkeley’s Labor Center, 47% of essential workers are between the ages of 18-24. Latinx workers have the highest rate of employment in these jobs at 55% followed by Black workers (48%), workers of other races (38%) and Asian workers (37%).
“I thought it was funny because just less than a year ago, people would just call this unskilled labor, and now it’s essential work,” Manriquez said.
“I think it really hit me when Beyoncé did a video thanking all essential workers, and I was like, ‘She shouted me out.’ But I was also wondering at the time, now that this pandemic is shaking the table, what is the pay going to look like?”
At the grocery store where Manriquez works, the safety policy allows two weeks of time off for employees who have symptoms related to the virus. According to Manriquez, employees are getting sick faster, causing stress to the few still clocking in.
“A lot of people are taking two weeks, which forces a lot of us to pick up more slack,” Manriquez said.
Fever checks are also enforced, and results are not being disclosed to staff, he said. And this causes worry that some employees might come to work sick.
“Me being me, I’m going to question everything. What if people have high temperatures, but they don’t want to send them home? They want to maximize profit; they don’t want to send these employees on time off,” he said.
Perhaps one of the biggest concerns Manriquez has faced during these times is the potential of paid time off not being honored should he get sick or contract the virus.
“It makes me kind of nervous because God forbid, I develop these symptoms and have to call in for my two weeks,” he said. “It's affecting me and my comfort working and also my strictness with customers wearing masks. That’s scary to me.”
According to the State of California Department of Industrial Relations, workers who experience symptoms of COVID-19 should quarantine at home for 14 days. Employers are required to provide supplemental paid sick leave under executive order N-51-20.
Being an essential worker isn’t easy, especially when customers act rude. Manriquez said there was a time when a customer whistled at him like you would do to grab a dog's attention.
“That’s one thing I do not like,” Manriquez said. “That stems from their ignorance. That’ll always be a challenge for me, dealing with customers when my patience is at a low. But also, I have to find the inner strength not to be so passive-aggressive. I’ve been blessed with this opportunity to help out my mom by working and to be a solid employee.”
Still, Manriquez smiles and recounts the silver lining of the situation: not all customers are bad.
"As much as I don’t want to work right now, I have to. One, to make money, (and) two, for the experience."
“I’ll be honest; there are some really genuine customers who have the energy to help us help them in any way that they can,” he said.
Often essential workers consider whether they should work to make money or stay safe and healthy. In some cases, it's not even a debate.
“If it had to be a battle, work would win because I do have to help my mom,” he said. “I do have to save up for college. As much as I don’t want to work right now, I have to. One, to make money, (and) two, for the experience. Building a resume is important to me.”