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How has COVID-19 fractured the lives of California’s students?

How has COVID-19 fractured the lives of California’s students?

Picture of Danielle Chiriguayo
Empty Classsroom

Last year, California was home to 23 of the country’s richest cities and at least 100 billionaires, including Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, and Elon Musk. And according to a pre-pandemic estimate from Forbes in 2019, if California were its own country, its $3.1 trillion economy would be ranked fifth in the world. 

But despite the wealth generated for the state’s top earners, California has been gripped by economic disparities that have seeped into its education system. When disaster struck in the form of an unprecedented global crisis, its education system — and the most vulnerable students it serves — experienced the daily consequences of the digital divide. Over the last year, that divide — stemming from access to resources including high-speed internet and computers — has splintered virtual learning for the 600,000 students enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

According to a recent analysis of the impacts of virtual learning from the nonprofit Great Public Schools Now, students in the LAUSD have suffered alarming levels of academic harm during the pandemic. 

What does that look like? 

Two out of every three students have fallen behind in math and literacy, while an estimated 40,000 current LAUSD high school students are at risk of not graduating over the next four years due to a loss in credits. In K-5 students, early literacy test levels have dropped by 10%. The number of on-track kindergarteners and first-grade readers has dropped by 13-20%. And in fall 2020, the district saw a surge in D’s and F’s. Students of color and students from low-income households made up the majority of those failing grades. 

These are only topline numbers from preliminary research. 

As students in the region begin their return to the classroom for physical instruction over the next year, the long-term repercussions of a year of virtual learning will become clearer. 

Through the course of the 2021 California Fellowship, I will embed myself within the communities hit hardest by COVID-19 and interview students from backgrounds that are often underserved in the education system, such as Black, Latinx, and indigenous students, as well as English language learners and students with disabilities. Through their own words, I hope to share their experiences inside and outside the classroom, and report on their mental health following what could be one of the most traumatic years of their lives. 

A 2020 USC study found that 25,000 families in L.A. County with “school-age children lack the technology resources for distance learning,” with families often clustered in South and East Los Angeles. For LAUSD students specifically, the disparity was even larger: One in three families lacked “high-speed internet access or a desktop/laptop device.” As students prepare to go back to school in August, what difference has this divide made for these underserved communities? How does that compare to virtual learning experiences in wealthier communities? Is there a measurable difference in how students from wealthier families are capable of returning to the classroom? I aim to answer these questions and tell this story by juxtaposing the experiences of two students and their families.

But beyond the classroom, how are Los Angeles youth managing emotionally? Or socially? Through conversations with students, parents, and mental health professionals, I will explore how students are acclimating back to life in the classroom. Will they be able to adjust? What will that look like, especially as COVID-19 health guidelines mandate social distancing and the threat of contracting a virus during in-person instruction still exists? What about students who are not returning to the classroom? 

In January, CalMatters reported that California projected that student enrollment in public schools dropped by 155,000 students in the 2020-2021 academic school year. Where are these students? What are they doing now? By working with community and academic leaders, I aim to find and document the stories of high school students who did not return to the classroom.

In 2020, community and four-year colleges and universities saw a sharp decline in enrollment, according to Inside Higher Ed and the National Student Clearinghouse, due in part to the pandemic. Where are these students? Have their long-time educational goals changed? Are they now enrolled in a place of higher education or are they elsewhere? What have their “forced” gap years become? 

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