(In March 2020, schools were ordered closed, and the residents in Los Angeles were given a stay-at-home mandate to minimize the spreading of COVID-19. Seeking to understand the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 on disadvantaged families, six Parent Warriors surveyed 305 families, via phone between the months of April and May. In the Fall of 2020, they presented their key findings at a virtual community forum before an audience of families and educators. In essence, they reported that social isolation, financial hardship, parents juggling multiple roles, remote learning issues and the disruption of normal routines were having a devastating effect for both parents and children. Then, in June 2021, Parent Warriors followed up with another phone survey to 144 families to assess if they were faring any better a year later and if the reopening of schools in Fall 2021 was reassuring or not. What follows is a collection of personal reflections, woven together with the survey findings, as experienced by the Parent Warriors themselves.)

Surveying 144 families about safe school reopenings in August brought home familiar feelings of anxiety and fear. The experience was undeniably eye-opening, sometimes difficult to hear, yet surprising in other ways.Families were open and transparent, revealing far more than was being asked in the survey. It was validating to them to have someone listen and document the harsh reality of the impacts of COVID-19, such as the monthly struggle with rent, loss of income, having older siblings taking care of younger siblings because childcare was unaffordable, access to technology, and feeling alone and depressed. Reaching out from one parent to another made it easy to relate and, in some cases, reconnect because of the trust first established during the initial survey conducted in 2020. Still, many families were fearful to share their stories until we broke the ice by sharing ours. Then came the realization that we were the same — they were us and we were them.

Who were these 144 families? Some were families we spoke to in earlier surveys. Others were parents and caregivers from within our own communities – from Boyle Heights to Wilmington and from Pacoima to South Los Angeles. They were Latino, Asian, and African American families. Some families had children with special needs. A large number were Spanish speaking. In the end, all were families whose children were attending Los Angeles Unified schools.

Our survey asked families if their children felt ready to return to school in the fall. Over half (70%) said their children had expressed real concerns. But the opportunity to be able to see their friends and get back to in-person learning and social interaction is what so many of these children are looking forward to.

For parents, their children’s mental and physical health is concerning, particularly when they hear about unvaccinated teachers and students. On this point, families were crystal clear: they expect school leaders to do their best to ease these anxieties by ensuring school sites are safe learning spaces for students. In this vein, students and families also fear the escalating acts of discrimination and hate crimes as COVID-19 cases continue to rise across Los Angeles County. As one parent noted, “We are Chinese. Our kids attend elementary school, and they come home saying kids are being mean to them. We know it’s not those kids’ fault when some households are raising them differently.”

Despite new safety protocols that reflect the coronavirus health risk within the surrounding community, not all families feel it is safe for students to return to school. Reactions were mixed when we asked parents if they were comfortable sending their kids back to school. About 45% used this conversation as an opportunity to explain their multiple concerns such as, “Classes are not sanitized enough.” “There is no evidence that it is safe.” “Before COVID, classes looked dirty so how would it be any different?”My child still has some anxiety about social interaction.” Nearly a third (35%) mentioned that they felt comfortable for the following reasons, “My son went back to school in April, and he is so much happier than when he was Zooming all day.”

With so much misinformation about the science and safety of COVID-19 vaccines, reassuring families is not going to be easy. In our survey, families were split on vaccinating their children ages 12 years and up with 49.7% saying they are opposed to having their children vaccinated or “used as guinea pigs,” as expressed by one parent. Some families shared that they do not believe in vaccinations, “My kids have never been vaccinated, not even for school.” On the other side, 50.3% of families feel vaccines are safe for children and have no long-term effects. Still, even as COVID-19 has disproportionately put racial and ethnic minority groups at higher risk, mistrust of vaccines runs deep in many communities of color. Families remain hesitant because they continue to have many unanswered questions and concerns about their possible side effects.

Another dilemma families are facing is which learning option would best meet their child’s needs.  Nearly half (49.7%) of the families preferred in-person while roughly one quarter (27%) preferred a hybrid model, where classes are a blend of in-person classroom instruction and on-line distance learning. As one parent commented, “Distance learning is not working for my child.” Again, not surprising when families consistently shared in April 2020 how online learning was a rough adjustment for their child, how children were having difficulty staying focused when internet access was lacking, and for some students learning from home was too isolating for them.

Families have repeatedly told Parent Warriors that their priority is to keep their families healthy and safe. With this in mind, the survey posed this open-ended question, “What type of information do you need?” As expected, families responded they want to keep their children safe, healthy, and doing well in their schooling, prompting them to want to be better informed about support resources that are available. Responses about needed resources varied widely, but at the top of the list was social emotional support, followed by tutoring and access to community resources such as rental assistance, food, cash relief, and housing stability.

When the pandemic hit over a year ago, our lives as we knew it changed dramatically, in so many unexpected and unpleasant ways, and not always equally. We heard heartbreaking stories of losing loved ones to COVID. Each loss made more traumatic because family members never had a chance to hug or say goodbye to loved ones because of hospital restrictions or social distancing. Others shared they were worried sick of passing the virus to a family member. And for many others, quarantining at home was taking its toll mentally. Despite all of this, we also heard stories of resiliency and inspiration, of families forging alliances with each other to withstand and rebound from adversity.  In this perfect storm of stressors involving crisis and loss, families mobilized, strengthened bonds, and learned to be resourceful.

What we learned is that “Parents are becoming “warriors” to ensure their children do not lose sight of the American Dream,” explained Hilda Avila, “The pandemic is testing us. It’s bringing out the best in us. We each have a story to tell and it’s a story of perseverance and resistance. We must never give up for the sake of our children.”

From Mireya Pacheco’s perspective, “The mother is a warrior. She never gives up even if she has to work two or three jobs to ensure her child’s future.” To illustrate her point, she shares a story about one of the moms she interviewed who was working multiple jobs and was told by her son’s school that his IEP services was being reduced so she had to take time off to plead her son’s case to the school’s director. Hearing how she fought for her son’s rights, meeting obstacles head on, for love of her son, was awe inspiring and life changing to Mireya.

So, now we’ve come to the end of our story but not the end of this life-changing journey. Through the course of the pandemic, we have come to learn a lot about the families we interviewed. We learned about their challenges, fears, and obstacles. We learned about adaptability, persistence, and grace. We also revealed a lot about ourselves to them, as parents, as warriors, and as human beings. We are the best versions of ourselves when we are compassionate, collaborative, and encouraging. We offered truth and transparency, which is why families felt safe sharing their stories with us.

Most rewarding is when they said, “thank you,” for listening, for representing community, and for everything you do! In return, we offer up one word…blessed.

(Families In Schools’ Parent Warriors, Gipsy Alvarado, Hilda Avila, Gwendolyn Landry, Mary Lee, Maria Leon, and Mireya Pacheco, represent a group of parents who advocate for a more equitable educational system that promotes the academic success and social and emotional well-being of all students.)

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