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Pandemia revealed existing inequalities.California's children felt the pain.

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Read this article in Spanish.Pandemic exposed existing inequities. California children felt the pain. Pandemic exposed existing inequities. California children felt the pain.

By Jocelyn Wiener, June 30, 2021

Photos by Anne Wernikoff and Marissa Leshnov. Data and graphics by Erica Yee.

On a late May afternoon, members of Madison Park Academy's senior class donned sparkling white gowns and tasseled caps decorated with fabric flowers and celebratory messages. For most, it was the first and last time in more than a year that they had walked on their East Oakland campus.

Among them was Eduardo Mendoza Miguel, a Guatemalan immigrant who spent the past year practicing his English by watching YouTube and TikTok videos, and battled a bout of COVID-19 in the fall.

Claudeth Armenta Gaxiola oversaw his young niece's studies while managing his own, lamenting a year of missed milestones.

Sir Khalil Coleman made 4.0 for the first time while sharing a room with two younger brothers and trying not to think too much about the violence in his community.

Of all the ZIP codes in Alameda County, 94603, home to Madison Park Academy, has been perhaps the most brutalized by the pandemic. Located in the part of the city sometimes referred to as deep east Oakland, it had a COVID infection rate eight times that of the ZIP code with the lowest infection rate, 94618, which covers the thriving North Oakland foothills on the other end of the city 10 miles away.

The fiery path that COVID traversed through deep east Oakland and similar neighborhoods in California, and the relative protection enjoyed by wealthier neighborhoods like the North Oakland foothills, was set in motion long before they began reports of a worrying new respiratory virus to appear in early 2020.

Children living in these two ZIP codes, and in similarly segregated neighborhoods across the state, have not experienced the pain of the pandemic equally. Many of those lining up to cross the temporary stage at the school's soccer field had seen COVID race through their homes, making them and their family members sick.

Some managed their studies while taking full-time care of their younger siblings. Others struggled to connect to classes through shaky, district-provided access points. Many took jobs to help pay the mounting bills. Some have lost friends in the surge of homicides that has paralleled the pandemic.

Sometimes the juggling act was too much. When the first notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” blared from the loudspeakers and Eduardo, Claudeth and Sir took their seats at the 50-yard line, a few classmates were missing.

Adults often take solace in children's notion of resilience. But too often, for neighborhoods like Sobrante Park, where Madison Park Academy is located, that idea has become a surrogate to assuage decades of racism and failed policies. The fact that students here are often left to their own wits can be seen as inspiring or deeply unfair.

“Our students are finding a way to adapt well to these horrible situations,” said Francisco Alvarado, the community school administrator at Madison Park Academy, who is trained as a clinical psychologist. “Many of them are indoctrinated in that. That's what you do."

At the start of the pandemic, Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris, the state's surgeon general, said what kept her up at night was an initial realization: “Holy crap, this is going to have a massive impact on our lives. children".

Burke-Harris has spent much of her career sounding alarm bells about children's unique vulnerability to toxic stress and trauma. She winces at the thought that they possess some kind of innate resistance.

“That,” he declared recently, after a long pause to take stock of the proper wording to use with a journalist, “is a bunch of bullshit.”

A Tale of Two ZIP Codes

Sobrante Park is a neighborhood of cramped single-family homes bounded by Highway 880 and railroad tracks on the east and west and San Leandro Creek on the south.

Sir loves the diversity of the area and cherishes a childhood spent riding bikes with friends and exploring the creek. He describes his community as mostly calm and peaceful.

“I think it was a great experience growing up,” he said.

You are still concerned about the effect of air pollution from the freeway on your community. For his senior “cap”—a year-long project that every senior must complete—he rode his bike through the neighborhood documenting the impacts of decades of environmental injustice: the highway, the train tracks, the homeless encampments. home, the streets lined with abandoned vehicles.

While Sir enjoys the details of his life there, some residents say they are discouraged by the disparities.

“East Oakland is declining,” said Meisha Marshall, a longtime community resident who has been the extracurricular activities coordinator at Madison Park Academy for 12 years. “When you come here, it seems that it has been forgotten. You see more sadness. I can't even describe it... You see no hope."

The closest large supermarket to Sobrante Park is about three kilometers away. Tyrone Carney Park, named after a young resident who died in Vietnam, has been closed for 20 years. The median household income in the ZIP code is less than $53,000. Nearly 30% of their children live below the poverty level.

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By contrast, the 94618 ZIP code in north Oakland encompasses the Rockridge neighborhood, where residents can picnic at Lake Temescal or shop at various grocery stores along bustling College Avenue. Median family income is over $167,000 and less than 4% of children live below the poverty level. On average, residents of this ZIP code live 11 years longer than residents of 94603.

These disparities have been brewing for more than a century. Racist covenants and single-family zoning rules written at the turn of the last century kept Rockridge white and wealthy. Redlining, in which the federal government refused to insure loans in neighborhoods it deemed risky, made it easier for white Rockridge residents to buy homes than it was for East Oaklanders, who were often people of color.

Construction of I-880 and other urban renewal projects have displaced and isolated residents of many of Oakland's low-income neighborhoods. Later, subprime lenders began targeting low-income families, leading East Oaklanders to lose their homes at a much higher rate than Rockridge residents during the foreclosure crisis, he said. Carolina Reid, associate professor of urban and regional planning at UC Berkeley. Many East Oakland residents ended up crowding into houses to keep up with rising rents, making housing in that ZIP code 20 times more likely to be overcrowded than in Rockridge.

Then came the pandemic.

“We knew these people were in danger,” said Dr. Tony Iton, who served as Alameda County public health director from 2003 to 2009 and is now vice president of The California Endowment, the private health foundation largest in the state.

During his tenure, Iton conducted mapping research on life expectancy by census tract. In some of the whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods in the Oakland Hills, residents lived an average of 22 years longer than in the most deprived apartment neighborhoods. High levels of chronic stress among residents of these latter neighborhoods led to higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, which combined with a lack of healthy food, water, and recreation to make their residents, primarily people of color low income, are more vulnerable. .

“When you manufacture stress, you make people vulnerable to any crisis: AIDS, opioids, Hurricane Katrina,” he said. “These communities will be the first and the most affected. And that's what COVID demonstrated again."

Spring 2020: Fear

The pandemic exposed existing inequalities California children felt the pain

On March 13, 2020, the Oakland Unified School District said it would close its schools for three weeks. Claudeth and Sir, like many of their classmates, were a little excited at the prospect of an extended vacation. COVID still felt unreal.

But as he listened to the cheers of his classmates, Eduardo didn't share their enthusiasm. He had moved to Oakland from his Guatemalan village just a few years earlier. He was getting more comfortable speaking English. He was figuring out how to navigate the computer for his graphic design class. His notes were excellent. I was hoping to make some friends.

In a short time, the initial excitement of the other students faded. Twelve days after school closed, the district pushed back the reopening date to early May. A week later, the superintendent said that the schools would be closed for the summer.

Claudeth had spent the first few days of the school closure playing Fortnite and making group Facetime calls with his friends. As the weeks passed, she and her family began trying new recipes, painting, and doing puzzles.

With businesses closed, many young people began to absorb the financial worries of their families. Claudeth's mother, Claudia Gaxiola, who works as a cleaner in Rockridge, San Francisco and Berkeley, had to stop working. His family dove into their savings. Gaxiola was scared, but she did her best to allay her two daughters' worries.

But Claudeth was still worried.

“My mom has to pay this bill and that bill, but there's nothing to pay with,” she said.


Tiffany Couch, Madison Park Academy's school site security officer, was one of the few school employees required to report in person in those first few weeks. Meisha Marshall, the extracurricular activities coordinator, also came, putting together craft bags and snacks to leave at students' homes.

Almost all children in the school are eligible for free meals. When their families began showing up on the closed campus begging for food, the prospect of those children going hungry brought Couch to tears.

He called the director and they began to mobilize. A group of adults who worked at the school began distributing diapers and boxes of groceries, taking them to people's homes when necessary.

Until the first stimulus check arrived, the school gave out about 600 boxes of food, twice a week, said Kyle McClerkins, who works to build community and improve school culture as a restorative practices facilitator in Madison.

But food was just a stressor. Rent, transportation, electricity, water: all those bills still needed to be paid. Many parents still had to report to work each day, but no one knew where to get masks, face shields, or hand sanitizer. And more people were getting sick.

In addition, many of the students at the school came from immigrant homes frightened by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and anti-immigrant rhetoric. They considered the school a place they could trust.

In recent years, Madison Park Academy has undergone a transformation under the direction of Lucinda Taylor. Last year, the 6-12 school of 750 students boasted a 98% graduation rate, significantly higher than the district average of 72%. The campus plays a stabilizing role in the lives of many students. As the weeks passed, it was a natural place for families to flock.

Several adults who worked at Madison Park Academy took action, creating a GoFundMe site, independent of the school, which ultimately raised about $25,000 to directly help students' families. They went out of their way to share up-to-date information on COVID, the eviction moratorium, and whatever else.

The staff knew that their campus was usually the safest place for some of their students. Reports of child abuse and neglect plummeted as teachers no longer saw students in person every day. With the campus closed, they wondered: What was happening to the kids they couldn't contact?

“We're all in panic mode because we don't know what's going on, we don't know what's going on,” said Alvarado, the administrator of the community school. "We can speculate."

Summer 2020: Stress

On May 25, 2020, white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd's neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, killing him. The story of Breonna Taylor, a Kentucky emergency room technician who was killed by police at her home during a botched raid, also drew attention. Taylor and Floyd were black.

National outrage resonated in East Oakland. Sobrante Park is just four miles from the Fruitvale BART station where, in 2009, white BART officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man, as Grant lay face down on the platform.

“A lot of what young people are processing is: What does it mean to be a black girl or a black boy in this society that doesn't value my life? said Teiahsha Bankhead, executive director of the nonprofit Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. One consequence of last year's isolation: Young people have not been able to have as many informal discussions about this issue in their classrooms or schoolyards, he said.

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Eric Ding, who teaches senior English at Madison Park Academy and oversees senior-long projects, said he and his colleagues spoke openly with students about their feelings about the murders of Taylor and Floyd.

“On top of everything else was this visible weight,” he said.

“I think the norm is to feel like their voices are a little quiet and not heard. When it becomes national news that other people have been silenced and not heard, I think it really resonates."


On August 10, 2020, school resumed virtually.

Many students still didn't have good Internet access, and teachers were struggling to figure out who didn't log on by choice and who didn't have a computer or WiFi, said Bianca Lorenz, whose role at Madison Park Academy involves connecting students students with jobs and internships. Some couldn't turn on their cameras because they didn't have adequate bandwidth.

The district provided wireless hotspots, but many didn't work well, said McClerkins, the restorative practices facilitator.

Eduardo knew the school had computers to borrow, but he was too nervous to borrow one, what if something happened to him? Instead, he attended classes over the phone.

For months, he had been saving to buy a computer of his own, apply for scholarships, and do carpentry with his father. Then, in August, her mother was in a car accident in Guatemala, badly injuring her arm. To help cover the cost of her recovery, Eduardo sent her the money he had saved.

Without a desk, he would finish his homework lying on a mattress in the living room of the house he shared with his older brothers and young nieces. He took care of his nieces while everyone else went to work. Sometimes that meant missing class. There were days when he cried in frustration. But he was determined to get it right.

“This was supposed to be my shining year,” he said.

Once his mother, brother, and sister-in-law returned to work, Claudeth was assigned the task of supervising his kindergarten niece while she took classes. She would give the girl breakfast before they both started school. She wanted to help her even more, her niece had never used a computer before, but Claudeth was concerned that she was neglecting her own schoolwork.

The move to virtual wasn't bad for everyone. Despite sharing a room with two younger brothers in a house with 10 family members, Sir would put on his headphones and focus.

“The distractions didn't really affect me that much,” he said. His grades had never been better: 4.0 four marking periods in a row.

Ding said many students' families did everything they could to make sure their children thrived in school. But once the pandemic hit, many students had to take jobs to help pay the bills. Some cared for six children at a time. This impacted his academic progress. But what choice did they have?

Cecilia Terrazas, assistant principal at Madison Park Academy, loves the small, close-knit community at the school. But she also knows firsthand the disparities between what she can offer her students and what other children with better resources get.

The school is very segregated. Teacher turnover is an ongoing concern: Last year, 38% of teachers had been there less than two years, and that was better than normal. While Madison Park normally performs impressively with attendance, she estimates that perhaps 100 students dropped out of class last school year, despite staff efforts to engage them.

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Only 3% of children in the 94603 zip code attend private schools; one third of children in 94618 do. Terrazas' own daughter attends an expensive private school based in that ZIP code. Her daughter and her classmates were already back in the classroom, advancing academically “at high speed” as Terrazas and her colleagues fought to make sure their students were safe, healthy and felt loved.

“I see the gap, what they have versus what we have,” Terrazas said. She finds it infuriating.

“The division is dividing more,” he said. “We don't have health insurance. We don't have adequate housing. There is extreme poverty and unemployment. It's intentional. It is by design. It's not accidental."

Fall 2020: Illness

By the summer, COVID rates had risen enough in East Oakland that news reports drew comparisons to more well-known hotspots like New York City. In October, the numbers went up again. Then they shot.

In 94603, county data shows that about 14% of residents have been infected with COVID, compared to less than 2% in Rockridge. The East Oakland ZIP code has many more residents living in overcrowded housing and holding essential jobs which dramatically increased their exposure.

Health disparities had made the residents of 94603 suffer.

Has twice the rate of adult obesity and diabetes as the North Oakland ZIP code. More than 10% of residents are uninsured, compared to 1% in the Rockridge area.

These data points are a natural consequence of a food desert with closed parks and high levels of poverty and stress. They also made people in that area even more vulnerable to severe illness from COVID.

Once vaccines began rolling out this year, another health-related disparity emerged: So far, less than 57% of those eligible in deep east Oakland are fully vaccinated, compared to more than 83% in Rockridge.

In October, Eduardo's father contracted COVID and developed a fever. Soon others in the house began to get sick.

For a few days, Eduardo felt like his head was going to explode. His body was hot. His back ached. His feet hurt too much to move.

The pain scared him. But he only missed one day of remote school.

Between November and January, Alvarado, the administrator of the community school, received at least two calls a week related to a death or someone being rushed to the hospital.

“It was intense,” he said. "Those three months we just didn't see the light."

For many families, the disease was terrifying for another reason: being in quarantine meant the loss of income. As a result, some families were nervous about getting tested, Terrazas said.

“Can I feed my children or do I follow the protocols?” she said. "That's a tough decision to make."

Winter 2021: Loneliness and pain

At the beginning of the pandemic, one of the few bright spots was that COVID seemed to avoid children. But as the months passed, the effect the pandemic was having on his mental health became more and more apparent.

Between April and October 2020, the CDC reported a 24% annual increase nationally in mental health emergency department visits for children ages 5 to 11, and a 31% increase for children from 12 to 17 years old.

Even before the pandemic, these rates had been on the rise. The numbers have caught lawmakers' attention: The Newsom administration has proposed an unprecedented $4 billion investment in child and adolescent behavioral health this year, which will cover a range of efforts from a public awareness campaign to school-based interventions. and evidence-based treatments, said Burke-Harris, the state surgeon general who has been deeply involved with the proposal.

“An entire generation of young people have been through an incredibly stressful and, for some, downright traumatic experience,” he said. "So if we know that that puts our kids at higher risk, why don't we get ahead of ourselves?"

At Madison Park, Alvarado has witnessed a rise in depression, anxiety and substance use as students struggle under the combined weight of boredom, stress and isolation, along with increasing violence, financial difficulties and losses.

“We are suffering,” he said.

But many mental health providers say students have also had a harder time connecting to services this year, due to the same stressors — technology issues, school closings, lack of privacy, financial stress, anxiety, and grief ) with whom they ideally need help.

Marisa Villegas, who teaches ethnic studies at Madison Park Academy, said she has seen some students suffer from depression after their families went through bouts of COVID.

While returning students will need “tremendous” academic support next year, he said, “if you only have one student who is severely depressed, the last thing we are thinking about is math homework.”

Eduardo struggled under the weight of so much loneliness and stress. He did not miss the sadness and hunger that he had left behind in his small town in Guatemala, but he did miss swimming in the river, picking mangoes from the nearby trees and, above all, his mother. To distract himself, he drew pictures of people he found online or played Super Smash Brothers.

Claudeth was also lonely, but she declined most invitations to meet up with friends.

Her family was extremely careful. After her mother, her brother, and her sister-in-law returned from work, they would shower and change immediately. They wore gloves and masks and carried hand sanitizer everywhere. Mostly though, they rarely left the house.

In 2013, when Claudeth was 11 years old, his father had been shot and killed while attending a birthday party on the street. She had seen a therapist ever since.

But isolation was getting harder. Claudeth missed playing soccer. He missed his friends. There was going to be no prom, no traditional school senior Sunrise, no long-awaited senior trip to Disneyland. I didn't even know if I would have a graduation.

He watched news reports showing how other countries had succeeded in quelling the virus. Why is this taking forever? she would wonder. She felt more and more overwhelmed.

“I just can't,” she would tell her mom.

Barbara McClung, director of behavioral health for the Oakland Unified School District, said the enormously resource-scarce nature of deep east Oakland has led to "far greater vulnerability" in that part of the city over the past year. Perhaps the biggest impact she has seen in Sobrante Park: the increase in homicides.

Since the pandemic began, homicides have risen nationally, up 30% in big cities last year and another 24% earlier this year. In Oakland, those increases were even larger and were disproportionately borne by certain neighborhoods. Between May 2020 and the end of June 2021, North Oakland's 94618 ZIP code had zero homicides, according to data from the Oakland Police Department. East Oakland 94603 was 17. 17th happened last week: A man was shot and killed outside the front gate of Madison Park Academy.

“We're so used to it that now we can easily tell gunshots from fireworks,” said David De Leon, who did his senior project in Madison on community gun violence. The streets in his neighborhood are empty at night, he said. "Everyone knows that you shouldn't really be outside at that time."

Sir worries about his friends and whether being in the wrong place could also put him at risk. He tries not to get too hung up on it. Some of Sir's childhood friends are among the recent victims of the shooting. One was hit in the shoulder and survived. Another received a blow to the back of the head - the lord drove his friend while he healed.

“Life isn't fair,” said Sir. "Things happen, you know, growing up in a neighborhood."

A few weeks ago, his father woke him up to tell him that a family friend had been murdered. A Madison alumnus, she had been celebrating a friend of hers' birthday. Shooters fired at the vehicle he was riding in as it traveled down the freeway, killing two teenagers.

The reality of her friend's death did not dawn on Sir until she saw flickering candles at a memorial vigil two days later.

And yet Sir remains innately hopeful. He sees the lives of his friends transformed by internships and other positive opportunities.

“I see it getting better every year,” he said. "Every day, people change the way they are."

Spring 2021: Hope

On graduation day, cars full of adoring family members pulled up to the basketball court adjacent to the Madison Park Academy football field. Some honked their horns and revved their engines with anticipation. Someone started playing the accordion.

Sir's family had crowded into a Suburban that had been painted with congratulatory messages. Before attending San Jose State University to study environmental studies in the fall, he planned to spend the summer helping his grandmother, advising the younger children on bicycle mechanics and safety through a local nonprofit organization, running track and volunteered to fix the trail along the nearby creek. – “just a small step to improve this community”.

Claudeth sat down next to one of her best friends. She plans to attend San Francisco State University to become a traveling nurse. Fully vaccinated, she was delighted to finally hug her friends and teachers.

Eduardo couldn't stop smiling. He will soon be attending classes at Cal State East Bay. You are deciding whether to study to become a graphic designer or an immigration attorney. You are ready to start making new friends.

As they sat on the football field, the wind grew increasingly frisky, stealing the graduation caps of the student speakers and blowing up glitter-filled balloons, sending showers of gold across the 50-yard line.

“The world brought you the most difficult last year,” their English teacher, Ding, told them.

“You're up today,” their principal, Taylor, told them.

Before long, staff will have to grapple with questions that don't yet have clear answers: How much trauma and learning loss have your students experienced? What would it take to rebuild strong connections once the youth returned to campus after so long away? After this unimaginable year, how many would not return?

One at a time, the older ones took the stage. With trembling voices, they thanked their parents and teachers. Then, clutching red roses and diploma cases, they crossed the threshold.

This story is supported by a grant from Renaissance Journalism.

About the data

Zip code service areas for the United States Postal Service do not correspond to city limits, so the ZIP codes mapped on this history include parts of the surrounding municipalities. ZIP codes contained at least partially in Oakland with a population of more than 10,000 were mapped. The ZIP code boundaries used are from Alameda County Open Data.

Vaccination and housekeeping data for COVID-19 were retrieved from the Alameda County dashboard on June 29, 2021.

Life expectancy, adult obesity rate, and adult diabetes rate were obtained from Healthy Alameda County.

2019-20 Madison Park Academy and Oakland Unified School District graduation rates were obtained from the California Department of Education's DataQuest portal.

Homicide counts by ZIP code from May 2020 through June 28, 2021 were requested from the Oakland Police Department, which provides the location of the incident at the block level. Therefore, each homicide is mapped to its approximate block location.

All other data comparing the two ZIP codes were obtained from the American Community Survey (ACS) 2019 5-Year estimates, which provides data based on ZIP Code Tabulation Areas (ZCTAs) created by the U.S. ZIP Code. Census Bureau. This story includes ACS data by ZCTA for median household income, child poverty rate, race/ethnicity, percentage of K-12 students attending private school, percentage of civilian noninstitutionalized population uninsured, and percentage of households that are overcrowded (using the definition of overcrowded as households with more people than rooms).

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