Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020 | 2 a.m.
Valley High School Principal Ramona Esparza senses the social and emotional pain that her students are experiencing amid the global pandemic.
School officials remain in daily contact with students by phone, email and online classroom instruction, and Esparza understands the void that so many of her 2,800 students are experiencing.
“I think it’s going to take years for them to be able to catch up, and that scares me,” she said. “We have kids that were thriving in our school before the pandemic. In a community school like Valley, kids thrive because it becomes their sanctuary. What happens to them when the sanctuary is no longer accessible? It’s going to take years (to recover).”
Esparza notes that she and her staff are working hard to provide students with a high-quality educational experience.
“We’re just trying to serve,” she said. “We’re living a reality we never expected and can’t pretend that kids are OK.”
Educators and mental health professionals are attempting to gauge the developmental effects of the pandemic’s distance learning on students throughout the world. The Lancet, an online resource for public health news, reports that while learning might continue largely uninterrupted for children from higher-income households, “children in lower-income households are likely to struggle to complete homework and online courses because of their precarious housing situations.”
“Beyond the educational challenges, however, low-income families face an additional threat: the ongoing pandemic is expected to lead to a severe economic recession,” continued the report, “COVID-19, School Closures and Child Poverty: A Social Crisis in the Making.”
Two of every three Valley High School students was Latino during the 2019-20 school year; 16% were African American; 8% were white; and the remainder was composed of students who were Asian American, Pacific Islander or Native American, according to numbers provided to the Nevada Department of Education.
Esparza is well aware of the depth of poverty among Valley families and the role it plays in providing her students with government-subsidized meals and other key services.
“If my school was open we’d be able to provide services — food, bus passes, part-time jobs,” she said. “Now, I’m getting emails from my kids: ‘Miss, I’m sorry, but I have to help my mom, my dad, my grandma, my brother and sister.’ But how many kids am I not hearing from? We’re doing our best, home visits, but some kids are gone. Where did they go?”
Esparza worries that the Valley experience is being replicated throughout the country and will ripple throughout the United States for decades to come.
“Are we going to lose these kids permanently academically? This is very radical, but maybe we need to meet these kids where they are,” she said. “That means there would have to be more of a competency-based way of learning. If they’re two or three grades behind, where do we need to start with those kids? I just don’t see us putting those kids back. We have to rethink education and how we are going to catch them up.”
Meantime, the global recession caused by the pandemic will likely mimic the impact of previous recessions, which have “exacerbated long-lasting consequences for children’s health, well-being and learning outcomes.
“At the local level,” the report continues, “an adequate response must include targeted education and material support for children from low-income households to begin to close the learning gaps that is likely to have occurred.”
The Clark County School District has continued to distribute school lunches throughout the pandemic; yet, there are concerns that a significant portion of the school district’s 328,000 students are unable to consume healthy meals on weekends.
“I don’t even know where to begin the negative impact this is having on my kids,” Esparza said. “I almost feel like … when you take in a foster child that has been traumatized or victimized; you don’t know how long it takes to build trust — it could take six months or a year. I’m concerned about the impact of the trauma my kids are experiencing right now.”
An April report by the SAGE Public Health Emergency Collection titled, “Racial Capitalism: A Fundamental Cause of Novel Coronavirus Pandemic Inequities in the United States,” notes that “racism and capitalism mutually construct harmful social conditions that fundamentally shape COVID-19 disease inequities because they … affect disease outcomes through increasing multiple risk factors for poor, people of color, including racial and residential segregation, homelessness and medical bias … and replicate historical patterns of inequities within pandemics.”
Three miles southeast of Valley sits Mack Middle School, a feeder school to Valley, where students live in a neighborhood facing similar challenges. Six teams of Mack staff members make regular home visits to gauge the well-being of students and families amid the pandemic.
“Right now food and shelter are the biggest piece,” said Principal Roxanne James, noting that the end of Nevada’s eviction moratorium could have a significant impact on families at her school. Zappos, the Las Vegas-based online retailer, recently provided Mack with a closet-full of free clothing for the school’s families.
School principals throughout the valley are accustomed to playing the role of social worker, and James is no exception. One recent interaction with a Mack family found James and her staff linking a student with much-needed medical care. The child had been sick in bed for a week. The child’s mom, the only wage earner in the home, works at a call center and has no personal time to provide care for the middle-school student. The school staff helped make the arrangements, cutting through linguistic, cultural and financial barriers that often prevent low-income families from interacting with the health care system.
“I want you to think back to March and think of the teacher you were then” when the closures began, Mack recently told school staff during an online meeting, “and now look at the teacher you are in October. I bet you don’t see the same teacher. What you’re able to do is miraculous.”
Down the hallway, the school’s drama teacher, Sasha Jones, takes a break from an online lesson with students. She has moved the drama and anime clubs online and has grown increasingly comfortable with the medium.
“Everyone is on the same playing field. It’s opening my brain, too,” Jones says of the challenges of teaching online theater classes. “Why am I here? Why am I doing this? Because I like to help other people get comfortable within their own skin.”