In high-poverty WA school districts, high schoolers bore extra burden

Amid the pandemic, some had added responsibilities to juggle with classes — helping care for siblings, working to support themselves and their families.

From left: High school graduate Christian Fuentes poses for his high school senior picture. (Courtesy photo) Seniors at Eisenhower High School sign their class board to commemorate their time at Eisenhower. Students have only recently returned to in-person learning after a full year of online courses. (David Diaz) Jailyn Sanchez in the kitchen preparing food for her family. While her parents are busy working, Sanchez takes on the responsibility of cooking for her family. “In Mexico, they call these ‘manzanas pocas,’ a Mexican version of a caramel apple. It’s prepared by getting the consistency of the candy to be a long thick layer wide enough to cover the apple. “Once I’ve covered it, I have to make the layer even and smooth. This makes my hands turn red and sticky,” Sanchez explains. (Courtesy photo)

For some high school students, summer couldn't come fast enough.

"I feel like it's been the first day of school for so long," said Christian Fuentes, 18, who graduated from Eisenhower High School in Yakima on June 8.

Because of the pandemic, high school seniors across Washington experienced a tumultuous end to their secondary education. But while all kinds of students struggled to adjust to virtual learning, student life has been particularly difficult for students in high-poverty districts.

These students often have extra responsibilities to juggle along with their classes — helping care for younger siblings and working to support themselves and their families financially. 

Fuentes worked full-time this year at Big 5 Sporting Goods, while taking care of his 6-year-old sister and 2-year-old brother and keeping up with online classes and schoolwork to stay on track to graduate. He has been supporting his family financially for six months.

In high-poverty districts, being a student comes last for many teenagers. According to the U.S. census, 21.6% of families with children in Yakima County lived below the poverty line in 2019, which is significantly higher than the average rate for Washington state, which was 10.1%.

“It was hard on a lot of parents for students going back in person; they no longer had child care for their kids, I know that was an obstacle for some, and we had quite a few students that we had to move 95 kids fully online so they could stay home for their families,” said Ruby Armijo, vice principal at Eisenhower High School. 

No time to be a teen

The pandemic's economic consequences made families depend on their older children to become full-time babysitters, workers and caretakers. The lack of child care affordability during the pandemic required some students to help support their families, leaving little time to just be teenagers.

“I think the pandemic was an eye opener for the teachers because from the perspective of the teaching without the pandemic everyone just makes these assumptions people will go home where there is a dedicated table for homework, quiet, plenty of food and internet,” said Eisenhower counselor Steve Scott.“These kids are battling distractions at home that aren't conducive for education.”

Armijo shared that there is more going on behind those black screens: “When students turn on the microphone, you’re hearing the younger siblings yell, parents talk, music in the back. Sometimes they’re paying attention, sometimes they’re not, and sometimes they can’t. Their classrooms are their bedrooms, they’re doing class in the middle of the living room, they’re doing class anywhere they can find.”

According to a 2020 survey by the American Psychological Association, 81% of teenagers have been negatively impacted by school closures during the pandemic. Furthermore, 52% are struggling with a lack of motivation, while 45% struggle with schoolwork concentration.

Students like Fuentes don’t want to pick between school and work. “I have to schedule school in, and my job has been so used to me working full time, so it's difficult to find time for school,” Fuentes said. “It's tough to find motivation after a busy day.”

More than a financial struggle

The pandemic also added to the strain of this school year in a personal way for some students. In Yakima County, more than 30,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 458 people have died from the virus.

“An old teacher who I saw as my best friend in middle school passed away because of COVID-19. For a few days, I'd just be crying. Finding out that he passed away this January because of COVID-19 took a toll on me,” said Jailyn Sanchez, who graduated with Fuentes in June.

On most days, Sanchez wakes up bright and early to do some chores to help her family prepare for the day. Then, she keeps her little sister busy so as not to disturb their mother, who sleeps during the day after working a night shift at a packing warehouse. Both of Sanchez’s parents work long hours, from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m., packing fruit in warehouses near the city.

Then Sanchez makes breakfast for her family and goes to her room to start the school day online with her little sister.

“In the beginning, I did my classes on my bed because I didn’t have a desk to do my work on. But during COVID, I got a desk and a chair to do my work on. Even so, more than half of the time, my little sister would occupy the desk because I had to cook during class,” Sanchez chuckled.

Behind the screen

Many households were unprepared to be turned into classrooms. The school district did what it could to make up for technology gaps.

“We gave laptops for every student that needed them, and hotspots. They are not traditional hotspots; these work anywhere in Yakima, and students can hop online to their classes with that hotspot,” Armijo said.

On the other hand, this solution raises another question as to why it took a global pandemic to provide accessible technology and resources to students — at about the bare minimum level. And for most middle and high school students, the bare minimum is not enough.

During the pandemic, Sanchez navigated online school for herself and for her little sister, who is 6. Because their school schedules are different, Sanchez has to put in extra effort to make sure both of them are punctual.

"It was just very tiring and frustrating sometimes because we would miss a class or be a little late because I was in class and did not remember that I had to put my little sister in class as well,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez also had to do chores around the house during class.

“I would always have to carry my computer around the house while I was in class, which was very frustrating. I would even bring the laptop with me if I were washing the dishes or making food,” Sanchez said. “And at the same time, I would be struggling to pay attention because I have other things to do at home.”

These extra responsibilities are also a source of pride and motivation for Sanchez. “I don't believe I would have done better in school if I didn't have family responsibilities because I wouldn't have learned how to manage time wisely, let alone learn what my priorities should be. If I had it easy, I wouldn't be the student, let alone be the person I am today,” she said.

“On days when I’m exhausted from a hard day at work, Jailyn always steps up or helps with the cooking to let me sleep a little more, so that’s something that I appreciate,” Sanchez’s mother said.

After high school

Sanchez plans to attend Perry Technical Institute after graduation to study IT communication systems. “I’m still going to be a student after I graduate high school. So being a student is one of my top priorities no matter what I’m feeling or going through,” Sanchez said.

When graduation finally arrived, Sanchez, Fuentes and their classmates had conflicting emotions.

“On the week of graduation, it felt fake, as if it was a prank and someone was going to say, ‘No, you still have one more year to go because this one doesn’t count,’ ” Sanchez said. “If COVID didn't occur, I feel like I would have felt more prepared for post-high school. I would feel more accomplished, and I would've gotten a better education for myself.”

Fuentes agreed. “I don’t feel like I am graduating because I haven’t been in school for a while,” he said. “It just feels very rushed.” 

This story was written for a University of Washington journalism class.

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