This story is part of a series on the experiences of students attending three different California school districts during the COVID-19 pandemic, in spring 2022. It was produced through a partnership with CatchLight Local and CalMatters

At Buttonwillow Elementary School, Lorena Hernandez ended the school year ready to graduate eighth grade and start high school, something she thought she couldn’t do after her experience with distance learning during the pandemic.

Lorena said as she did her school work online she struggled to maintain her grades. Her mother was often sick, so she also cared for her youngest sister and two brothers.

“It was just awful. That year (2020) I failed because it was too awful for me, and I couldn’t concentrate as much because I had my baby sister and my brothers yelling and stuff like that,” Lorena said. 

That year COVID-19 greatly affected the Latino community in California. In May 2020, Latinos made up more than half of COVID-19 cases and 38% of deaths in California, according to the California Department of Public Health.

The latest California data show Latinos made up nearly half of all COVID-19 cases statewide and about 44% of deaths, more than any other racial or ethnic group.

Buttonwillow Elementary

Buttonwillow, Kern County
322 students, per 2021-22 enrollment
Two largest groups by ethnicity
90.7% Hispanic or Latino
5.3% White
96.3% percentage of students receiving free & reduced price meals
532 recorded COVID-19 cases in Buttonwillow’s ZIP code (population: 2,044)

In the rural town of Buttonwillow, in Kern County, the population is almost 80% Latino. In Kern County, as of June 2022, there are nearly 250,000 residents who were infected with COVID-19 and recovered since the start of the pandemic. Of those, 38% are Hispanic/Latino, according to Kern County Public Health Services. 

As she dealt with so many distractions, Lorena also struggled to get online, given that she shared the home’s bandwidth with three other siblings also attending school online. She said even with the school providing hot spots for students’ homes, the struggle to stay online affected her grades. 

“But in the second year, when we could go to school, I was happy because I got to learn in front of my teacher and improve my grades,”  she said. 

Returning to school in person helped improve Lorena’s grades but presented a new experience.  

“We had border shields around our desks, and we had to stay six feet apart,” she said. “Then we had to have our masks on inside the classroom. But as soon as we were out at recess, we had to stay separate. We could take off our masks. We were only allowed to eat outside, not inside.

“It was hard for me to keep the mask on all day. It felt uncomfortable and hard to breathe, so I kept taking it off. It didn’t feel unsafe being back, but I was just nervous about getting COVID.”

In eighth grade, Lorena became sick with COVID and was sent home for a week to recover.

“It was horrible. You get a fever, runny nose, cough and you couldn’t breath as much because of your nose. You also get horrible headaches. I told my dad I thought I was going to die but I got better,” she said. 

Returning to school after quarantine was a relief but she worried about catching COVID again. As the school year progressed, restrictions began to lift. The shield borders were taken off   desks, and on March 11 students were no longer forced to wear a mask in classrooms. Assemblies began for the first time in two years. In March, Lorena  joined the school’s softball team after its two-year hiatus. 

On May 26, Lorena attended her eighth-grade graduation ceremony.

“I was really excited to graduate, especially since I didn’t know if I would be able to make it due to my grades in seventh grade during COVID,” she said. “It was hard getting my grades there, but I did it. And it was great having my family here because they supported me and helped me get here.”

Lorena Hernandez (middle), a bilingual student who speaks both English and Spanish, helps translate an assignment for a new student at Buttonwillow Elementary School.

When asked about remote learning during the first year of the pandemic, Lorena said, “It was just awful. That year, I failed because it was too awful for me and I couldn’t concentrate as much because I had my baby sister and my brother’s yelling and stuff like that. But in the second year, when we could go to school, I was happy because I got to learn in front of my teacher and improve my grades.”
Lorena Hernandez works on her assignment in class.

“When it first started, we had to start wearing masks, then we had to go online because they said it didn’t feel safe around everybody. Online was horrible because you didn’t get enough internet. The WiFi was usually gone most of the time,” Lorena said.
A sign on a classroom door warns students not to enter if they are feeling the symptoms of COVID-19. Lorena had a rough bout with COVID-19 and was out of school for about a week.
The front view of the main building to Buttonwillow Elementary School. The school teaches a total of 362 students in a town with a population of around 1,500 people, with 96% of students being Latino.
Lorena Hernandez roughhouses with her friend Yoselyn Cuellar as they walk off the field during gym class. Lorena said that when she was in quarantine the thing that upset her most was not being able to be around her friends.
Lorena Hernandez and Yoselyn Cuellar have been friends for six years.

“We do almost everything together and always be there for each other. It was sad being apart during the pandemic because we couldn’t see each other. She was busy a lot of the time and I was busy taking care of my siblings. It was really sad not being around her during that time. When we got back to campus, we were so happy to be together and be able to talk and hang out again,”
A street view of Buttonwillow in the San Joaquin Valley. Buttonwillow is predominantly Latino and known for its agricultural industries, with cotton as a major crop. The latest California data show Latinos made up nearly half of all COVID-19 cases statewide and about 44% of deaths, more than any other racial or ethnic group.
A sign promoting COVID-19 vaccinations hangs on the fence of the baseball field at the Buttonwillow Recreation and Park District.
Lorena Hernandez swings at a ball during practice. The girl’s team practice was canceled that day, so Lorena practiced with the boys baseball team.

COVID-19 restrictions impacted recess and sports. “We can now play with volleyballs, basketballs, soccer balls. Everything,” Lorena said.
Lorena Hernandez sits in the dugout with the boy’s baseball team as they start practice at a baseball field at the Buttonwillow Recreation and Park District.
Lorena Hernandez joined the school’s softball team in March of 2022. This is the first year the school has both a baseball and softball team since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Lorena said she joined because she played when she was in elementary school and wants to play in middle school now that sports have been brought back to campus after two years. “It felt like they were looking out for us with the rules and enforcing them. Like keeping our masking on and keeping our distance.”
Lorena Hernandez and her classmates participate in a fifth-through-eighth-grade award ceremony in the gymnasium. Some students continued to wear masks, even though mask-wearing was no longer mandatory on campus.
Lorena Hernandez and her classmates use laptop computers to work on an assignment in their history class.

“It was amazing being back with my friends in class. It was better and we can talk and stuff like that instead of feeling isolated on the computer,” Lorena said. 
Lorena Hernandez and her classmates work together on an assignment in their history class.

Remote learning was a challenge for Lorena. “It was difficult because of the internet. I couldn’t turn in as much homework as I could. I usually had to take care of my siblings,” Lorena said.
A bottle of hand sanitizer on a desk in a classroom. All classes are required to have hand sanitizer because of COVID-19 health precautions.

“The school is now getting back to normal. We don’t have to have restrictions or wear masks or stay six feet apart,” Lorena said. “It’s getting better now and I’m happy. The days have gone fast now, but the past was horrible, horrible.”
Lorena Hernandez and her friend Yoselyn Cuellar sit against the Roadrunner sign after taking the Pacer fitness test during her physical education class in the gym.

“It only felt like I wasn’t living through the pandemic when I got home and I didn’t have to follow the rules that school had,” Lorena said.
Lorena and fellow students sit on the stage before the eighth-grade graduation ceremony in the gym on May 26, 2022. There are 33 students graduating from Buttonwillow and moving on to one of three Kern County high schools.
Lorena Hernandez sits with her class for a group photo before the eighth grade graduation ceremony.
Lorena Hernandez (left) and her friend Yoselyn Cuellar (right) take a selfie together as they get ready for their eighth grade graduation ceremony.
Lorena Hernandez poses for a photo with her family at the eighth grade graduation ceremony at Buttonwillow Elementary School.

“I was really excited to graduate, especially since I didn’t know if I would be able to make it due to my grades in seventh grade, during COVID. It was hard getting my grades there but I did it. And it was great having my family here because they supported me and helped me get here,” Lorena said.

Student Reflections: Looking Back on School during COVID was reported and written by photojournalists Larry Valenzuela, Salgu Wissmath and David Rodriguez for CatchLight & CalMatters.  

This project was produced by CalMatters & CatchLight as part of the CatchLight Local CA Visual Desk. Contributors include Joe Hong, Miguel Gutierrez Jr., Martin do Nascimento, Mabel Jimenez and Jenny Jacklin-Stratton. The San Antonio Elementary School project was produced through additional collaboration with the Salinas Californian.

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Larry Valenzuela

Larry Valenzuela is a photojournalist and CatchLight Fellow at CalMatters. Raised in the Central Valley, he was previously a breaking news reporter at the Fresno bee, where he used his skills as a photographer...