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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, Kern County
students, per 2021-22 enrollment
Two largest groups by ethnicity
Hispanic or Latino
percentage of students receiving free & reduced price meals
recorded COVID-19 cases in Buttonwillow’s ZIP code (population: 2,044)
Sources: CA Dept. of Education; Kern County Public Health as of June 21, 2022
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.”
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.
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...
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Student Reflections: Looking Back on School during COVID