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, CalMatters and the Salinas Californian.

It’s 6 a.m. and soft light hits the home in a serene Soledad neighborhood. The sound of parents getting kids ready for school can be heard from outside. 

Paloma Segura runs out and screams. She’s excited to go to school after spending months learning from a computer screen. 

Paloma, 8, Irma, 9, and Almarissa Segura, 14, are sisters and students at San Antonio Elementary School in Lockwood. Their father, Fred Segura, works for the school, primarily as the bus driver, and drives 85 miles every day to work. 

“My reason for enrolling my three daughters into San Antonio is because I was thrown aback and admired the small community aspect that this school offers,” Fred said. “When I saw the students here at San Antonio interact with one another, it was reminiscent of when I went to school.”

The San Antonio Union School District serves roughly 170 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, and the rural school site is located about 25 miles from any services in south Monterey County.

San Antonio Elementary

Lockwood, Monterey County
150 students, per 2021-22 enrollment
Two largest groups by ethnicity
48% White (not Hispanic)
30% Hispanic
46.3% percentage of students receiving free & reduced price meals
13,139.3 all-time confirmed COVID-19 case rate for the South County region

The distance hasn’t stopped parents from enrolling their children. 

While schools across the state have reported recent enrollment decreases, San Antonio School District experienced a 25% jump — 30 new students — compared to last school year, the highest in about five years, according to Superintendent Josh Van Norman.

“This is exciting for us as a district,” he said. “The district comprises farms, ranches, mobile home parks, and Fort Hunter Liggett’s military base. Enrollment shouldn’t be trending upwards simply because there are no increases in housing developments in the area. Parents choose where to send their children and we are extremely humbled that families have entrusted our district with educating their children.”

During the pandemic, Fred Segura worked off campus. The distance from school held him back from having his children attend San Antonio Elementary School sooner. Once he started to work directly on campus, he enrolled his daughters.

“It was our way to preserve our children’s youth,” Fred said. “To keep them away from handheld technology for the majority of the day and allow them to interact with multiple cultures. Their grades have gone up, and there is much more attention to detail due to San Antonio being a smaller school.”

Paloma Segura sprints out of her home in the early morning as her sister Almarissa Segura, 14, closes the door behind them. They both prepare for their long commute to San Antonio Elementary School in Lockwood.
Fred Segura rolls up his daughter Paloma’s sleeve.
Almarissa Segura, 14, looks up as she rides the school bus with her two sisters, Paloma and Irma Segura. Describing her experience going back to in-person learning, Almarissa explained, “I started going to San Antonio in the mid-semester of 2020 when I was in seventh grade. After the pandemic, the transition between distance learning (back to) in-person class was pretty easy. School now seems normal and it doesn’t feel as frustrating as it used to. It feels mellow now.” Segura is graduating eighth grade at San Antonio and next year will attend Soledad High School, a school within walking distance of her home in Soledad.
Irma Segura, 9, looks out the window of a school bus at the end of the school day.
Paloma Segura exits the school bus alongside her sister, Almarissa Segura, 14. Her dad Fred Segura makes sure everything is ready to go for the next school day.
Paloma Segura roughhouses with her sister on the school bus. 
Fred Segura checks the emergency door of his school bus before driving to pick up students.
Fred Segura checks the emergency door of the school bus early in the morning, making sure everything inside is working.
Fred Segura works with a student on math problem inside a classroom at San Antonio Elementary School.
Paloma Segura and her fellow classmates stand near their backpacks.
Paloma Segura, left, 8, and her sister Irma Segura, 9, stand outside their classroom after Paloma had to return to retrieve her lunch box. Paloma, currently a second-grader, is in a combined class with her sister Irma, who is in third grade.
Paloma Segura, a second-grader, walks in a straight line with her classmates.
The word “community” is seen on a classroom wall. The small community of Lockwood is made up of two zip codes, 93426 and 93932.
A drawing by a second-grader sits on the desk inside a classroom. The teacher told the students to draw what kindness meant to them.
A student raises her hand as August Fields, a first/second grade combo teacher, leads a spelling lesson. While schools across California have reported recent enrollment decreases, San Antonio School District experienced a 25% jump — 30 new students — compared to last school year, the highest in about five years, according to Superintendent Josh Van Norman.
Irma Segura, 9, sits in front of her computer in her classroom. “I found it easier to go back in person because going to school on Zoom was hard,” Irma said. “I had my schedule on my wall and the internet didn’t always work. And I had to meet with teachers in the morning and afternoon. And sometimes it would lag and I couldn’t understand what was being said over the internet. It was hard because the teachers would cut out and sometimes I would be tardy, but I also liked it because I could wear comfortable clothes behind the computer,” Irma said.
The inside of a second-and-third-grade dual classroom. This is one of the classrooms with two grades due to the low number of teachers working in the district. 
Irma Segura, a third-grader, picks a drawing with her classmates during a short class break.
Paloma Segura wears a pink dress as she waits in line with her second-and-third-grade class before heading to lunch. Regarding attending school virtually, Paloma said, “Zoom is actually not better because when you go on Zoom it sometimes glitches. In real life, I learned I have been getting good at math because the teacher helps me understand. I’m having a really good time. That’s pretty much it.”
Paloma Segura, second-grader at San Antonio Elementary School swings during recess. “It was good because I missed going to school,” Paloma said about returning to in-person school.
Paloma Segura on the school playground.
Irma Segura hangs upside down on the monkey bars during recess.
Fred Segura, a staff member at San Antonio Union School District, walks through the faculty and staff lunch room in the early morning at San Antonio Elementary School, to get the cafeteria ready for students. “I am content with having my children attend San Antonio and feel it’s been a great transition not only academically but also personally,” Fred Segura said. “I like to think the increase in enrollment here at San Antonio is also due to families seeing the qualities I see.”
Paloma Segura, left, walks next to her sister Almarissa Segura, middle, and Irma Segura to meet their dad and start their long commute home at the end of a school day. Photo by David Rodriguez for CalMatters/ CatchLight Local/ The Californian

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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David Rodriguez is the education reporter and staff photographer for The Salinas Californian. Raised in Salinas, he looks to give voice to the voiceless with his photographs and writing.