Perla Guzman Martinez, a sophomore at Columbia Heights Education Campus, struggled to catch up in her classes after recovering from COVID-19.
Perla Guzman Martinez woke up on the second day of the year in a cold sweat. The 15-year-old's body ached and she could not stop shaking.
The teenager said does not know how she and the rest of her family became infected with the coronavirus. The family is careful to wear face masks outside their apartment in Fort Totten, which they only leave for necessities.
After two weeks of missing class, Guzman Martinez' coronavirus symptoms began to ease. But as she prepared to log back on for virtual learning, the sophomore at Columbia Heights Education Campus in the District faced another challenge: finals.
"At that point, school wasn't even important, if I'm being completely honest," she said.
Her mother and stepfather, who are not fluent in English, suffered more severe symptoms of the virus than the teenager did. The language barrier meant Guzman Martinez and her older sister, a college student, became responsible for tracking down information about COVID-19 testing sites and local organizations that were offering food and other assistance. The 15-year-old helped care for her parents as they recovered, brewing tea and cooking eggs and bacon and quesadillas.
"What people don't talk about is the emotional toll that having COVID takes on you," she said. "It's really hard to focus because there are so many other worries."
That toll has been unevenly felt among the D.C. region's public schoolchildren.
Black and Hispanic children are more likely than their white peers to become infected with the coronavirus and die from it, according to a study of D.C. children published in the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children of color and children who belong to poor families "carry the highest burden of infection," the study concluded.
But even when they don't contract COVID-19, many schoolchildren are still shouldering the burdens of the pandemic, educators and advocates say.
Young people have had to care for family members who fall ill, overseeing household duties as their parents recover. Many have had to help younger siblings navigate virtual school as they juggle their own online classes because their parents cannot work from home. Other students are working to help provide for their families.
Research shows the time away from school buildings will disproportionately hurt Black, Brown and low-income students, exacerbating achievement and opportunity gaps that existed long before the pandemic.
Guzman Martinez willed herself to return to online school, fearing she would fall behind.
It was January 18, more than two weeks after she started experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. She still felt unwell but did not want to skip any more classes before finals.
Her head cloudy, she struggled to focus on her computer screen and sit upright for long stretches of time. She negotiated deadlines with teachers and stayed up late, listening to recordings of class lessons she had missed from her Advanced Placement Spanish class while solving trigonometry problems.
"I had to catch up, stay up, get it done," the sophomore said.
Barriers to learning
Perla Guzman Martinez, 15, returned to online classes despite still feeling lingering COVID-19 symptoms.
Black and Hispanic or Latino families like Guzman Martinez' family have borne the brunt of the pandemic in the District, making up a disproportionate number of reported COVID-19 cases and deaths in the city.
Children are not immune to the health disparities.
Students who live in Ward 7 and 8, majority-Black parts of the city with large concentrations of low-income families and high numbers of frontline workers, are at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, according to an analysis from the D.C. Policy Center, a non-partisan think tank.
But illness is just one challenge some students have had to confront during the pandemic.
Two members of the D.C. State Board of Education said during a February meeting some older students are taking jobs during the school day instead of attending virtual classes.
In Wards 7 and 8, more than 37 percent of families with children have incomes that fall below the federal poverty level, which is $26,500 for a family of four, according to the D.C. Policy Center. During a pandemic that has led to record levels of joblessness across the Washington region, families in those two wards also face the highest levels of unemployment in the city.
Yanesia Norris, an education consultant who conducted the analysis, found higher unemployment levels could lead to a lack of stability at home and fewer resources crucial for distance learning, such as the internet.
Much of the conversation around education during the pandemic is dominated by the debate about reopening classrooms, she added. Less attention is being given to pandemic-related challenges that have created obstacles to students' learning.
"Students' real life experiences are being left out of the conversation and out of decision-making processes," Norris said.
The difficulties are not confined to D.C. students.
In Montgomery County, Md., researchers from the University of Maryland at College Park interviewed Black and Latino students and students from low-income families about their learning experiences during the pandemic. The Montgomery County Public Schools students shared stories of struggling to keep up with school and housekeeping demands.
The researchers conducted the study on behalf of the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence, which advocates for Black, Brown and low-income students in Montgomery County.
One student recalled worrying for their mother, who was sick with the coronavirus and could not work. Another described watching fewer of his friends show up for online class, choosing to work instead. And another student talked about getting disrupted in the middle of the school day to run errands for their family.
The report's co-authors, Amy Lewin and Kevin Roy, both associate professors of family science, said students burdened with economic worries and household duties during the pandemic are experiencing "adultification," the expectation of taking on responsibilities usually managed by adults.
Some of the students who spoke with Lewin and Roy belong to immigrant families from Central America. Many of their parents work low-wage jobs that can't be performed remotely, the researchers said, requiring their children to take on more responsibility at home.
"Stress levels can be really, really, high for these young people," Lewin said. "Living with that kind of chronic stress can take a toll in all kinds of ways, physiologically and psychologically."
Diana Reyes was a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda last March when both her parents became sick with COVID-19. Reyes said it was early in the pandemic, so she had to drive her parents to multiple medical facilities before they could get tested.
They were hospitalized for nearly two weeks. Once home, the teenager said she became her parents' caretaker for several more weeks as they isolated and recovered in a bedroom.
She prepared her parents' meals. She disinfected the house using a concoction of vinegar and water because grocery store shelves were out of cleaning supplies. The teen FaceTimed her mother every hour from another room.
Reyes, a first-generation student who is now studying to become a social worker, is the first person in her family to graduate from high school. She mourned not having the chance to participate in rituals to commemorate her last months of high school, including a traditional graduation ceremony.
"I had to think about all the things I missed out on," Reyes said. "On top of that, I could have lost my parents."
Courtesy of Diana Reyes/
Diana Reyes, who graduated from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md. last year, had to forgo a traditional graduation ceremony.
Courtesy of Diana Reyes/
Meeting students where they are
Once a week, a team of staff members at IDEA Public Charter School in Deanwood sets out on a bus, visiting the homes of students who have been hard to reach during distance learning.
Most of the time, the high schoolers missed class for innocuous reasons: a laptop charger stopped working or a student forgot to pack their Chromebook as they shuttled between family members' homes.
Other times, students may not log on for virtual learning because they are helping younger siblings with online school or because wi-fi in their home is spotty, according to Justin Rydstrom, the head of school.
The pandemic has forced the school leader to reconsider what is equitable: How do you grade students fairly if they miss class because they are taking care of siblings while their parents work? Do deadlines matter if the assignments are eventually completed?
"A lot of it has been, candidly, throwing a lot of the policies out of the window and being flexible to meet students where they are," Rydstrom said. "They're in their homes and that requires a whole different way of thinking about how you reach them."
Teachers poll students on Fridays and revise lesson plans for the upcoming week based on how comfortable students feel with the material, Rydstrom said. The school is more lenient with deadlines. Students can watch recordings of virtual classes they miss without being penalized for skipping class.
The extra time to complete assignments is a huge help for Jaila Walker, a sophomore at IDEA, who is balancing her high school courses with classes at the University of the District of Columbia.
The 16-year-old had to help three of her younger siblings–ages 10, 12 and 13–get situated with distance learning early on in the pandemic, distracting the teen from her own studies. She also helps her mother keep the house tidy during the school day, creating chore lists for herself and her siblings.
"It's really challenging working on my own stuff and then still having to deal with my siblings and deal with the household," Walker said. "But we make it work."
Paul Kihn, deputy mayor of education in the District, said school leaders have adjusted some expectations to account for the realities students are facing. The city applied for a waiver from the federal government to cancel high-stakes standardized exams this school year, including PARCC.
It hasn't been granted yet, but Kihn said the city is "confident we are not going to be forced to deliver a PARCC assessment this year."
D.C. Public Schools, which educates more than half of the city's public school students, has also adjusted its grading and attendance expectations to allow for more flexibility.
"We are in a posture of not penalizing students for circumstances caused by the pandemic," Kihn said.
The thought of returning to a classroom terrifies Guzman Martinez, the sophomore at Columbia Heights Education Campus.
She grows anxious leaving the house for trips to the grocery store, worried she or her parents could become sick again. The teenager, who wants to become a journalist or photographer, still wheezes occasionally and suffers migraines she believes resulted from the coronavirus.
She said she turned down an offer to return to school in person.
"I'm going to take the safest route and just wait until next year," she said. "If it's the same, then I just won't go back at all."
Finals for the second quarter, which ended in late January for D.C. Public Schools, went better than the teenager expected. She finished the grading period with a 3.5 grade point average. But Guzman Martinez is still frustrated she had to fight through the lingering effects of the virus to complete her classes.
She is looking forward to one thing about the rest of the school year — the end of it.
"I'm over this year," she said.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.