COVID outbreaks in rural schools impact students, families beyond the classroom

Sep 24, 2021

Laura Garcia stands outside her home with two of her kids and their ducks, chickens and goats in Raisin City, a small unincorporated community southwest of Fresno. It’s a morning in early September, and she’s wearing a mask because her oldest daughter, Jennifer, who attends Raisin City Elementary school, tested positive for COVID-19 in late August. 

She suspects her daughter contracted the virus at school. She says she reached out to other parents in her daughter’s class to let them know. 

 

“When I told the parents that my daughter tested positive, some of them said their children were feeling the symptoms so they tested them as well and they were positive,” she says in Spanish.  

At least three students in Garcia’s daughter’s class tested positive for the virus. Following Fresno County Health Department guidelines, school officials sent all the kids in the class home to quarantine for nearly a week after Labor Day. 

COVID-19 cases among youth were increasing last month as students started the school year. Cases have since declined. But even small COVID-19 outbreaks at schools can have major impacts on families in rural communities. 

The virus, of course, spread beyond the school children. In total, four of Garcia’s kids contracted the virus. Garcia and her husband, who is the family's sole provider, also got it. He’s vaccinated and works in the fields. 

“It affects us because he is the only one that works to pay the rent, to buy stuff for the kids, and to pay all our bills,” she says.  

 

Garcia and her husband are undocumented. Since they don’t qualify for many forms of government assistance, they’ve turned to friends and family for help buying groceries. 

Survey Finds Latinx Families Struggled With Income and Learning Loss During Pandemic

The Garcia family isn’t the only one facing loss of income and education due to the pandemic. 

An estimated 44% of Latinx parents nationwide reported an interruption in employment due to child care, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey published in late August. It also shows that half of Latino parents with incomes below $40,000 reported their children fell behind academically. 

Carmen Cuautenco Leon’s 13-year-old daughter is another one of the eighth graders at Raisin City Elementary School who tested positive for COVID-19. Cuautenco Leon is a single mother of three. She says she also had to take time off from her work in the fields to care for her child. But her biggest concern is the learning loss that her children faced through the pandemic and again while quarantined. 

“They’re very behind and of course they need to go to school, but we also need to take care of the health of our kids,” she says in Spanish. 

Tania Pacheco-Werner is co-director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State. She says many people in rural communities have lower education levels and fewer job  opportunities. She says that creates a perfect storm, making it difficult for residents to take time off work to care for their children.

“We see that burden falls especially hard on rural families who don't have a lot of other options other than not getting an income during the time that their children have to stay home,” she says.

To prevent parents from losing income while taking care of quarantined kids, Pacheco-Werner says it’s important that local officials collaborate on how to protect students. That’s especially needed in smaller rural districts.  

“It's going to take a state-coordinated, school-wide, school-based effort to really think through how to begin testing and surveillance in those places that simply don't have the infrastructure to do it themselves,” Pacheco-Werner says. 

Rural Families Struggle With Learning Loss While Quarantined

Victoria Morales, a mother of five, says Raisin City Elementary School is one of those places that lacks the infrastructure. She doesn’t have any kids in the school's eighth grade class but she says school officials sent her 8-year-old daughter home on a Monday after mistaking the girl’s asthma attack for a symptom of COVID-19. 

“They said she couldn’t come back until she had a negative result and that Thursday the doctors called and said she was negative,” she says.  

But Morales says she didn’t get the written proof of the negative result until the following week. She says her daughter and two of her other children, who were also sent home because they lived in the same household, missed out on a week's worth of learning. That’s in addition to the learning loss they experienced during the pandemic.

Nearly three weeks after the Raisin City class was sent home to quarantine, Laura Gracia and Carmen Cuautenco Leon’s families have recovered from their symptoms. But their kids are still recovering from the learning loss and Garcia says her husband’s employer still hasn’t paid him for the two weeks he was in quarantine.   

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.