Pandemic had major impact on Southeast area, survey says

By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — The learning loss and psychological toll incurred by children in low-income Latino families in Southeast Los Angeles during the COVID-19 pandemic has been greater than that of residents with different ethnic backgrounds, concluded a survey run by AltaMed Health Services.

Conducted in partnership with the nonprofit Great Public Schools Now, the survey focused on the social and economic impact of the pandemic in 2,093 area families with at least one child between kindergarten and the 12th grade.

The survey targeted residents of the Southeast area because data obtained from the county health department consistently indicated that people in those communities reported more transmissions, hospitalizations and deaths compared to wealthier and more white neighborhoods in Los Angeles County, said an AltaMed representative at a web conference last week.

Families responded to questionnaires consisting of 23 questions made available in South Gate clinics, community-based organizations and through social media. Of the respondents, 43% identified as Latino.

One in three respondents said school grades dropped as the pandemic dragged on. Half blamed lack of a place to study and do homework at home, and many attributed setbacks to poor Wi-Fi internet connections, coupled with insufficient  access to technology for virtual classes.

Lizzete Escobedo, AltaMed’s associated vice president of civic engagement and advocacy, said that the findings pointed to a reality of essential workers with children crammed in tight apartments and with reduced options to visit parks to exercise and relief stress.

“We find that Latinos are heavily impacted by COVID-19 and many lack access to green spaces,” Escobedo said.

More than 60% of the respondents said they were “concerned or very concerned” about their children’s physical health.

Rosa Vazquez, a consultant with the Institute for Health and Equity, said two-thirds of area respondents are non-citizens, and 44% of them identified as immigrants. She underscored the role education plays to gauge the experiences of these residents.

More than half of Southeast area residents live in a household with more than three people and the median income for the region is $40,500, or $17,500 less than the county’s median of $58,000. Unemployment is 11.01% in the area, almost 3% higher than the county’s average, the survey said.

“Folks working in essential services didn’t carry enough [personal protective equipment],” Vazquez said. “They went home and carried all these factors that made them more vulnerable to COVID. These had a big impact in infections in the community.”

Many bore the guilt of catching the virus and the psychological weight of passing it onto their family members.

Among the key survey metrics, AltaMed found that:

• Previous social conditions contributed to 9 out of 10 area residents who experienced job losses, reduced income, caught the virus and were hospitalized, and suffered a death in the family. One in four families reported a COVID-19 death.

• Half the children did not have their own room to do homework and more than half reported getting worse grades during the pandemic.

• Three of four families surveyed said they were worried about not having enough food to eat.

• Two-thirds responded they incurred income losses in the last 15 months, either by changing jobs or by being furloughed or laid off.

Vazquez said the area was “placed in a vulnerable position,” and would be further marginalized if these issues, some systemic, are not addressed in the near future.

About 15,000 households with incomes of more than $35,000 were invited to participate in the survey. Also, a few residents from East Los Angeles made the final tally.

Parents also said that they were twice as likely to be “very concerned” about their offspring’s psychological well-being.

Overall, one in 10 respondents concluded that their children lacked skills to be proficient in math, languages, social studies and sciences.

“The pandemic has created new systems for [in]equity in the region, and people feel they don’t have enough resources” to cope with these challenges, Vazquez said.

Dr. Ilan Shapiro, medical director of health education and wellness at AltaMed Health Services, said a powerful conversation emerged from the findings that were consistent with data and conclusions of studies in New York City, Chicago, Dallas and parts of Florida.

“The reality is that this is something that has been happening for decades,” Shapiro said.

Heralding the impact community clinics have with low-income residents, Shapiro said about 15% of the population benefit from health services provided by the nonprofits. Patients evolve with programs tailored to grow healthier lifestyles, but more needs to be done to spread the positive impact they generate.

‘We really want to change what’s happening. Information is power,” Shapiro said. “Resiliency is equal to biting the bullet. But we need to move forward. We are fighting every day to bring good food to our families.”

Cudahy resident Martha Fierro, a grandmother of three, said much of the learning loss amid the pandemic occurred when the children tried to connect online with their respective teachers, only to be disappointed with unstable connections.

“They had so many problems with the lines that whenever the three wanted to load up at a time, their links dropped,” Fierro said. “That happened on top of lack of room, distractions and lack of attention. It was never the same as in-person classes. There was lack of help and [school district] attention.”

Maywood resident Guillermo Merin downplayed the food insecurity issue, and called on Gov. Gavin Newsom and school officials to increase funding for children stuck in neighborhoods where first-generation college graduates are still a rarity.

Merin referred to his 5-year-old grandson as a potential medical doctor if a combination of family support with public funding line up to make it happen.

“It would be spectacular to see him succeed as Dr. Shapiro, who fights for these communities. But I see it very difficult, because there are not enough funds to bring them up, in addition to all the time loss in the pandemic,” Merin said. “We need tutorial programs. They are turning a blind eye to important issues. If our children lack a good education, our communities will not go far.”

In the approved 2021-22 state budget approved by the state legislature June 15, Newsom increased school funding to about $21,000 a year per child, a record in the state’s history, as part of a $96 billion for public schools and community colleges.

AltaMed recommended that local communities invest resources to better understand the depth and impact of COVID-19, engage community members in planning and recovery initiatives, develop regional equity plans, build engagement at the school, district and county levels to voice parents and students’ concerns and invite school administrators and staff to discuss impacts and recovery plans.

The survey took place from March to April 2021. The findings were evaluated by the Ohio State University Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Evaluation Studies.