Arizonans on the edge are faced with tough choices about COVID-19

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As the death count mounts nationwide in the wake of the rapid spread of COVID-19, I keep thinking about all of the people who are falling through the cracks. I’m talking about the multitudes in our society – the homeless, the low-income families, the prisoners, the undocumented immigrants – who go largely unnoticed by the 24-hour news networks and will rarely get mentioned at the daily White House press briefings on the crisis.

Lisa is one of those people. I spoke to her last week by telephone. She asked that her last name not be used to avoid any issues with her bosses at a local behavioral health services provider. The company sent her and several other employees home for two weeks after they were exposed to a co-worker who tested positive for COVID-19. She’s been sheltering at home with her two children ever since in Maryvale, a low-income neighborhood in west Phoenix.

This week, Lisa has a choice to make. Now that she’s burned through her entire annual allotment of “personal time off,” she can go back to work and risk exposing her family to the virus or she can stay home and risk running out of food again.

Because her 13-year-old son is diabetic and suffers from asthma, she’s afraid he could be exposed to the coronavirus. People with underlying health conditions are at greater risk of serious illness or death if they catch COVID-19.

“Everything’s running through my mind. Do I go back? I have to work, but I’m scared I might bring it back to him,” she told me.

Despite her predicament, Lisa says she’s been relatively lucky so far.

“Some of my neighbors are really bad off,” she said. “They have nothing. No job. No way to pay their bills. I don’t know how they’re going to do it.”

Like 90% of the children who attend the Phoenix Union High School District, Lisa’s 15-year-old daughter qualifies for the district’s federally subsidized free lunch program, said PUHSD’s Family and Community Engagement Manager Cindy Tercero. That’s how she got to know the family.

“We delivered a box of food to Lisa’s house last week, and she and the kids were so grateful, they took a picture holding signs and thanking us for bringing them a care package,” said Tercero, who runs a district program that provides emergency food supplies and other social services to needy families.

Before schools statewide were ordered shuttered for the year, the district was serving up about 28,000 hot meals a day, according to PUHSD’s Governing Board President Stephanie Parra. Since the shutdown, PUHSD employees and volunteers have been preparing more than 8,000 “grab-and-go” meals a day to distribute at 10 pickup points across the district.

Despite the district’s effort, Parra and Tercero worry that some of the children who used to depend on enjoying a hot meal at school every day may be going hungry.

“Our team is working as hard as we can to fill the gap,” Parra said, adding that the district has launched an initiative called “Every Student Every Day” in which teachers, staff and even school board members take turns calling families across the district to conduct so called wellness checks.

That’s how Lisa and her kids found help: “The teachers called to see if we were OK. They asked if there was anything we needed.”

In addition to food, both of her children needed – and have since received – laptops to access their classes online. Parra said PUHSD is in the process of distributing 12,000 laptops to students districtwide. In an effort to ensure seniors stay on track to graduate this year, Parra said PUHSD purchased 5,000 wifi “hotspots” for students who may not have internet access at home.

The sudden switch to online learning for the state’s 1.1 million K-12 public school students has brought enormous challenges.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said her department is reaching out to school officials across the state to assess their online teaching capabilities. The pandemic, she said, has dramatically highlighted and exacerbated the digital divide that already exists in low-income and rural communities.

Hoffman’s biggest concern is that students, especially in low-income and rural areas of the state, could fall behind academically in the coming weeks and months, as educators are forced to revamp their curricula and ramp up their online teaching capabilities. Among the hardest hit communities, she said, have been the tribal areas, where some residents still do not have running water or electricity, much less computers or Internet access. 

The pandemic is also creating a slew of unanticipated expenses for the state’s schools.

District officials didn’t start the year planning to buy thousands of laptops or redesign their food distribution systems. Hoffman said it’s too soon to tell how much more money districts will have to spend before the school year is out. Not to mention, there’s no guarantee that students will return to their classrooms in the fall if the COVID-19 pandemic has a second wave of infections.

Legislative leaders, meanwhile, are already predicting deep tax revenue losses as a result of the near freeze on the economy. This, at a time when Arizona already spends far less per capita educating our students than almost every other state in the nation.

The task at hand, and rightfully so, is all about saving lives. But the damaging effect on our education system and public services across the board, and more importantly the lives of everyday people like Lisa and her children, are bound to be profound and long-lasting.

Lisa admits, with some trepidation, that she’ll almost certainly go back to work this week, despite the potential danger to her family. 

“I have no choice,” she said. “The whole thing is scary. It’s the unknown.”

Besides, there’s almost certainly another family in Maryvale, maybe even one of her neighbors, who may need a box of food to make it through the week.