When COVID Came to Coalinga High, ‘School Just Ended in the Middle of the Sentence’

Amid AP Classes and College Prep, the Senior Class President Added Caretaker and Teacher for Her Four Younger Siblings to Her Load

When COVID Came to Coalinga High, ‘School Just Ended in the Middle of the Sentence’ | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Alizé and her siblings. Courtesy of Alizé Basulto Ibarra.

Before March 18, I was class president and a student in multiple Advanced Placement classes at my high school in a small town in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Since then, I’ve also had to be caretaker and teacher for myself and four younger siblings.

When schools here in Fresno County and across California closed to protect students from COVID-19, I was a senior at Coalinga High School. It has about 1,200 students, and I know many of them, because I tried to make use of every single minute of my high school career. I’ve had some special challenges in life, so I’ve been careful to make academic plans a year in advance and follow those plans carefully. School is incredibly important for my life, my future, and my family’s future.

When I was younger, my brothers, sisters, and I were taken out of our family by Child Protective Services. We grew up in the court system. I was fascinated by the attorney who handled our case in court. She listened to us and then decided how to represent our interests. The experience made me want to educate myself so I can become a lawyer and a voice for the unrepresented.

That’s why I’ve involved myself in more than a dozen extracurricular activities including the Associated Student Body, School Site Council, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the California Scholarship Federation, and perhaps most important of all, Mock Trial, a competition where I handled a fake court case in front of a judge and real lawyers. I’ve taken college classes, visited UCLA, and attended camps to develop my skills in arguing and advocacy. I’ve found I have a talent for trials.

I also made a point of enrolling in six Advanced Placement classes to prepare me for college, boost my GPA, and provide college credits, which will save me money when I head off to university. In my senior year, I decided to take AP classes in English, and Government and Politics, and also enroll and study for the AP Spanish test on my own, because the actual class didn’t fit my schedule.

Taking AP classes helps you develop self-discipline and challenge yourself to see things from a broader perspective. It also means you’re surrounded with teachers and students who support you and are ecstatic about learning. Teachers and staff at Coalinga High have fostered a safe environment and gone above and beyond to help students succeed, at school, at home, and in life. That support makes you want to work harder. My fellow students and I never missed class; if one was sick, we’d FaceTime in. We also embraced other challenges; starting in the summer of 2016, I took classes at my local community college. That means I’ve already completed my “transferables”—the courses you need to transfer from a community college to a UC campus or another four-year school.

None of us will get to make up the time or the lessons of this spring, or experience the milestones and make the memories that we missed. I fear that my siblings will be behind not only on work, but on skills we need.

As the spring semester began, my plan was on course. I was accepted to my dream school, UCLA. Then we heard about a pandemic.

School ended mid-semester in March, and there was no time for a proper goodbye to teachers and students. We all went home, unaware of what was to come. We also left school empty-handed, with no work plan. School just ended in the middle of the sentence.

In the meantime, our teachers suggested that we review our own materials or visit educational websites, such as Khan Academy.

At first, I responded like a teenager, treating this as a vacation from schoolwork and an excuse to stay up late. But as the weeks went by, and the virus spread, I recognized I needed to keep studying. AP tests would still be given online, and I still had to go to college in the fall.

Bringing a structure into our home has been the most difficult task. I live with my mother and my stepfather, but they both have to work long days. So I had to create a schedule, and a place to study and work, for myself and for my four siblings, ages 15, 10, 9, and 8.

After a few weeks of experimenting, I arrived at this arrangement. I sat at the kitchen table and set up my laptop so I could study. I got my brother and three sisters all beside me, on their iPads, and had them reading as much as possible, working on math games, and watching science videos.

When COVID Came to Coalinga High, ‘School Just Ended in the Middle of the Sentence’ | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Alizé in her Class of 2020 jacket. Courtesy of Alizé Basulto Ibarra.

My biggest concern as an older sister as this went on was that they’d return to school and be one of the kids who fell behind their classmates. My sister, 15 and a freshman in high school, found it hard to study math at home, without a teacher, so I made it a point to spend extra time with her. My younger siblings soak up information like sponges; so as long as they had the information at their fingertips and were doing their work, they would learn well. This arrangement went on for six weeks.

The school only started its official distance learning in May, two months after the break started. Its arrival created new frustrations for me. The platforms for distance learning are very difficult to navigate; they are closed systems. Each sibling attends a different school, and there was no easy or direct way of entering each school’s website. It was a long process just to sign in to each site, and then navigate through four or four or five different tabs just to find my siblings’ work.

It took me a ton of time, energy, and stress to help my siblings navigate their schoolwork. Often it was hard to understand what the teachers were looking for, and what it meant to do an assignment well. The schools did provide computers and other electronics, but those devices came with restrictions that made it hard to access all the websites that my siblings needed to complete their work.

I encountered some issues in my own schooling as well. Certain classes were on distance learning while others were on Google Classroom. Still, at Coalinga High, I was fortunate to have counselors who did everything they could to resolve these problems, while putting up videos that showed us how to navigate the online lessons. Teachers started up AP classes over Zoom, and I took my three AP exams on May 11, 13, and 22, without much trouble.

But it was much easier for me—a senior who knew all the classes and teachers—than it was for my freshman sister, who had a harder time figuring out how to get what she needed. And while I was nearly done with high school, she was just getting started.

None of us will get to make up the time or the lessons of this spring, or experience the milestones and make the memories that we missed out on. I fear that my siblings will be behind not only on work, but on skills we need. This time may make it hard for kids of our generation to build a strong foundation and thrive. Will some lose out on the opportunity to go to college as a result?

As I write this, I’m readying for graduation. All major events were canceled. The school community is looking into having some kind of modified prom or graduation.

Usually in the summer I take classes at UC Berkeley, Fresno State, or UCLA, but this year those have been canceled. So I intend to keep the job that I have working in fast food. And I hope that in the fall, I’ll be able to go to UCLA, in person, and not at a distance.


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