On a breezy late May afternoon, members of Madison Park Academy’s senior class donned shimmery white gowns and tasseled caps decorated with fabric flowers and celebratory messages. For most, it was the first and last time in more than a year they had set foot on their East Oakland campus.
Among them stood Eduardo Mendoza Miguel, a Guatemalan immigrant who spent the past year practicing his English watching Youtube and TikTok videos, and struggled through a bout of COVID-19 in the fall.
Claudeth Armenta Gaxiola oversaw her young niece’s studies while managing her own, and grieved a year of missed milestones.
Sir Khalil Coleman made 4.0 for the first time while sharing a room with two younger brothers and trying not to dwell too much on the toll violence has taken on his community.
Of all the ZIP codes in Alameda County, 94603, home to Madison Park Academy, has been perhaps the most brutalized by the pandemic. Located in the part of the city sometimes referred to as deep East Oakland, it had a COVID infection rate eight times that of the ZIP code with the lowest infection rate, 94618, which covers the affluent North Oakland hills at the other end of the city 10 miles away.
The blazing path COVID cut through deep East Oakland and similar neighborhoods around California — and the relative protection enjoyed by wealthier neighborhoods like the North Oakland hills — was set into motion long before reports of a worrisome new respiratory virus began trickling out in early 2020.
Children living in these two ZIP codes, and in similarly segregated neighborhoods around the state, have not experienced the pain of the pandemic equally. Many of those lining up to cross the temporary stage on the school’s football field had seen COVID race through their homes, sickening them and their family members.
Some managed their studies while caring full time for younger siblings. Others struggled to connect to classes via shaky district-provided hotspots. Many took on jobs to help pay mounting bills. Some lost friends in the surge of homicides that has paralleled the pandemic.
At times, the juggling act proved too much. As the first strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” played on the loudspeakers and Eduardo and Claudeth and Sir took their seats at the 50-yard line, a few classmates were missing.
Adults often comfort themselves with the notion of children’s resilience. But, too often, for neighborhoods like Sobrante Park, where Madison Park Academy is located, that idea has become a stand-in to mitigate decades of racism and policy failure. That students here often lean on their own resourcefulness can be viewed as inspirational — or deeply unfair.
“Our students are finding a way to adjust well to these horrible situations,” said Francisco Alvarado, the community school manager at Madison Park Academy, who is trained as a clinical psychologist. “A lot of them are indoctrinated into that. That’s what you do.”
Early in the pandemic, Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris, the state’s surgeon general, said that what kept her up at night was a dawning realization: “Holy moly, this is going to have a massive impact on our kids.”
Burke-Harris has spent much of her career sounding alarms about children’s unique vulnerability to toxic stress and trauma. She grimaces at the notion that they possess some sort of innate resilience.
“That,” she declared recently, after a long pause to take stock of the appropriate wording to use with a journalist, “is a bunch of nonsense.”
A Tale of Two ZIP Codes
Sobrante Park is a neighborhood of tightly packed single-family homes hedged in by the 880 freeway and railroad tracks on the east and west and San Leandro Creek to the south.
Sir loves the area’s diversity and cherishes a childhood spent biking with friends and exploring the creek. He describes his community as mostly quiet and peaceful.
“I think it was a great experience growing up,” he said.
Still he worries about the effect of air pollution from the freeway on his community. For his senior “capstone” — a year-long project every graduating senior must complete — he biked around the neighborhood documenting the impacts of decades of environmental injustice: the freeway, the railroad tracks, the homeless encampments, the streets lined with abandoned vehicles.
While Sir finds joy in the details of his life there, some residents say they’re discouraged by the disparities.
“East Oakland is going downhill,” said Meisha Marshall, a longtime resident of the community who has been the after-school coordinator at Madison Park Academy for 12 years. “When you come this way, it looks like it’s been forgotten. You see more sadness. I can’t even describe it….You don’t see hope.”
The nearest big supermarket to Sobrante Park is about two miles away. Tyrone Carney Park, which bears the name of a young resident who died in Vietnam, has been shuttered for 20 years. The median household income in the ZIP code is less than $53,000. Almost 30% of its children live below the poverty level.
By contrast, the 94618 ZIP code in North Oakland encompasses the Rockridge neighborhood, where residents can picnic at Lake Temescal or shop at multiple grocery stores along bustling College Avenue. The median household income is more than $167,000, and fewer than 4% of children live below the poverty level. On average, residents of this ZIP code live 11 years longer than residents of 94603.
These disparities are more than a century in the making. Racist covenants and single-family housing zoning rules that were drawn up beginning in the early part of last century kept Rockridge white and wealthy. Redlining — in which the federal government refused to insure loans in neighborhoods it deemed risky — made it easier for white Rockridge residents to buy homes than for East Oakland residents, who were often people of color.
The construction of I-880 and other urban renewal projects displaced and cut off residents of many of Oakland’s low-income neighborhoods. Later, subprime lenders began targeting low-income families, leading East Oakland residents to lose their homes at a far higher rate than Rockridge residents during the foreclosure crisis, said Carolina Reid, associate professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. Many East Oakland residents ended up crowding into homes to keep up with rising rents, making housing in that ZIP code 20 times more likely to be overcrowded than in Rockridge.
Then came the pandemic.
“We knew these people were in harm’s way,” said Dr. Tony Iton, who served as Alameda County’s public health director from 2003 to 2009 and is now a vice president at The California Endowment, the largest private health foundation in the state.
During his tenure, Iton conducted research mapping life expectancy by census tract. In some of the whitest, wealthiest neighborhoods in the Oakland hills, residents lived an average of 22 years longer than in the worst-off neighborhoods in the flats. High levels of chronic stress among the residents of the latter neighborhoods led to higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, which combined with lack of healthy food, water and recreation to make their residents — mainly low-income people of color — more vulnerable.
“When you manufacture stress, you make people vulnerable to any crisis: AIDS, opioids, Hurricane Katrina,” he said. “These communities will be hit first and they will be hit hardest. And that’s what COVID proved again.”
Spring 2020: Fear
On March 13, 2020, Oakland Unified said it would close its schools for three weeks. Claudeth and Sir, like many of their classmates, felt a little excited at the prospect of a prolonged vacation. COVID itself still felt unreal.
But, as he listened to his classmates cheering, Eduardo didn’t share their enthusiasm. He had moved to Oakland from his village in Guatemala only a few years earlier. He was getting more comfortable speaking English. He was figuring out how to navigate the computer for his graphic design class. His grades were excellent. He was hoping to make some friends.
Before long, the other students’ initial excitement waned. Twelve days into the school closure, the district pushed back the reopening date until early May. A week later, the superintendent said schools would remain closed through summer.
Claudeth had spent the early days of the school closures playing Fortnite and doing group Facetime calls with her friends. As the weeks stretched on, she and her family started trying new recipes, painting and doing puzzles.
With businesses closed, many young people began to absorb their families’ financial worries. Claudeth’s mother, Claudia Gaxiola, who works as a housecleaner in Rockridge, San Francisco and Berkeley, had to stop working. Their family dipped into savings. Gaxiola was scared, but did her best to allay her two daughters’ concerns.
But Claudeth still worried.
“My mom has to pay this and that bill, but there’s nothing to pay with,” she said.
Tiffany Couch, Madison Park Academy’s school site safety officer, was one of a few school employees required to show up in person in those early weeks. Meisha Marshall, the after-school coordinator, came in too, assembling bags of crafts and snacks to drop off at students’ houses.
Almost all the school’s children are eligible for free meals. When their families began appearing at the locked campus asking for food, the prospect of those kids going hungry brought Couch to tears.
She called the principal, and they began to mobilize. A group of adults who worked at the school began distributing diapers and boxes of groceries, delivering them to people’s homes when necessary.
Until the first stimulus check came in, the school handed out about 600 boxes of food, twice a week, said Kyle McClerkins, who works to build community and improve school culture as restorative practices facilitator at Madison.
But food was only one stressor. Rent, transportation, electricity, water — all those bills still needed to be paid. Many parents still had to show up to work every day, but nobody knew where to get masks, face shields or hand sanitizer. And more people were getting sick.
In addition, many of the school’s students came from immigrant households frightened by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raids and anti-immigrant rhetoric. They considered school a place they could trust.
In recent years, Madison Park Academy has undergone a transformation under principal Lucinda Taylor. Last year, the 6th-12th grade school of 750 students boasted a 98% graduation rate, significantly higher than the district average of 72%. The campus plays a stabilizing role in many students’ lives. As the weeks dragged on, it was a natural place for families to turn.
Several adults working at Madison Park Academy jumped into action, setting up a GoFundMe site — independent of the school — that eventually raised about $25,000 to directly aid students’ families. They did their best to share up-to-date information about COVID, the eviction moratorium, and anything else.
Staff knew their campus was normally the safest place for some of their students. Reports of child abuse and neglect plummeted as teachers no longer saw students in person every day. With campus closed, they wondered: What was happening to the kids they couldn’t reach?
“We’re all in panic mode because we don’t know what’s going on, we don’t know what’s happening,” said Alvarado, the community school manager. “We can speculate.”
Summer 2020: Stress
On May 25, 2020, white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, killing him. The story of Breonna Taylor, a Kentucky emergency room tech whom police killed at home during a botched raid, gained attention as well. Both Taylor and Floyd were Black.
National outrage resonated in East Oakland. Sobrante Park is just four miles from the Fruitvale BART station where, in 2009, white BART officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant, a Black man, as Grant lay face down on the platform.
“Much of what the young people are processing is: What does it mean to be a Black girl or Black boy in this society that doesn’t value my life? ” said Teiahsha Bankhead, executive director of the nonprofit Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. One consequence of the past year’s isolation: Young people haven’t been able to have as many informal discussions about this issue in their classrooms or schoolyards, she said.
Eric Ding, who teaches senior English at Madison Park Academy and oversees the year-long senior projects, said he and his colleagues talked openly with students about their feelings over the killings of Taylor and Floyd.
“That on top of everything else was this visible weight,” he said.
“I think the norm is to feel like their voices are a little silent and not heard. When it becomes national news that other people have been silenced and not been heard, I think it really resonates.”
On August 10, 2020, school resumed virtually.
Many students still didn’t have good internet access, and teachers struggled to figure out who wasn’t logging on by choice, and who because they lacked a computer or WiFi, said Bianca Lorenz, whose role at Madison Park Academy involves connecting students with jobs and internships. Some couldn’t turn their cameras on because they didn’t have adequate bandwidth.
The district provided wireless hotspots, but many didn’t work well, said McClerkins, the restorative practices facilitator.
Eduardo knew the school had computers to loan, but he felt too nervous to borrow one — what if something happened to it? Instead, he attended classes on his phone.
For months, he had been saving to purchase a computer of his own, applying for scholarships and doing carpentry alongside his father. Then, in August, his mother got into a car crash in Guatemala, badly injuring her arm. To help cover the cost of her recovery, Eduardo sent her the money he’d saved.
Without a desk, he’d complete his homework lying on a mattress in the living room of the home he shared with his older siblings and young nieces. He cared for his nieces while everyone else went to work. Sometimes that meant he missed class. There were days he cried in frustration. But he was determined to do well.
“This was supposed to be my shining year,” he said.
Once her mother, brother and sister-in-law went back to work, Claudeth was tasked with monitoring her kindergarten niece while taking classes. She would feed the little girl breakfast before they both started classes. She wanted to help her even more — her niece had never used a computer before– but Claudeth worried she was neglecting her own schoolwork.
The change to virtual wasn’t bad for everyone.Despite sharing a bedroom with two younger brothers in a home with 10 family members, Sir would put on his headset and focus.
“The distractions really didn’t affect me too much,” he said. His grades had never been better: 4.0 four marking periods in a row.
Ding said many students’ families did all they could to make sure their children prospered at school. But once the pandemic hit, many students had to take on jobs to help pay the bills. Some babysat six children at once. This impacted their academic progress. But what choice did they have?
Cecilia Terrazas, an assistant vice principal at Madison Park Academy, loves the school’s small, tight knit community. But she also knows firsthand the disparities between what she can offer her students and what other, better-resourced kids are getting.
The school is highly segregated. Teacher turnover is an ongoing concern: This past year, 38% of the teachers had been there less than two years, and that was better than normal. While Madison Park normally does impressively well with attendance, she estimates that maybe 100 students disconnected from class during the last school year, despite efforts by staff to engage them.
Just 3% of children in the 94603 ZIP code attend private school; a third of children in 94618 do. Terrazas’ own daughter attends an expensive private school based in that ZIP code. Her daughter and her classmates had already returned to in-person class, moving forward academically “at warp speed” while Terrazas and her colleagues struggled to make sure their students were safe, healthy and felt loved.
“I see the gap, what they have versus what we have,” Terrazas said. She finds it infuriating.
“The divide is dividing more,” she said. “We don’t have health insurance. We don’t have adequate housing. There’s extreme poverty and unemployment. It’s intentional. It’s by design. It’s not accidental.”
Fall 2020: Illness
In the summer, COVID rates had risen high enough in East Oakland that news reports drew comparisons with better known hotspots like New York City. By October, the numbers were ticking back up. Then they began to soar.
In 94603, county data shows about 14% of residents have been infected with COVID, compared to less than 2% in Rockridge. The East Oakland ZIP code has far more residents living in overcrowded housing and working essential jobs that dramatically increased their exposure.
Health disparities had set the residents of 94603 up to suffer.
These data points are a natural outgrowth of a food desert with shuttered parks and high levels of poverty and stress. They also made people in that area even more vulnerable to serious illness from COVID.
Once vaccines began to roll out this year, yet another health-related disparity emerged: so far, less than 57% of those eligible in deep East Oakland are fully vaccinated, compared to more than 83% in Rockridge.
In October, Eduardo’s father picked up COVID and developed a fever. Soon, others in the house began falling ill.
For a few days, Eduardo felt like his head was going to explode. His body was hot. His back ached. His feet hurt too much to move.
The pain scared him. But he only missed one day of remote school.
Between November and January, Alvarado, the community school manager, got at least two calls a week related to either a death or someone being rushed to the hospital.
“It was intense,” he said. “Those three months we were just not seeing a light.”
For many families, the illness was frightening for another reason: Being in quarantine meant lost income. As a result, some families were nervous about getting tested, Terrazas said.
“Can I feed my children or do I follow the protocols?” she said. “That’s a hard decision to make.”
Winter 2021: Loneliness and grief
Early in the pandemic, one of the few points of light was that COVID seemed to spare children. But as the months passed, the toll the pandemic was taking on their mental health became increasingly evident.
Between April and October 2020, the CDC reported a 24% year-over-year national increase in mental health emergency department visits for 5 to 11 year olds, and a 31% increase for children aged 12 to 17.
Even before the pandemic, these rates had been climbing. The numbers have caught lawmakers’ attention — the Newsom administration has proposed an unprecedented $4 billion investment in children and adolescent behavioral health this year, which will cover a range of efforts, from a public awareness campaign to school-based interventions to evidence-based treatments, said Burke-Harris, the state surgeon general who has been deeply involved with the proposal.
“An entire generation of young people have been through a pretty incredibly stressful and, for some, frankly, traumatic experience,” she said. “So if we know that that puts our kids at greater risk, why don’t we, you know, get ahead of it?”
At Madison Park, Alvarado has witnessed an increase in depression, anxiety and substance use as students struggle under the combined weight of boredom, stress and isolation, along with mounting violence, economic hardship and loss.
“We’re suffering,” he said.
But many mental health providers say that students have also been harder to connect to services this year, due to the same stressors – technology problems, school closures, lack of privacy, financial stress, anxiety and grief – they ideally need help with.
Marisa Villegas, who teaches ethnic studies at Madison Park Academy, said she’s seen some students suffering from depression after their families went through bouts of COVID.
While returning students will need “tremendous” academic support next year, she said, “if you have just one student who’s severely depressed, the last thing we’re thinking about is math homework.“
Eduardo struggled under the weight of so much loneliness and stress. He didn’t miss the sadness and hunger he’d left behind in his small village in Guatemala, but he did miss swimming in the river, pulling mangos from nearby trees – and, most of all, his mother. To distract himself, he sketched portraits of people he found online, or played Super Smash Brothers.
Claudeth was lonely, too, but turned down most invitations to meet up with friends.
Her family was extremely careful. After her mother, brother and sister-in-law returned from work, they’d immediately shower and change. They wore gloves and masks and took hand sanitizer everywhere. Mostly though, they rarely left the house.
In 2013, when Claudeth was 11, her father had been shot and killed during a drive-by while he attended a birthday party down the street. She’d seen a therapist since then.
But the isolation was getting harder. Claudeth missed playing soccer. She missed her friends. She wasn’t having a prom, or the school’s traditional Senior Sunrise, or the much-anticipated senior trip to Disneyland. She didn’t even know if she’d have a graduation.
She watched news accounts showing how other countries had managed to tamp down the virus. Why is this taking forever? she’d wonder. She felt increasingly overwhelmed.
“I just can’t,” she’d tell her mom.
Barbara McClung, director of behavioral health at Oakland Unified School District, said the hugely under-resourced nature of deep East Oakland has led to “much higher vulnerability” in that part of the city during this past year. Perhaps the biggest impact she’s seen in Sobrante Park: the spike in homicides.
Since the pandemic began, homicides have surged nationally, up 30% in big cities last year, and another 24% for the beginning of this year. In Oakland, those increases were even higher and borne disproportionately by certain neighborhoods. Between May 2020 and late June 2021, North Oakland’s 94618 ZIP code had zero homicides, according to Oakland Police Department data. East Oakland’s 94603 had 17. The 17th occurred last week: a man was shot and killed outside the front gate of Madison Park Academy.
“We have been so accustomed to it, we can easily distinguish gunshots from fireworks now,” said David De Leon, who did his senior project at Madison on gun violence in the community. The streets in his neighborhood are empty at night, he said. “Everybody just knows to not really be outside at that time.”
Sir worries about his friends and about whether being in the wrong place might leave him at risk, too. He tries not to fixate on it too much. Some of Sir’s childhood friends have been among the recent shooting victims. One was hit in the shoulder and survived. Another was hit in the back of the head — Sir drove his friend around while he healed.
“Life’s not fair,” Sir said. “Things happen, you know, growing up in a neighborhood.”
A few weeks ago, his father woke him up to tell him a family friend had been murdered. A former Madison student, she had been celebrating a friend’s birthday. Shooters fired into the vehicle she was riding in as it traveled down the freeway, killing two teenagers.
The reality of his friend’s death didn’t kick in for Sir until he saw candles flickering at a memorial vigil two days later.
And yet, Sir remains innately hopeful. He sees friends’ lives transformed by internships and other positive opportunities.
“I see every year it’s getting better,” he said. “Every day, people are changing their ways.”
Spring 2021: Hope
On graduation day, cars packed with adoring family members pulled onto the basketball court adjacent to the Madison Park Academy football field. Some honked horns and revved engines in anticipation. Someone began playing the accordion.
Sir’s family had crowded into a Suburban they’d painted with congratulatory messages. Before attending San Jose State to study environmental studies in the fall, he planned to spend the summer helping his grandmother, mentoring younger kids about bike mechanics and safety through a local nonprofit, running track and volunteering to fix up the trail next to the nearby creek — “just one small step to making this community better.”
Claudeth took a seat near one of her best friends. She’s planning to attend San Francisco State to become a traveling nurse. Fully vaccinated, she was thrilled to finally hug her friends and teachers.
Eduardo couldn’t stop smiling. Soon, he’ll attend classes at Cal State East Bay. He’s deciding whether to study to become a graphic designer or an immigration attorney. He is ready to start making new friends.
As they sat on the football field, the wind grew increasingly playful, stealing student speakers’ graduation caps and popping glitter-filled balloons, sending showers of gold onto the 50-yard-line.
“The world dealt you the most difficult senior year ever,” their English teacher, Ding, told them.
“Today you rise,” their principal, Taylor, told them.
Before long, the staff would need to grapple with questions that do not yet have clear answers: How much trauma and learning loss had their students experienced? What would it take to rebuild strong connections once young people returned to campus after so much time away? After this unimaginable year, how many wouldn’t return at all?
One at a time, the seniors stepped onto the stage. In quaverling voices, they thanked their parents and teachers. Then, clutching red roses and diploma cases, they crossed the threshold.
This story is supported by a grant from Renaissance Journalism.
About the Data
United States Postal Service ZIP code service areas do not correspond with city boundaries, so the ZIP codes mapped in this story include parts of surrounding municipalities. ZIP codes at least partially contained in Oakland with a population over 10,000 were mapped. The ZIP code boundaries used come from Alameda County Open Data.
COVID-19 caserate and vaccination data were retrieved from the Alameda County dashboard on June 29, 2021.
Life expectancy, adult obesity rate, adult diabetes rate were retrieved from Healthy Alameda County.
Madison Park Academy and Oakland Unified School District 2019-20 graduation rates were retrieved from California Department of Education’s DataQuest portal.
Homicide counts by ZIP code for May 2020 through June 28, 2021 were requested from the Oakland Police Department, which provides incident location at the block level. Thus each homicide is mapped at its approximate block location.
All other data comparing the two ZIP codes were retrieved from American Community Survey (ACS) 2019 5-Year estimates, which provides data based on ZIP Code Tabulation Areas (ZCTAs) created by the U.S. Census Bureau. This story includes ACS data by ZCTA for median household income, child poverty rate, race/ethnicity, percentage of K-12 students attending private school, percent of civilian noninstitutionalized population uninsured, and percent of households that are overcrowded (using the definition of overcrowded as households with more people than rooms).