South LA

A year in the pandemic in South L.A.

Residents reflect on the ways the pandemic impacted them and their community over the past year.

It has been about one year since the United States began lockdown measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, there have been 1.15 million cumulative cases in Los Angeles County (not including Pasadena and Long Beach) according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. And some areas in Los Angeles were hit harder than others. South L.A. has had a 40% higher case rate compared to the entire county’s rate.

Annenberg Media spoke with South Los Angeles residents about how the pandemic has impacted their community.

Yolande Beckles, 58, is the CEO of The Knowledge Shop LA, a nonprofit educational organization focused on assisting students from less privileged communities through a paid annual support program and additional services.

Before stay-at-home orders went into effect, children from numerous LAUSD schools would pack the walls of The Knowledge Shop LA to receive tutoring or guidance. When the pandemic hit, Beckles had no choice but to close the shop’s doors. But not for long.

She saw the pandemic as an opportunity to create an alternative space for homebound students unable to return to the classroom. Tired of doing school from her bedroom, Beckles’ daughter asked her mom if they could go to the shop and attend Zoom classes from there. Soon after, parents who drove by the shop saw the lights were on, and begged to come back.

Many of the parents who work with Beckles are seeing social and emotional differences in their children due to limited social interactions. Increased social isolation and the digital divide posed challenges for students throughout the county in 2020. But low-income communities and communities of color were disproportionately affected. According to a student engagement analysis report from LAUSD, “fewer middle and high school students who were Black, Hispanic, living in low-income households” engaged in online learning compared to “more advantaged students.”

Beckles and her business partner, Michael Batie, slowly allowed a limited number of students to use the shop while still adhering to COVID-19 safety guidelines. The duo created a Zoom model for students called “pandemic pods,” which they announced in the summer once they realized how significantly minority students and their families struggled with online learning.

“Parents haven’t been equipped with the things to educate their children and COVID exacerbated that situation when sending students back home,” Beckles said.

The Knowledge Shop has not gotten through the last year financially unscathed. But they still managed to provide services to families and give out meals, books and toys.

“It’s been a great experience for us because it’s allowed us to examine what we do, look at how we do it and make sure we can do even better,” Beckles said. “To be able to grow and be sustainable, because we survived.”

The pandemic has also been hard on educators.

Growing up in South L.A and working as a teacher at Cal State Dominguez Hills, South L.A. is the only home Kimblery Miller has ever known. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Miller’s household scrambled to figure out how to transition to online learning after school went virtual.

“I was just scared. Very scared,” South L.A. resident Kimberly Miller said of the beginning of the pandemic.

She said she wasn’t nearly as financially affected as some of her neighbors in South L.A. and is grateful she was able to continue working online.

“I have been so fortunate during this time to not be as impacted as many of the other families that we live around,” Miller said. She lives with her mother, who is a teacher, and her aunt, who is a social worker, all of whom were “able to stay home for the most part.”

Miller does wish there was more governmental support for South L.A. residents.

“I think the city has done a fairly decent job of handling the pandemic, actually.” Miller said. “I think that there are bigger structural problems that have made it hard for everyone to survive that.”

Before the vaccine, the South L.A. community faced challenges mitigating COVID-19 transmission. Jade Stevens, the director of communications of LA Promise Fund, recalled the early fears regarding the pandemic, particularly among South L.A. residents.

“We didn’t understand much about the coronavirus and how it’s being spread,” Stevens said. “I just remember the rush of everyone grabbing paper towels, hand sanitizer, food, frozen food...and seeing shelves completely empty. I just remember being nervous and scared and just not really sure what to expect next.”

The LA Promise Fund was able to alleviate some of the fears and challenges of the early pandemic through its service efforts. The organization set up prepaid hotlines for families, offered a food pantry three times a week and co-sponsored a vaccine site for families and community members. It also offered microgrants for families, giving approximately $200,000 over three days to 487 families.

“I think we’re really proud that we were able to continue and shift to offering all of the services that we were doing in person previously in person.” Stevens said. “We were able to successfully transition into virtual programming or providing them with resources to get caught up so that they could take advantage of the virtual program that we were offering.”

As vaccine rollouts began, there were already significant problems faced by South L.A. communities trying to get the vaccine. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, only about 20% of the South L.A. population is currently vaccinated.

Miller’s mother and aunt have been vaccinated because of their age, but hopes there is more equity as the vaccine rollout continues. California announced on March 25 that all residents over the age of 16 will be able to get vaccinated starting April 15.

“A lot of the people in my community struggle, so I am grateful that vaccines have been rolled out,” Miller said. “I hope that there will be more of a focus on equity, right. So that more people in our area can be vaccinated like my mom and my aunt were.”

“We saw an incredible amount of suffering throughout this year,” said Jim Mangia, president and CEO of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center. St. John’s is a nonprofit community health center network that provides free medical, dental and behavioral health services to more than 120,000 individual unduplicated patients every year. It is also the largest provider of healthcare in South L.A.

When the pandemic began, the organization focused its efforts on opening 20 testing sites in the community, along with triaging and monitoring residents who tested positive to ensure their symptoms didn’t worsen.

At the end of 2020, St. John’s was able to secure a monoclonal antibody infusion therapy, which was provided to hundreds of patients with severe symptoms to keep them from having to go into the hospital and onto a ventilator.

“Through that telehealth operation, as well as that in-person testing operation, we were able to save thousands of lives,” said Mangia.

Starting in January 2021, St. John’s began administering vaccinations. They have vaccinated over 100,000 people in South L.A. and East L.A., and they now vaccinate over 25,000 to 30,000 people each week.

“I think the biggest challenge we see with the vaccine is wealthy folks from Beverly Hills and the west side [and] in the valley trying to squeeze out the appointments that we have reserved for low income communities and communities of color in South L.A. and East L.A.,” Mangia said.

Mangia said they’re prioritizing their supply to Black and Latino people, immigrants, and those who are either low-income or undocumented within specific, priority zip codes.

“There’s a tremendous amount of resiliency in the communities of South L.A. and East L.A.,” he said. “I think the most powerful thing is how happy people are when they get the vaccine, and to see that joy and to be able to participate in helping to create that joy and provide that service to people who deserve it is a beautiful thing.”