Oakland Unified's recently restored food truck is providing "Grab and Go" meals to students at Esperanza Elementary during school closures. (Photo courtesy of Oakland Unified)

Even before the coronavirus struck, many families in Oakland Unified struggled to get by. But with residents forced to stay home and non-essential businesses closed, circumstances have turned dire.

In response, many educators and community members are going far beyond their normal duties in these far-from-normal times. They are helping needy families with food, financial aid and technology through donations and fundraising campaigns.

At some schools, more than half the students’ parents have lost their jobs, including Esperanza Elementary — where 80 percent of households are out of work, according to the district. And those who are undocumented will not be eligible for federal stimulus checks.

“There are very few times in our history when so many students and their families have needed so much support,” said Oakland Unified spokesman John Sasaki. “In a district where more than 70 percent of families qualify for free and reduced priced lunches, the need is high in the best of times. But with the COVID-19 pandemic and shelter in place causing thousands of families to lose their income, the need has grown exponentially.”

After schools closed in Oakland a month ago, educators and administrators contacted families to find out how they were doing mentally, physically and financially. They determined whether students had access to laptops or Google Chromebooks, as well as internet services so students could continue their learning at home. And they assessed their students’ need for free meals to be distributed by the district. As more teachers connected with families, they realized that many were struggling to the extent that they couldn’t pay rent or put food on their tables, and those who were undocumented could not apply for unemployment benefits.

The help directed at needy families took many forms. A dozen schools set up GoFundMe campaigns. Another fund was established to help a family whose father was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents in early March — the week before schools closed due to the pandemic.

The nonprofit Oakland Public Education Fund established a “Rapid Relief Fund” to help families throughout the city in partnership with the district. And some district administrators teamed up with the Oakland Public Education Fund to create a campaign aimed at donating stimulus checks to undocumented families at stimuluspledge.org. In addition, the local Tech Exchange nonprofit organization aimed at providing digital technology to low-income residents is seeking donations and laptop computers that it can refurbish for students. Some student advocates have created an online petition seeking free internet service for all low-income families.

Nely, a mother of four daughters in the district who asked that her full name not be used because she is undocumented, is a case in point. Her husband lost his job at a carpentry business the same day district schools closed last month. The couple could no longer afford to pay their $1,500 a month rent or their electricity and phone bills in April. If not for the free food the children have been able to pick up through the district’s “Grab and Go” meal distribution program, Nely said she doesn’t know how she would feed her family. Concerned about paying their May rent, she worries the family could be evicted or have their power and phones shut off after short-term state measures to prevent such moves expire.

Oakland Unified staff members and volunteers distribute food during “Grab and Go” meal service at some school sites. (Photo courtesy of Oakland Unified)

With two daughters attending the Bridges Academy at Melrose elementary school, the family may be able to receive funds through that school’s GoFundMe campaign.

“It’s really nice to hear that people are helping people like us, who need it,” Nely said.

Melvin, a father in the district who asked that his full name not be used, is another in need. His two children also attend Bridges Academy. He lost his job cleaning hotel kitchens and can’t afford to pay his family’s $1,000-a-month rent.

“I cannot sleep,” he said. “I can’t stop thinking about it, and I’m worried for my children.”

Both families may also get help through the stimulus pledge fundraiser that Principal Anita Iverson-Comelo helped launch.

The stimuluspledge.org website was established to help undocumented families in Oakland Unified. (Image courtesy of Theresa Harrington/EdSource)

Iverson-Comelo said she initially discussed with her husband the idea of donating their stimulus check to a family from her school whose father died before the pandemic hit and whose mother was unable to find work. The school educates 435 students in transitional kindergarten through fifth grade. This includes 98 percent who are low-income, 80 percent who are English learners and about 20 percent who are “newcomer” immigrants, defined as those who have been in this country less than three years, she said.

“I wondered if there were other people like us who see that there are others in greater need than we are,” said Iverson-Comelo.

The principal asked some of the teachers at her school if they would be interested and eight immediately agreed to pledge their stimulus checks, she said.

Encouraged, she reached out to seven principals of schools with similar demographics. They all agreed to pledge their checks or to donate to the fund if they earn too much to receive stimulus checks.

She said her husband created the stimuluspledge.org website, where donors can make a pledge or donation, and they already have more than 300 donations and pledges of full or partial stimulus checks. Although 22 district and charter schools are highlighted on the website so far, she said principals from several other schools have expressed an interest in participating. And people from other cities and states have also contacted her, interested in establishing similar campaigns.

“It makes me feel good that there are people who also care about a whole group of people who are being overlooked,” she said, adding that she still worries about how the families will get by long term. “It just makes my heart break and makes me so upset thinking about what’s going to happen to the kids and their families in the future.”

California has also established a $125 million fund to help undocumented families affected by the coronavirus, which will provide $500 for an individual and up to $1,000 per family.

Similar stimulus donation campaigns have been created in West Contra Costa Unified and San Francisco Unified school districts. And many members of the Oakland Education Association teachers union are pledging stimulus checks to undocumented Oakland workers and their families through a separate Oakland Undocumented Relief Fund established by community organizations, such as Centro Legal de la Raza. And Helms Middle School in San Pablo, which includes an International Academy for newcomer immigrants, has established its own GoFundMe campaign.

Esperanza Elementary is also participating in the stimulus pledge fundraiser. The district’s nutrition services department began using its recently restored food truck to provide pop up “Grab and Go” meals to Esperanza students after hearing about the large percentage of parents who had lost their jobs. The Alameda County Community Food Bank distributed bags of groceries to families and the World Central Kitchen prepared adult meals. The district is also providing meals at 12 other schools.

Teacher Cassandra Chen, who created a GoFundMe campaign for the United for Success Academy Middle School that is also participating in the stimulus pledge program, said many people are “grateful for the opportunity to be able to contribute directly to other families in the community.”

The longer the stay-at-home order continues, “the need is only getting greater,” said Heather Palin, principal of Emerson Elementary in Oakland, which is also participating in the stimulus pledge. “It’s devastating what’s happening across our communities.”

* Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

Story originally published by EdSource.