Chelsea Rodriguez chose to take one of her senior portraits with a mask on to commemorate her senior year in a pandemic. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Rodriguez.

On March 8, 2020, three days after the first two confirmed cases of Covid-19 were detected in San Francisco, ICA Cristo Rey Academy, announced that the school would close for two weeks after a staff member had contracted the virus. 

The all girls school, located at the intersection of 24th and Guerrero streets, planned to open by March 20 but, “after like a week passed we found out all schools had to close,” said Aurora Mora, then a junior at the academy. 

“I was thinking maybe by senior year we’d go back and everything would be fine, but I guess not,” she said. 

Mora, 17, is now a graduating senior and said she has come to terms with the likelihood that she will finish high school online. 

“I don’t really like my school… I’m just there because it’s my last year, why even transfer,” Mora said. 

And, there is an upside. For online classes she has to wear the regulation polo shirt that, she says, is “better than wearing the full uniform.” Mora said. 

Dara Montejo, a senior at Lowell High School, detested being stuck inside at the start of the pandemic. 

She  lives in a four-bedroom house with 16 family members, eight of whom are siblings or cousins who are also doing school from home. 

“Some of my cousins do [school] in bed, which is not good because you get lazy. My sister has her table, I stay in the kitchen, my other cousins stay in their rooms,” Montejo said. “My cousins have a bunk bed so it’s three people in different classes in one room.” 

After the first three months of lockdown, Montejo got fed up with being home.

So the 17-year-old began volunteering with Mission Meals, then switched to giving out food with the Latino Task Force at the Mission Food Hub. She now volunteers on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when the task force gives out food on Alabama Street.

“I get to interact with people more and I get to know people more and I help out my community obviously,” Montejo said. 

Residents stand in line on 18th Street, waiting for food distribution to begin.

Montejo also volunteers Tuesdays with the San Francisco Marin Food Bank and writes letters to elderly people who live alone. 

School has had its own challenges. In January, during an antiracism forum session at Lowell, unknown individuals filled the message board with racist slurs, sparking a reckoning at the high school.

“It was really bad, it was against our Black community,” Montejo said. 

Montejo said she believes the problem lies with Lowell leadership and that school administrators would not address the problem if it weren’t for pressure from the student body. 

Her volunteer work and the efforts of her fellow students to call attention to racism at Lowell have inspired Montejo to seek a future in community activism work, but first she wants to major in political science at an East Coast university. 

“I always knew I wanted to do something for my people, Montejo said. “I just want to help my community more and improve it. I feel like life has a lot to do with politics, so why not start there.”

The teenager became so enthusiastic about her volunteering that she convinced her friend, Aurora Mora, to join as well. 

“The first time I came, I really liked it,” Mora said. “Because I’m helping so many people out, not just me but we’re working as a team.” 

The pair often help hand out tickets to residents who can leave and return without losing their place. As the morning wears on, the two sit down on the second floor of the hub and flip open their computers to attend their classes. Between classes, they return to the foodlines to help. 

Neither are particularly bothered by the loss of their senior year events – all except graduation. 

“I’m not really the person that really cares about that… but the most important thing for me is graduation,” Montejo said. “I want my family to be there for me, for people to cheer.” 

Chelsea Rodriguez.

Chelsea Rodriguez, a senior at Abraham Lincoln High School, does care about her senior year events. 

“My heart kind of shattered in a way,” Rodriguez said. “As a senior with strict parents, I saved everything for senior year. I didn’t ask to go to dances and I didn’t get to go out a lot.”

When the pandemic first struck, Rodriguez was splitting her time between playing soccer with her school team and going to 826 Valencia, both to tutor younger students and receive tutoring, as she had done for years.

“I had quit my club soccer because my grades were horrible, so my parents only let me finish my season with school,” Rodriguez said. 

She viewed the announcement of three weeks of no school like many other students did, an opportunity to rest in the middle of their spring semester, a time to slow down for a bit in preparation for a return to school that never came. 

“I’m not encouraging this, but that Thursday when they announced that SFUSD was going to be on lockdown for [three] weeks, I skipped my last class,” Rodriguez said, “so I was basically with my friends enjoying our last period together.” 

But those three weeks soon became an indefinite pause, making it even harder for Rodriguez to fix her grades. With her soccer season over and social gatherings cancelled, Rodriguez put all her focus into her work with 826 Valencia where she had first started volunteering when she was a 7th grader. 

“I was really shy, I’m not one to put myself out there when I was younger because I got bullied a lot,” Rodriguez said. 

Tutoring online has proved difficult. 

“When you’re face to face you know more about them, you know their style is of how they work… Now that it’s online, I don’t get the same students, and it’s difficult because you can’t force the students to have the camera on so it can be awkward,” Rodriguez said. 

For her, 826 where she is now on the Youth Leadership Advisory Board, has been a lifeline, getting her through her aunt’s death and the isolation of Covid. 

Last week, Rodriguez took her senior portraits, one of the final ceremonial steps of a graduating senior’s path before the big day itself. 

“My senior year flashed before my eyes. It doesn’t feel real yet,” Rodriguez said. “I think overall what I miss the most is I didn’t get to write my college essays at 826. I literally cried to my tutors.”

Rodriguez said she hopes to attend UC Davis or Sacramento State University and major in either women’s studies or chicano studies and run her own nonprofit helping her community one day. 

Photo courtesy of Daniella Hernandez

For Daniella Hernandez, the start of the pandemic brought the end of a curriculum she had been thoroughly enjoying. 

Hernandez, who is in the public service concentration at O’Connell, said she used to enjoy the discussions and field trips to local community organizations that came with the public service track. 

During her junior year, Hernandez’s cohort took trips to HOMEY headquarters, a homeless shelter and several protests or demonstrations. When schools closed, the trips abruptly stopped and were replaced by online class meetings where nobody shows their face or talks.

Hernandez also estimated that on 40 different occasions this school year, a class has been cancelled or stopped early due to technical errors. 

And that was only the start of her hardships. In September, a new owner bought the house her family rented and gave them the boot from their Outer Mission home.

Owner move-in evictions were not covered in the eviction moratorium.

“Housing here is so expensive. My family has moved between 10 places, just since I’ve been alive,” said Hernandez, whose family now lives in an apartment in Daly City. 

When it came time for Hernandez, now a senior, to choose the focus of her final senior project, she chose housing. 

“I was like this is great, I have so much experience in this,” Hernandez said. 

She intends to keep up her public service.  “This world is super messed up so I want to be a part of the solution.” 

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Juan Carlos Lara covers business and development in the Mission. Juan Carlos, a San Francisco State alum, is as much a photographer as he is a writer and previously worked as the campus news editor at Golden Gate Xpress, SF State’s student paper.

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  1. Racism is indeed everywhere. School Board member Alison Collins calling Asians “house n-words.” Truly unbelievable.

  2. I’ll tell you whose senior years were stolen, the Class of 2020, who graduated last year. Why not interview them? That’s a much more compelling story. Spring sports are now opening up in SFUSD, but last year all the senior athletes in spring sports lost the whole season, my kid included, and you know what? He still hasn’t recovered from that loss. I’m looking at your story of the experience of this year’s seniors and all I feel is bitterness because what my kid went through has never been validated in this way.