COLUMN: What We Get Wrong When We Talk COVID-19 Shutdowns

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Semaj Miller. Two weeks ago, I attended a candlelight vigil for Miller, a 14 year-old Compton native who was shot to death in broad daylight

Miller’s youth basketball coach, Derrick Cooper, said that at the time he was shot and killed, Miller would have been at a basketball practice for the Wildcats–except that all city and school facilities have been closed down in Compton due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a statement that’s been sitting on my chest as heavily as a 50-pound weight.

It reminded me of something that Stacie Alexander told me a few weeks prior. Stacie’s husband Lawrence was close to death due to COVID-19 and spent two full months away from his wife and children. Stacie, the vice principal at Cabrillo, told me she’s been heartbroken at all the pain she sees from students, parents, teachers, and administrators in the city over the closure of schools.

“Everyone is right, and every decision is a bad one,” she said. “There’s no solution to this.”

That’s exactly how I feel about these closures. I understand that the city of Compton felt the need to close their park and school facilities to try and prevent the spread of the virus. I understand the city of Long Beach and the school district’s decision as well. I don’t think those were the wrong decisions.

But we have to also understand that those difficult decisions lead to horrible ripple effects in other places. In Long Beach just like in South Los Angeles, where Miller was shot, there has been an uptick in gang violence this Summer. Kids who usually have a safe place to go at school or at a park have lost those havens. That problem is just as real as COVID-19, its consequences just as tragic.

The truth is that we’re in a heartbreaking time. People are dying, people are losing their jobs, children are isolated from places that they felt safe, cut off from access to resources like counselors and mental health services that don’t exist in the four walls of their apartments or houses. But the other truth is that people don’t like being heartbroken–they’d rather feel certainty, and the anger that comes with that certainty.

As a result, every time I go online, I see some version of this: the president tweets about opening the schools. Convervative members of our community rally to the certainty of that statement. They tweet and post on Facebook with demands to open the schools. Liberal members of our community post the COVID-19 numbers and say they can’t believe the stupidity of the idea of opening the schools. They, too, are safe in that certainty.

But where does that leave Semaj Miller and his family? Where does that leave the working class families in our city who can’t work because their children can’t go to elementary school, and because putting them in daycare would erase the entire paycheck they’re trying to go earn?

The truth is, as Stacie said, every decision is bad, and everyone is feeling pain. I only wish we could allow ourselves to feel and acknowledge that pain before letting it turn into righteous anger at each other. If we spent more time thinking about Semaj Miller, about the real, impossible situations that every family in our city now find themselves in, maybe we could spend some time trying to make things easier for each other.

Greater Zion Church in Compton opened its parking lot so that kids and their basketball teams can work out during weekdays instead of being unsupervised all day. That small act did more to alleviate pain and suffering than all the furious posts you’ll see on the internet today (including this one!). 

Let’s take a deep breath. Let’s stop sending school board members pictures of child-sized coffins, as Megan Kerr said she’d received in her email. Let’s stop screaming on Facebook that the LBUSD doesn’t care about kids’ mental and social health because it’s complying with a state order to remain closed as the school year starts.

Let’s accept this truth: a single parent working for an hourly wage with a school-aged child has no option available to them that isn’t catastrophic this school year. That’s the situation my mother would have been in trying to figure out whether to leave my brother and I home alone as first and fifth graders–a no-win situation facing so many families in our city today.

Maybe by acknowledging that every decision being made is a bad one–by a city, a district, a park, or a parent–we can treat each other with some kindness and empathy during this once-in-a-century crisis, instead of wasting time yelling at each other online.


Mike Guardabascio
An LBC native, Mike Guardabascio has been covering Long Beach sports professionally for 13 years, with his work published in dozens of Southern California magazines and newspapers. He's won numerous awards for his writing as well as the CIF Southern Section’s Champion For Character Award, and is the author of three books about Long Beach history.