Colliding worlds: How two sisters cope with the coronavirus

The impacts of COVID-19 on a high-risk family


Photo Courtesy of Isabella Tolentino

Celebrating a birthday in quarantine with the Tolentino family. From left to right: mom, second eldest sister, family friend (who used to live with them), brother, father, Isabella and Emily. They are FaceTiming the eldest daughter. (Photo courtesy of Isabella Tolentino)

It was how they could cope after months of loneliness, void of human interaction during quarantine. Sitting on the lawn were three girls, spread on blankets, munching on their food and — most importantly – staying six feet apart from each other. It was the first time I had been with my friends in months, especially with a friend who had a family at risk. 

Ever since the entire Oak Park Unified School District shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, rules have changed at the Tolentino household. Isabella Tolentino, an Oak Park High School senior, 17 years old, and Emily Tolentino, an OPHS sophomore, 15 years old, both live with a family of nine. Emily is at high risk due to her mild asthma, but Isabella is not. Both girls have not been able to leave their house ever since the March stay at home order. They can only go outside to take out their dog, Rascal, out on walks. Even after loosened lockdown restrictions, their family has been closely monitoring activities to make sure no one contracts COVID-19. 

“COVID-19 has presented a very unique situation, to be sure. We are all learning how to be resilient, flexible, and appreciate the ways that we can continue to connect with each other virtually,” OPUSD counselor on Special Assignment, Safety and Equity Holly Baxter wrote to the Talon. “Obviously it is not an ideal way for any student, from kindergarten to 12th grade, to experience learning. However we know that our staff and students can and will persevere and make the best of things.” 

Many of the Tolentino family are high-risk, excluding Isabella — their mother, father, uncle and brother are also at high-risk. Their family has a history of asthma and various food allergies, as well as other illnesses. Last but not least, her uncle, who has moved out of the house recently, was the one who has the highest risk within the household. He is currently on dialysis and on a waiting list for a kidney transplant.

“For me, I am a real introvert so I have taken my COVID experience to be pretty all right, since I never really like getting out of the house and having to socially interact in the first place,” Emily said. 

In addition to most of the Tolentino family being at high-risk, they also share their living place with a close family friend. This family friend lives downstairs and can only stay at the bottom floor of the house to reduce and prevent contact with high-risk family members. 

Aside from other medical conditions, the CDC has stated that having any kind of asthma (ranging from moderate to severe) puts people at higher risk to contracting a more severe form of COVID-19. Along with that, the CDC has also stated that aside from age and medical conditions, there are more factors that come in when talking about who is actually at high risk. This has led to family members being more attentive and cautious about the health of others and themselves. 

“I do feel pretty anxious and worried sometimes when it comes to social interaction when I get out the house, which is pretty rare, because I know I get respiratory illnesses easier even though I am not really as high-risk,” Emily said.

For most of online classes and summer break, Isabella and Emily have spent their time indoors with family. This included limited interactions with individuals outside their immediate family, which includes other relatives who lived in separate households. If any family members wanted to talk to people, they would have to do it via FaceTime or Zoom. After a couple months in quarantine, a few of the older siblings have been able to go on socially-distanced dates. This consists of being six feet apart or sitting in their own cars to hang out with each other. 

“At first, it was just nice ‘cause I didn’t have to go to school and stress over work or even go out or talk, unless someone called or texted,” Isabella said. “I did get bored eventually though, and I do miss people a lot now, especially my grandparents. I have a tradition of visiting and staying with them each summer for like a week or two and now I’m not even allowed to.” 

Apart from Zoom and FaceTime calls, talking over text is the default option for communicating with friends and family. 

“Messaging is hard for me because I don’t know how to convey how I feel through just words since I am more of a silent person who uses short phrases, sounds and facial expressions to respond. And those things that I depend on aren’t visible through text, making it awkward for me to find out how to respond,” said Emily. 

If anyone in the family leaves the house, they must immediately toss their clothes into the clothes hamper downstairs once they return. Afterwards, they must take a shower — no exceptions. Their cars are stocked with reusable gloves and masks for trips to the supermarket and other destinations. 

“My brother’s girlfriend even made us custom masks with personal designs to reuse so we don’t have to keep throwing them away,” Isabella said. 

Aside from not being able to interact with friends and other fellow family members, Isabella and Emily expressed their opinions about learning digitally. This includes their concerns for the future. Isabella said that with the possibility of senior activities being cancelled, she feels like digital learning becomes less fun.  

“I want to have a real ceremony and celebrate with my friends and have a party with my family. If it’s all virtual or similar to this year, it’s going to make a pretty disappointing and out of the norm story for the future. I mean, you only graduate high school once,” Isabella said.