DENVER — A customer turned to Jael Marquez when she couldn't find an item on the shelves of the Save A Lot, but Marquez knew it was in stock back in the warehouse, so he went and got it. It was weeks ago, sometime around the day he turned 17. He remembers it because it was the one time this spring when a customer looked him in the eyes and said "thank you."

"I appreciate you still working," the African American woman in her 50s said through a mask after taking the box. "Because there's a lot of risk."

Marquez was stunned at this commonplace courtesy that had become so rare in these distanced times. Few people spoke. Few people acknowledged him. Few people came close enough to say anything: “I really appreciated that. It feels good to know you’re appreciated.”

The woman couldn’t have known that Marquez wasn’t at the discount grocery in the low-income Montbello neighborhood by choice. It wasn’t a risk he felt comfortable taking. It was a risk he had to take. He was there by necessity.

In a world without covid-19, Marquez would be a junior walking the halls of Denver’s Vista Academy, a small public school on the city’s outskirts. Instead, he is one of thousands of teens across the country working the forgotten front lines of the pandemic — in grocery and big-box stores — keeping essential links in the nation’s food supply intact while eschewing almost everything about being a teenager.

Marquez has been his family’s chief breadwinner, supporting his household while his parents quarantined in a basement with the familiar symptoms of a coronavirus infection. The virus has sickened more than 27,000 people in Colorado and killed 1,527 as of Sunday, so the concern in his household was very real. With his parents unable to work, Marquez was the only hope of being able to pay the bills.

Virtual school went out the window. Marquez became a 40-hour-a-week worker. Now he’s not sure school will ever be a part of his future.

“I think I just want to start my own thing and start getting experience so once I’m 20, I can start my own company,” Marquez said.

Across town, in a King Soopers grocery store in Commerce City, another Latino teen confronted a similar, but perhaps more immediately urgent, dilemma.

Alex Abreo, a senior at Bruce Randolph School, had seen his hours increase from 20 to 30 per week to 40 when the pandemic arrived in Colorado. People had rushed to groceries to stock up, and several of his co-workers came down with symptoms. When Abreo put on his mask, apron and gloves one day for another shift in the meat department, he looked down at a sealed plastic bag of beef fresh off a refrigerated supply truck and noticed two words that had once carried no weight but now suddenly alarmed him: Greeley, Colorado.

Scrolling down his Facebook news feed that week he had stumbled on a news story that described the JBS meat processing plant in Greeley, an hour north of Denver, as potentially the biggest outbreak in the state. Could the virus ravaging the nearby plant be transmitted via this beef brisket?

“Every time we get a bag of meat, it says ‘Greeley’ on it,” Abreo said. “I was upset about that. I didn’t know what to think.”

Abreo went back to work. His father had been helping him with payments on his new car — a 2017 Lincoln MKZ — until his hours at a sawmill were reduced and he lost the opportunity to earn overtime. His father’s new level of pay barely covered just the basics: mortgage, groceries, electricity, water. Abreo, who needs Internet access to complete his virtual school assignments, now chips in to keep the WiFi on.

“If I didn’t have this job, I don’t know what I would do,” Abreo said.

An 'uppercut'

Denver Public Schools had more than 93,000 students enrolled in 2018, and 65 percent of them were eligible for free and reduced price lunch, a widely accepted measure of poverty. At schools like Bruce Randolph and Vista Academy, those numbers are higher.

More than 70 percent of Vista Academy’s students and more than 90 percent of Bruce Randolph students receive free or reduced meals, classifying the latter as a “high-poverty school,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nationally, Hispanic and Latino students are the most likely to attend a high-poverty school (45 percent), followed closely by African Americans (44 percent) and Native Americans (38 percent). Just 8 percent of white children attend high-poverty schools, according to the center.

“We have a number of students in this city and across this country who are asking, ‘How relevant is this education, that you say I need, to where I am and to my future?’ ” said Eric Rowe, principal at PREP Academy in Denver, a 25-year educator and veteran of schools in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., St. Louis and Kenya. “In education, we’re talking to them about college and career prep, and many of them are wondering where the next meal is coming from, or where they’re going to sleep that night or that week.”

Rowe said the coronavirus outbreak has exacerbated these issues, especially among working-class families that have had to go out to jobs and thus have exposed themselves to its spread — or have fallen ill — and then have to rely on their children for support.

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, right? Well, this virus is a Mike Tyson uppercut,” Rowe said. “It’s emphasized the impact of food deserts. It’s emphasized the digital divide. And it’s highlighting the idea that we are not serving all children well in our education system.”

The pandemic has forced a portion of America’s teenagers into full-time roles in essential businesses such as food services, where required training is minimal and pay is comparatively low. On a weekday in April, Marquez was stocking produce aisle shelves with avocados and lettuce bundles, wearing blue gloves — torn in spots — and a medical mask. His hours increased when people stopped showing up to work.

“We have four people in the produce department and one is sick, so I’m picking up more morning shifts,” Marquez said. “I don’t really know where they are. Haven’t heard from them in a month.”

Gabe Disbrow, chief operating officer at Leevers Supermarkets, a group of 18 stores that includes the Montbello Save A Lot, said the chain has sent home about 15 employees after they exhibited covid-19 symptoms.

“Testing capabilities seemed like they were nonexistent early on,” Disbrow said. “Anyone who had flu-like symptoms, managers would send them home and ask them to self-quarantine or direct them to their medical providers.”

Disbrow said grocery positions are “a great high school job for a lot of people, a great entry-level job” and noted that teens have been a great “support to our company.”

The weirdest thing, Marquez said, is that he believes people aren’t taking the virus seriously. The signs in Spanish and English posted on the sliding front doors suggest wearing masks while shopping, but the store doesn’t require it.

“Some people come in without even a mask,” Marquez said. “And those people are the ones that also don’t stay six feet away when you really should be doing that.”

He does a lot of moving out of the way and waiting for people to make produce selections before he continues stocking fruits and vegetables.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Marquez said his parents have yet to tell him how they crossed the border before he was born, and he has never asked. “They probably, like, had it rough,” Marquez said. “So they just never told me.”

Before the virus, Marquez’s father worked for a door manufacturer and his mother worked in a bakery. First, his father experienced symptoms: fever and weakness. He sequestered himself in the basement and his wife brought meals and care. Then Marquez’s mother fell ill. So it was up to Marquez and two older brothers to deliver food to the underground sick bay.

Marquez’s work became more crucial, that weekly paycheck a lifeline. His parents declined to be interviewed.

At 3:30 p.m., he goes home to a household of five. Cousins have helped him with virtual homework when he was too tired or busy to do the reading himself.

“I wasn’t really ever a school person, but I was trying to do that just to finish off the year,” Marquez said.

Everything's interrupted

Abreo worked his longest weeks in March, pulling in $440 after taxes for 40 hours of work at $12 an hour. He said he didn’t choose the uptick in hours, but he couldn’t turn down the opportunity either.

“They know I don’t have school,” Abreo said of his managers. “So they could schedule me at all times throughout the day and I would just have to get caught up on virtual school on my own time. They started hiring temporary workers, so I know if I were to say, like, ‘No, I can’t do it,’ they would have more people on the clock just like that because a lot of people are looking for work.”

His employer did not respond to requests for comment.

Abreo had a few ideas about what to do after graduation. He gained admission to Metropolitan State University, but he would need help to pay for it. Without the money, he thought about possibly going to trade school instead, perhaps to become a barber. His plans quickly fell by the wayside because of the virus and his expanding role at the grocery store.

Abreo had typically worked in customer-facing roles for the chain: cash registers and grocery cart retrieval, 30 hours a week after school and on weekends. Then the virus arrived, and the chain restructured workflow to meet new demands. Abreo’s manager sent him to oversee the meat department’s inventory.

For a period in March and April, as demand spiked, Abreo saw cuts of meat come through the department he didn’t realize the chain carried.

“For a while they had to order things that they never ordered before just to fill the shelves,” Abreo said. “Just like random meat, like, you know, like people don’t really want chicken leg quarters. They want the breasts. We had all sorts of things that people don’t normally buy.”

Abreo became drained quickly, and he found himself struggling to keep up with his virtual schoolwork. He saw some of his friends completing assignments in the mornings and having the rest of the day to themselves while he worked days and barely caught up with homework at night.

When the federal stimulus check arrived, Abreo felt more secure focusing again on his studies. He asked his managers if he could finish his schoolwork and work spot duty at the store when needed. They obliged.

“I decided to prioritize finishing the rest of the school year,” Abreo said. “I couldn’t let myself just basically give up. All of my teachers were messaging me constantly to get me on my work and asking if they could do anything to help. I just felt like I needed to finish things off right at Bruce, even if it’s not a normal year.”

Abreo’s father declined to be interviewed.

Marquez, staring at the specter of another school year, started considering his options in late April. He went to Google: “GED practice test.” On the second try, he scored a 70 on the math portion and a 68 on the reading, “but you need like a 90 or something to pass,” Marquez said.

“School just kind of feels pointless at this point,” he said.

His father went back to work three weeks ago, having been tested for the virus and receiving a negative result. His mother, though, has not been brought back to the bakery. Marquez doesn’t have a bank account yet — he has been handing off his checks to his father, who rations the money — but Marquez likes working. The results are tangible, the gratification immediate.

He says he will try to get his GED online, then work in groceries or construction to save enough money to start a company in “either plumbing or electricity or something like that” by the time he’s 20, leaning on the experience of uncles who work in either field. He said he was going through the motions of high school before the pandemic interrupted his education, interrupted everything.

“I didn’t realize how bad it was all going to be, how much would change,” he said. “I realized when my dad had to stop working. That’s when I knew it was serious serious.”