Thirty minutes into the first day of virtual school in Newburgh, New York, the district’s internet server shut down. Parents of students in Eileen Carter-Compos’ third-grade class—the bulk of whom speak limited English—fell into a panic, scrambling to get in touch with her. Within minutes, Carter-Compos’ email and phone inbox was inundated with requests for help in various languages and Spanish dialects she couldn’t sufficiently decipher even with her own bilingual Puerto Rican background.
Trying to get that single issue resolved required a personal secretary, she half-joked. “The education system is forcing parents and students to move quicker than they really can without taking into consideration that there might be a language barrier at home.”
For millions of families across the United States, some variation of virtual school is officially in session. And while online learning presents a host of barriers for families everywhere, Black and Latinx students and students from low-income families—especially families with limited English proficiency—face more roadblocks to learning, driven in part by gaps in communication and access to devices and the internet.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, in recent decades, the number of U.S. residents with limited English proficiency has increased substantially—consistent with a growing foreign-born population. Residents with difficulty speaking and reading English are historically more likely to work in jobs that pay lower wages, making them twice as likely to live below the federal poverty line. Limited proficiency also adversely affects access to health care, homeownership, financial assistance and more. For adults, English-learning programs are one of the few ways that they can receive comprehensive social support.
Data from the National Education Association shows that English Language Learners (or ELLs) are the fastest-growing segment of the public school population in the country. In fact, by 2025, an estimated 25 percent of public school students will be ELLs.
As a family literacy coordinator at the Massachusetts-based Immigrant Learning Center, Patricia Micheli and her ILC staff interpreters act as bridges between immigrant parents—many of whom are ELLs themselves—when they have questions about their children’s schooling. The lack of proper communication between districts and parents has been especially troubling during the pandemic, she said.
Just days before the Greater Boston area began its academic year on Sept. 16, many of Micheli’s adult English students were still unsure whether
or not their children’s public schools would be in-person or virtual.
Even as a native English speaker, she said, it’s often difficult to fully comprehend the correspondence from school superintendents and other officials.
“After all, they’re writing these emails for the Department of Education, not for parents,” Micheli said.
“We know that student success depends on parents connecting to the school,” echoes Ayaz Ahmed of the International Rescue Committee-Atlanta, who helps new migrants in the metro area with school-aged children get acclimated to the school system.
Normally, when new immigrant families arrive in Georgia, Omar Aziz—the IRC’s My New School Program Coordinator—physically assists them in preparing the proper documentation, getting students tested for English language proficiency and parents signed up for adult English classes. He takes them to their new schools to finish up medical paperwork and register for classes, lunch programs and bus routes. Eventually, Aziz becomes the go-to liaison between families and faculty, helping students and parents navigate new technologies, homework assignments and teacher-guardian communication.
In DeKalb County, Georgia, which includes the City of Clarkston—a city often dubbed “the Ellis Island of the South”—incorporating multilingual services in school communications has been a priority for years. According to Ahmed, the school district normally has interpretation services in the county’s top seven languages to aid communication, but it’s unclear whether those services are still ongoing during the pandemic because a lot of non-English speaking parents are still reporting that they aren’t receiving the appropriate messaging.
In March and April, when everyone was caught off guard with pandemic-related school closures, Aziz received up to 40 calls per day from flustered teachers and parents with limited English proficiency, both groups unable to communicate with each other about the rapid changes to routine school programming. Many families simply didn’t have access to the internet or web devices at home and felt they had been left in the dark.
“Teachers were sometimes working until 10, 11 p.m. every night using their personal cell phones to try to communicate with parents,” said Aziz. “They’re doing their best. But it’s such a challenge. Imagine a family of five with three kids and one device with web access.”
Even with county-funded Chromebooks distributed to nearly every child at the start of this academic school year, Aziz and Ahmed are concerned that the lack of reliable internet access will continue to be a significant barrier for many lower socioeconomic school districts that primarily serve Black, Latinx and other immigrant communities. According to U.S. Census data, about 17 percent of DeKalb residents do not have home internet.
And the Wi-Fi hotspots deployed to fill these gaps, Aziz said, were weak and unreliable in the areas where he tested them out.
On the second day of virtual school in Carter-Compos’ New York district, she received an email from her school informing teachers that they were still in the process of purchasing portable Wi-Fi hotspots for the several students in her predominantly Black and Latinx district who needed them.
“Why even start school virtually if you knew you didn’t have the hotspots yet?” she lamented. “Now you have some students starting and others falling behind.”
Many of Atlanta’s new arrivals and immigrant or refugee parents still learning English are also essential workers with no option to work from home.
In fact, a large number of DeKalb residents make daily packed-van trips to work in Gainesville’s poultry processing plants and similar facilities. And while they’re at work, there’s no one watching their children at home, according to Ahmed.
Older children in these families now have the added burden of being a parent or guardian figure for their siblings while trying to manage their own schoolwork.
As a result, “these older kids are reporting more mental health distress and crises,” he added. “It’s really taking a toll on them.”
In some cases, older youth are also feeling pressured to put schooling aside and work because of lost income. Some English learners and young adults on alternative education paths, such as students enrolled in now-defunct or on-hold GED classes, are contemplating returning to poultry plants or warehouses and “have kind of slid back a little bit” in their education plans, Ahmed said.
In Northlake, Illinois, Polish-speaking mom J.P. [comfortable only using her initials] is concerned that even her 6-year-old son is already falling behind.
He had started taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in kindergarten last year, she said. But when his school shut down due to COVID-19, he lost access to the classes. She, too, had to quit her full-time job to be home for her son.
J.P. was able to enroll him into a Polish daycare twice a week, where staffers help him with virtual English classes. For a monthly fee, the neighboring park district is also hosting virtual learning for students from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., while parents are at work. But those opportunities are far from affordable.
Recently, her son’s teacher started using an online translator to communicate with her, which has been helpful. If there are ever any other issues, parents have been asked to text or call their teachers directly.
Still, she said through a translator, “It’s all about the basics in the first grade. And I’m worried my son will not be prepared for next year.”
Parents who are adult English Learners themselves, such as J.P. and Estela Mancia of Massachusetts, are overwhelmed and exhausted just trying to get their children situated now that their own education is being put on hold or minimized.
“I don’t know how teachers do this,” Mancia, who has two young children, said. “But I am not a professional. I cannot. There’s too much to do.”
According to Christopher Carpenter, the adult education supervisor at the IRC, with ESL programs moving remotely, adults need access to those limited devices at home, too.
“We’re trying to teach parents really practical aspects in our English classes about how to talk to your children’s teachers,” he said. “But how can someone have a laptop or tablet to themselves for multiple hours per week just to learn a language when there’s, you know, three or four children in the home that need to be studying?”
But even amid the chaos, there’s been a sliver of a silver lining, he said.
Having more virtual English classes outside of school hours, such as in the evenings or on the weekends, means that people normally outside of the office’s geographic area—or people that work certain shifts—have a chance to take up the opportunity, even if it means only participating one day per week.
It’s clear, however, that there remains a gap in support for parents with limited English proficiency, said Carpenter, which is why the IRC is in the beginning stages of launching a new initiative for English learners with school-aged children to express their concerns.
“We’re not sure what direction that’s going to take,” he said. “But we want to open up the floor and see where the needs are moving forward.”
Fiza Pirani is an Atlanta-based writer and editor and founder of the award-winning newsletter, Foreign Bodies.