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Imagine Online School in a Language You Don’t Understand

Our story led The New York Times homepage with reporting about the barriers faced by families who are not fluent in English. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many families relied on their children to translate for them in order to better understand the education system. The shift to online schooling has exacerbated challenges for immigrants and their families. 

The genesis for this piece was a conversation Fuller Project reporter Rikha Sharma Rani had with her editor, who told her about an Iraqi immigrant family — a friend of a friend — struggling to homeschool in the wake of COVID-19-related school shutdowns. The parents in the family didn’t speak English, so their college-aged daughter was helping to homeschool their elementary school-aged son while managing her own college course load.  

The anecdote sparked the question: What are parents and students who don’t speak English doing right now? For Sharma Rani, the question had personal resonance: At the time, she was struggling to homeschool her own two daughters and couldn’t imagine how much harder that job would be for parents who weren’t fluent in English.

With no teachers physically present to help guide students in many states, caregivers were being forced to take a more active role than ever before in their children’s education.  But parents who weren’t proficient in English couldn’t easily navigate Google Classroom, daily schedules, or homework instructions. For many, those challenges were compounded by lack of an adequate Wi-Fi connection or a computer. And because of language barriers, they couldn’t effectively communicate these challenges to teachers and school officials. 

Reporting the story meant identifying and interviewing people who weren’t fluent in English, using translators who could speak Spanish and Arabic. To ask follow-up questions — of which there were many, in order to get the necessary detail and color for the piece — Sharma Rani used Google Translate, giving her a real-time glimpse into the communications challenges faced by her sources, who relied heavily on the tool in order to support their children’s learning. 

The resulting piece, published in April 2020 in The New York Times, was one of the first looks at how immigrant and non-English speaking families were coping during the pandemic. It was featured as a “Lesson of the Day” in the Times’ learning network, and sparked online discussion among students who recognized their own situations in the reporting. It was included in several education-related newsletters, including Education Week and Washington Monthly’s “Best of the Week” education newsletter.  It was also republished in The Chicago Tribune and shared on Twitter by Congresswoman Barbara Lee. After publication, we received emails from educators and readers wanting to support non-English speaking families by serving as translators or by providing technical solutions, and we directed them to nonprofits and school districts working on the issue. At the time of publication, there were few (if any) pieces exploring the impact of the pandemic on immigrant communities. This story revealed the distinct hurdles they faced, and the ways in which school districts were addressing — or not addressing — these challenges.  This reporting also won a crisis coverage award from The American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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