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Economy & Labor , US

Imagine Online School in a Language You Don’t Understand

by Rikha Sharma Rani April 22, 2020

This article was originally published in The New York Times

OAKLAND, Calif. — Like many parents, Zainab Alomari has spent the last month trying to help her children learn at home. But unlike most, she has been talking to teachers and working through lessons in a language she barely understands.

Ms. Alomari came to the United States in 2006 from Yemen, where she spoke Arabic. She knows only a few basic English words and phrases.

Four of her six children attend Oakland public schools. When teachers call, Ms. Alomari makes sure her daughter Maysa, 15, is around to serve as an interpreter, handing her the phone mid-conversation. When one of her children has a question about the instructions on an assignment, Ms. Alomari relies on Google Translate.

Her husband is gone most days to run the family’s grocery business, leaving Ms. Alomari, 39, alone to help the children.

“I’m doing my best,” she said through an interpreter. “But I don’t know if this is going to affect their learning.”

Remote schooling poses a special challenge for families who are not fluent in English. About five million American schoolchildren are classified as English-language learners, meaning they lack fluency, and even more come from homes where their parents speak a different language.

Nearly a quarter of immigrants and their American-born children live in poverty, and Hispanic immigrants, in particular, are less likely to have access to a computer or home internet service. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, English-language learners were at high risk for chronic absenteeism.

Online school during the pandemic

Online school during the pandemic “exacerbates what’s already there,” said Tatyana Kleyn, an associate professor of bilingual education at City College of New York. “The students who were struggling are now getting further behind because they have less support.”

For some school districts with large low-income immigrant populations, like Oakland’s, the first order of business after moving to online learning in March was reaching out — sometimes in multiple languages — to find out if students had access to technology, food and other essentials at home. Then teachers and administrators tried to check in with parents about schooling.

Some California districts were particularly well prepared. Many schools in the state use software that can send text messages — often the best way to reach parents — in multiple languages.

In other states, including Nebraska, some districts are airing classes on their local public broadcasting stations, including instruction in Spanish. Guilford County School District in North Carolina established an information hotline staffed with interpreters who speak seven languages.

In the Oakland Unified School District, which Ms. Alomari’s children attend, 33 percent of students are English-language learners, and 5 percent are “newcomers” who have been in the country less than three years and speak a language other than English at home.

To reach more of these students, the district has published a list of learning resources in Spanish, Chinese, Khmer and Arabic, and teachers are making an extra effort to reach out to them.

Students in Oakland schools are not required to turn in assigned homework while the district is closed because of the coronavirus, a policy intended for families like Alomari’s, according to the district’s director of communications, John Sasaki. The district is also not taking regular attendance during the crisis.

Simone Delucchi is one of the teachers who has been calling to check on Ms. Alomari’s daughter Maysa, who is in eighth grade. Although communicating in English “takes a lot of effort” for Ms. Alomari, she has helped Ms. Delucchi get in touch with other students from Yemeni families. “Maysa is usually nearby to help sort things out,” Ms. Delucchi said.

Limited resources to translate

But not every school, teacher or parent has been able to make things work. Some districts, especially small or rural ones, do not translate content into languages other than English, or have limited resources to do so. DeSoto County in Mississippi has one Spanish translator serving 42 schools in the district, according to its website, and translating a document such as a lesson plan can take up to 10 days.

Possible solutions to help low-income families and immigrant students include expanding Wi-Fi hot spots in poorer neighborhoods and hiring more translators in schools. The National Education Association, the national teachers’ union, is pushing Congress to include both in the next economic stimulus package, according to its president, Lily Eskelsen García. In Colorado, the teachers’ union is calling for the creation of a “hardship fund” to help undocumented migrant families, who are barred from accessing federal economic relief.

Araceli Torres, 36, is a single mother living in Coachella, Calif., with her two sons, who are 17 and 6. When schools first moved to online instruction, she had no computer or internet connection, so her sons did their homework on borrowed cellphones.

In the weeks since, she has borrowed a laptop from the school district and is using her phone as a Wi-Fi hot spot.

Ms. Torres, an immigrant from Mexico, works two to three days a week cleaning houses, even during the crisis. She has put her older son in charge of helping his little brother with homework, but she is concerned that neither of them are getting the support they need.

She worries more about her older son, and drafts emails to his teachers in Spanish, then converts them to English using Google Translate, to ask how he is doing.

She has no idea if the translations are correct, she said in Spanish, but she sends them anyway. “I wish I could help him more.”

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