Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Virtual Education May Just Be a Non-English Speaking Parent’s Worst Nightmare

Virtual education is challenging for many students. Photo by @darby via Twenty20

For school districts around the country, the past couple of weeks have been a trial run for a new education system in the U.S., one that revolves strictly around online learning, and it has been a journey of self-discovery and creativity for teachers and students across all grade levels and subject areas. Teachers have had to completely restructure their syllabi and lesson plans in an extraordinarily short amount of time to analyze how they’re going to reach their students virtually. And with most teachers having little to no experience teaching an online-only course, the use of previously unexplored programs like Zoom and Microsoft Teams combined with the sudden shift in learning environment has made teaching under the coronavirus seem almost jarring.

There are many aspects of this last minute change that are still relatively blurry. How do teachers provide tests to students online while ensuring that they’re not getting outside help? How do they make sure participation is still upheld when many home environments aren’t prepared to facilitate learning? And one of the biggest issues for teachers in minority-rich and low-income schools is how do they get participation and involvement from non-English speaking families?

Last year, I was a teacher at a hybrid elementary-middle school right at the border of Miami-Dade County. Forty-seven percent of the students at that school are Hispanic and for a smaller-sized charter school, this is a large portion of its population. Fortunately, coming to the U.S. from Argentina when I was young, my first language was Spanish, which is still the primary language I speak with my own parents. Due to the large percentage of Hispanic families at my job, nearly half of my correspondence and meetings with parents were in Spanish. I would also sit in on parent-teacher conferences for other teachers that needed a translator for the non-English speaking parent of a student in their homeroom.

It was hard to watch a parent hear for the first time, during their first conference of the year, that their child was in danger of repeating the grade. Some had not been able to read the conference request in English, some had not been able to take time off in the middle of the day during one of their two or three jobs, and some trusted their child to keep up with schoolwork while they worked to provide for their family. In my mind, this sparked several issues that I thought about even after I left the school – who needs to be held accountable for steady communication about a child’s in-school progress? Is it the teacher, the parent, the student themselves or an unrealistically perfect balance of the three? And with parent-teacher communication being such a crucial factor in any child’s education, how does a teacher encourage parents and students to be accountable for a child’s home learning?

Language barriers are not new for school boards and educators in the United States. The Equal Education Opportunity Act (EEOA) requires teachers to accommodate English Language Learners (ELLs) under federal law by removing any language barriers to the best of their ability. Most colleges in the U.S. offer English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching certifications and courses for those studying education so they are made aware of the accommodations they can provide to ELLs, such as the use of graphic organizers, dictionaries and text adaptations. But just as there are required accommodations for students learning English in the classroom, there should be a similar notion of inclusiveness for non-English speaking parents and families. The EEOA does require paperwork and forms to be given to non-English speaking parents in a language they can understand. But teachers and school administrators, especially in predominantly white areas, can still be neglectful when it comes to one-on-one communication and overall efforts to include a non-English speaking parent in their child’s education through conferences and email correspondence. What hinders this one-on-one communication? The fact that, even with an influx of students who speak a second language at home enrolling in U.S. schools, the majority of teachers in the United States are white.

Now, if this is a hurdle that immigrant families need to overcome in a regular educational environment, will this just get worse with virtual school? The simple answer is yes. Teachers are readjusting course materials, overcoming the cancellation of state testing in all 50 states, and figuring out different ways to communicate with parents online. Non-English speaking families, who already don’t get enough communication from schools regarding their child’s educational performance and data, will probably lack the necessary information to keep up with the rapid changes. They’ll almost certainly get typical coronavirus updates in their native language through the school board, but will it be enough to keep them fully in the loop while also being tailored to their child’s specific educational needs and responsibilities? And even though many schools in the U.S. have an ESL facilitator as part of the school’s ESL programwho can take up the role of assisting with communication among predominantly immigrant families, there is only so much information these employees can provide if they are not the child’s actual teacher.

So, that begs the question: Whose responsibility is it anyway? Should the teacher contact parents via an interpreter? Should the English-speaking child translate the information and relay it to their parents? Should the family simply learn English in order to be held accountable for their own child’s education? The answer isn’t easy. The teacher has several options for communicating with non-English speakers: translating email updates into their native tongue, requesting a virtual conference with a trusted interpreter present, translating assignments so that they can understand what the child is learning at the moment. However, without their physical presence, teachers are incredibly limited to how they can encourage participation among students and parents in general – and this especially holds true for non-English speakers.

The child then holds a great deal of responsibility in this situation. They can ensure that they’re up-to-date by constantly checking online programs like Canvas and Clever that showcase teacher announcements, assignment notifications and grades. This responsibility is heightened among children of non-English speakers because their family may not be versed in navigating English websites, particularly educational ones.

Back when I learned English in elementary school, I also learned that being responsible for my own education meant less stress for my non-English speaking parents at the time. But, looking back, there were several things that I missed out on – school trips, extracurriculars, even assignments – because the weight was on me to communicate the information to my parents (and this was before the complicated internet and educational programs came into being). And trusting a child to stay informed and engaged with limited parental involvement or knowledge is a gamble that can eventually be detrimental to the child’s education. For very young students in lower grade levels, the responsibility of accessing work and learning basic skills is almost entirely reliant on the parents, which can be incredibly difficult for non-English speakers trying to navigate an English dominated education system.

A non-English speaking parent does have the responsibility to assist in their child’s learning, but several obstacles can prevent this from happening during online learning. As parents across the country are becoming teachers themselves (and understandably struggling), how can immigrant families who are either unfamiliar with U.S. education or who may not have received an education of their own bridge the gap between online education and in-person teaching? Economically disadvantaged immigrant households are also often just struggling to survive, thus possibly lacking the necessary resources at home to see their child succeed in school. Many immigrant workers are still showing up for their jobs during the pandemic and are heavily reliant on an income to support their families, making it difficult to even keep up with communication if the teacher does attempt to reach out. Non-English speaking parents can feel an intense sense of discomfort and frustration when interacting with an English speaker, which therefore limits their communication with the teacher altogether. And these are only some possible examples of the obstacles non-English speakers face in American schools.

The solution to the problem is just as hard to address. As the country continues to figure out virtual learning during the coronavirus era, children of non-English speakers may very well fall behind. It’s easy for people to feel constantly overwhelmed during this time, and it’s very possible that schools and teachers will set aside the needs of non-English speaking families while attempting to figure out what works best for all students. As we continue to move forward with online learning for the rest of the school year, individual schools need to formulate a plan and preferably a team that will provide more resources for non-English speaking parents, such as translated educational websites, weekly follow-ups in their native language and more one-on-one virtual conferences with time flexibility, in order to boost their involvement in the educational success that they want to see for their child.



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