Teachers of newcomer students try to keep them connected as schools close, routines shift

Even under normal circumstances, Cheri Mann does a lot to help her students cross language barriers and make sense of an unfamiliar school environment.

She teaches a half-dozen high schoolers who recently moved to the U.S. from Guatemala and Honduras, many as unaccompanied minors, in a small school district in north-central Kentucky. Most days, Mann helps her newcomers practice their English for one period, then accompanies them to their other classes to make sure they understand the instruction. 

But when her district closed school buildings last week due to the coronavirus and moved instruction online, Mann, like many teachers of newcomers, switched into overdrive to keep some of the country’s most vulnerable students learning.

Knowing it would be difficult for her students to comb through a barrage of emails and navigate multiple learning platforms, Mann assembled a daily spreadsheet with her students’ assignments. She’s walking them through lessons in Spanish by phone. And for one student who arrived just three weeks ago and had never used a computer, she’s messaging him links to assignments on his phone, one at a time.

“Imagine any kid feeling overwhelmed, like where do I start?” she said. “They got all of this thrown on them.”

As American schools close for weeks and months, and some make an unprecedented attempt at virtual learning, teachers are working to make sure students don’t get left behind, from students with disabilities to children without home internet to English learners. But educators who work with new immigrant children and teens adapting to life in America face some of the most complex challenges — and they are responding by doing everything from personally delivering hotspots to hosting Sunday video chats.

“I feel the sense of urgency to make sure that these kids still feel like they’re included and they’re not being left out,” said Nancy Serrano, who teaches 11 Spanish-speaking newcomers at a middle school in Chicago. “Because that’s what their experience has been. They’re always thought of last.”

Some of the teachers’ newcomer students have interrupted schooling and are behind in their native language, too. Many are shy about speaking English out loud, and several educators said they worried their students will regress without regular in-person practice. Some teachers say their biggest fear is that their older students may drop out if they struggle learning English remotely. 

Lynn Fuller teaches a dozen newcomers from Guatemala, Honduras, and Vietnam at a suburban high school outside Jackson, Mississippi. She dropped off a hotspot at the apartment complex where five of them live to make sure they could get online.

It’s been a mixed bag this week as they’ve transitioned to remote learning. Three of her newcomer students turned in work early; one hasn’t logged in yet. A few have been taking pictures of their work and sending her questions, or talking with her via video chat. 

She is doing her best to make sure her students are getting the modifications they need, like videos with closed captioning. Her students reading “Night” by Elie Wiesel in English class would typically discuss it with her in person, in English. For now, Spanish and Vietnamese translations are the stopgap measure.

“I have so many of them that don’t know what’s going on,” Fuller said. “They don’t know where to start.” 

Districts with more resources and more technology on hand can be at an advantage. It’s been a smoother transition for Diana Delaney, who works with 10 newcomers in middle school in Forsyth County, Georgia, a suburban area near Atlanta.

While her district has pockets of poverty, only 15% of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. The district had devices and hotspots for students who needed them, parents already knew to check a multilingual messaging app, and schools had switched to remote learning on bad weather days before, so it was “not a huge shock,” Delaney said. 

Delaney said her newcomers have adapted well to a new routine that includes discussions and walkthroughs of their assignments by video. She says it’s not quite business as usual, but close — just at a slower pace.

“Are the lessons perfect? No, we could do so much more at school,” she said. “Everything takes time — longer than in the classroom. So we’re just being patient.”

For Mann, in Kentucky, not being able to see her students has been particularly difficult. When a student was struggling in geometry this week, it was difficult to help him in English since she couldn’t see whether he was nodding or looked confused. So she resorted to walking him through the lesson by phone in Spanish. 

“I know that kids rebound,” she said. “But I just feel like we’re losing that piece of their education that’s super important.”

Teachers worry about their newcomer students for other reasons, too. Some are undocumented and their parents may not be eligible for unemployment or assistance from a federal coronavirus stimulus package. The bill the Senate passed on Wednesday, for example, would only send checks to individuals with Social Security numbers. That means their families could face additional financial hardship if they lose their jobs.

And in many cases, immigrant students were already on edge, says Patricia Gándara, who’s looked at how stepped-up immigration enforcement has affected students at school as part of her work with The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. She’s documented how concerns over immigration enforcement can increase absenteeism and keep students from paying attention at school.

“We know that it’s been very disruptive for these children with potentially very long-term consequences,” Gándara said. “So this is just another layer on top of that.”

Mann and Fuller say they’ve already seen the effects of financial pressure on students. Some have taken construction jobs since school buildings have closed, reducing the amount of time they have to spend on their schoolwork. Both teachers worry their older immigrant students may choose not to come back to school.

Serrano has faced another set of challenges in Chicago, where the school district prohibits teachers from using their personal phones to talk with students or parents. School buildings have been closed since March 17, but the district has yet to change that policy or put an official remote learning plan in place.

That’s left Serrano with few methods to communicate with her students: email and Google Classroom, an online platform. But not everyone has internet access, and she knows some students aren’t getting her messages.

Serrano is especially concerned about one of her students who moved to the country a few weeks ago from Mexico. Serrano doesn’t know her student’s whole history yet, but she does know her student was still “in the honeymoon phase” of moving to the U.S. Serrano worries her student’s emotions may soon swing the other way — something she’s seen in other newcomers — and she “may not know how to reach out for help.”

“She might start to go through things she doesn’t understand, and doesn’t realize it’s part of the normal process of coming to this country,” Serrano said. “Being at school created that community for her … And I worry that our kids won’t have that.”