Immigrant Students Face Barriers With Online Education

As school districts offer Chromebooks and Wi-Fi to students in need after school buildings have closed across the country, students whose families don’t speak English or lack tech knowledge might be left out.

by Danae King, The Columbus Dispatch / May 18, 2020
Cybercriminals have been using the coronavirus to entice victims into online scams. Shutterstock/Song_about_summer

(TNS) — The 12-year-old boy sat in the darkened apartment, a Chromebook resting in front of him as he watched his classmates on the Google Classroom video chat.

Huliser Martin-Morales was participating in only his second weekly video chat with his classmates and teacher this past week. He has missed about six weeks of online instruction because he wasn't able to get the device or the internet connection he needed.

Though Columbus, Ohio, City Schools have been offering Chromebooks and Wi-Fi to kids in need since shortly after school buildings in the state were closed in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic, Huliser had trouble getting his equipment. His mother doesn't speak English and his family doesn't have transportation or much knowledge about computer technology.

Huliser finally received a Chromebook from the district a little over two weeks ago, but he wasn't able to get a Wi-Fi hotspot until last week. At that point, there were only three weeks of class left.

Huliser, who was born in Iowa but whose parents are from Guatemala, is one of thousands of students in the country who are struggling with online learning due to poverty and language barriers.

As of May 5, 69% of Columbus City Schools students had the technology they needed to do online learning, according to the district. But a Columbus Education Association survey found that 54% of students — and only 35% of English language learners — were participating in distance learning.

And a recent poll by the National Education Association found that educators who work in schools with a higher percentage of students who get free and reduced meals saw lower class attendance and think online learning may be less effective for their students.

Experts say students who live in poverty may have more distractions at home and less access to the technology needed for online learning.

It can be especially challenging for students and parents who don't speak English, said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association.

Boys like Huliser were "having trouble before this crisis," said Eskelsen Garcia. "This has just exacerbated everything."

Huliser has had a hard life — fleeing an abusive father and moving around a lot with his mother — and though his mother, Julie Morales, tries her best, she can't speak English and isn't literate in any language, she said. She also doesn't have a car to pick up school work or a computer for Huliser to use for school.

Still, Morales is proud of her son and relishes any opportunity to show off his honor roll certificates and emphasize how important his education is since she didn't get to go to school while growing up in Guatemala.

"I don't want my kids to end up like me. I want them to study," Morales said in Spanish through a translator.

In 2016, English language learners represented only 3.3% of Ohio students, according to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. But all of Huliser's almost 500 classmates at Columbus Global Academy are learning English.

Approximately 8,300 students at Columbus City Schools are English language learners, according to Michael Sain, the district's director of ESL Support Services.

Between March 23 and May 8, the district issued Chromebooks to the families of 3,155 English language learners, or an estimated 6,334 students, Sain said. That's more than 75% of the English language learner students in the district, he said.

The district is doing its best to work with parents and students who don't speak English, Sain said. It set up a phone line so parents can call in and ask questions or get help getting online.

At Columbus Global Academy, staff members have been working to identify students who aren't logging in, said Derick Vickroy, the school's principal. They then reach out to them with bilingual support, he said.

Sain said students who have had delays getting online can pick up where their classes are now or they can do optional makeup work given by their teachers.

"That's providing that grace piece," Sain said. "We can't really hold these kids accountable."

Columbus City Schools also has changed its grading policy for the last part of the school year to address the disparities in online learning, Vickroy said.

"We're acknowledging this is an unprecedented time and we're trying to move forward during the crisis as best we can," he said. "It's not a realistic expectation to do four or five weeks of work to catch up."

Since school buildings have closed in Ohio, Huliser has been home during the day in the East Side apartment he shares with his mother, his uncle and a family friend. Last Wednesday, he woke up early for his class' weekly video chat at noon. The preteen wakes up at 1 p.m. on other days.

Huliser said he likes math the best and feels like he's caught up with his classmates, despite missing several weeks of online schooling.

The seventh grader has been attending Columbus Global Academy for two years and prefers going to class in person.

Sick during the last few days that classes were held in person in mid-March, Huliser didn't understand why his school building was no longer open because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"My first thought, without lying, was vacation," Huliser said, with a grin. "But it got weirder. I couldn't do anything, I couldn't go outside."

Now, he just wants to return to school.

©2020 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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