This reporting is a collaboration between El Tímpano and The Oaklandside. Originally published in The Oaklandside on October 9, 2020.

Three weeks into the academic year, Veronica Macario’s 10-year-old son had yet to attend class at Manzanita Community School. He had a laptop from the school. He’d received directions on how to log into classes. “But since he doesn’t understand English,” Macario explained in Spanish, “he didn’t understand anything.”

Macario’s son came to the U.S. from Guatemala last year and attended a different school in East Oakland before the family moved to Fruitvale over the summer. When Macario registered him at Manzanita, a public elementary where nearly half the students are English learners, she was told that there is no dual-language class in the fourth grade. As neither Macario nor her son speak English well, staff assured her they would follow-up with a call to assist them. But the start of school came and went, and Macario didn’t receive a call.

In the weeks that followed, she tried messaging her son’s teacher to seek help, and went to the school on Mondays to pick up printed material for him to work on. But she wished there was more she could do to help him attend his online class. “It’s really difficult for me,” said Macario at the time. “I worry that he’s going to fall behind because of this.” To Macario’s relief, in late September, school staff stepped in to offer a support plan for her son, which includes 30 minutes of special instruction each morning. But by then, he’d already missed the first six weeks of classes.

For immigrant students and parents like Macario—a growing population within Oakland Unified School District—the challenges they face to help their kids succeed with school this year are daunting. “Our recent immigrant population was the most likely to face immediate economic consequences during the shelter-in-place, especially at first when it was the most stringent,” said Tom Felix, the director of OUSD’s newcomer and English-language learner programs. “Simultaneously, they weren’t eligible to avail themselves of nearly any government assistance” due to their immigration status.

A third of OUSD students (and close to a third of all students in Oakland) are learning English, according to state data. Macario’s son is one of nearly 3,000 “newcomers”—students who have been in the U.S. for less than three years and speak a language other than English at home—in Oakland Unified, up from 2,000 five years ago. About 15,000 English learners are enrolled in schools across Oakland, including in charter schools.  

At the start of the pandemic in the spring, OUSD staff working with immigrant and Spanish-speaking students initially focused on trying to meet families’ basic needs: pointing them to community funds, figuring out where to get laptops, and helping them set up internet connections at home. 

But while schools moved quickly to ensure that students have laptops and wifi hotspots for online learning, devices are only one part of bridging the digital divide. Language barriers, limited computer skills, and long workdays outside the home have left many Latino immigrant parents frustrated by their own limitations and worried that with the school year already two months underway, their kids are falling behind. 

“I don’t know anything about technology”

Even before remote learning, Diego Acevedo struggled to help his kids with their homework. Back in Mexico, he made it to the 9th grade. His youngest son is now a freshman at Fremont High and his daughter is a senior at Bay Tech Charter. It has been years since he’s been able to work with them through assignments. Still, said Acevedo, “when they brought home papers, I would look at the grades and talk to them.” 

When it comes to computers, however, Acevedo said he’s unable to support his kids. “I don’t know anything about technology,” he said. And with everything now online, Acevedo said it’s more challenging to follow his kids’ progress and intervene when he sees that they’re slipping. “I don’t know how to check up on them.” 

It’s his son that Acevedo is most concerned about. In the past two years, “he was bringing home bad grades because he was addicted to Playstation.” But after his son assured his parents that he’ll try harder, Acevedo is optimistic that he’s turning a new page. “I told him that you are only going to have one chance in life to be in high school.”

Recognizing the challenges of this school year, Acevedo began taking action before classes started. He went to Fremont High to speak with the staff and left them with his phone number. “I let them know that if he’s ever doing poorly, or not showing up, that they let me know.” 

Sara Nuño-Villa works in OUSD’s office of equity as a family and community engagement specialist. Right now, much of her work centers on developing strategies to support parents like Acevedo during distance learning. At the start of the school year, her team held weekly virtual office hours for Spanish-speaking families to ask questions and receive help with whatever they were struggling with. They’ve created video tutorials in different languages to help families learn how to set up their Chromebookhow to connect to their phone or internet hotspot, and how to use the online parent portal

But for families that aren’t internet-savvy, online communication methods won’t work. Nuño-Villa and her colleagues also use text-messaging apps, robocalls, and have even tried pop-up home visits. 

“A big way we approach our work is by being present, and having to do this all online has been incredibly challenging,” she said. “How do you build relationships and meet new families when you’re behind your computer and sheltering in place?”

“He’s home by himself and I’m out all day working”

For Dora Correa, it’s not just the language barrier and technology that make it hard to support her two kids. It’s also the lack of time. Correa got a new job this year as a home health aid and works long hours, leaving her 12- and 14-year-old sons on their own to log into classes. “I come home to make dinner and it’s nearly time to go to bed,” she said, speaking on the phone while washing dishes in her East Oakland home. 

Correa is far from alone. Many of the same factors that have contributed to higher rates of COVID-19 among Latinos also add to the challenges they face as parents this school year. An analysis by the UC Berkeley Labor Center shows that a majority of Latinx workers are employed in front-line essential jobs such as health care, food service, and home care. These workers aren’t just at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19. They are also less likely to be home with their kids to help them manage their class schedules and log into online classes. 

Teachers at MetWest High School and Greenleaf Elementary, where Correa’s children attend school, have been attentive to the students’ needs, messaging Correa to let her know how her kids are doing. But Correa wishes they had access to individualized support that she can’t provide. For example, after her younger son’s teacher told her that he had missed some classes, she asked her son why. He said he was unable to log in. “The thing is, he’s home by himself and I’m out all day working, so I can’t be here helping them,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.” 

Stephanie Noriega leads a group of bilingual social workers who support newcomer students in Oakland Unified School District. Her team has been working with these students and their families on finding ways to keep them engaged with distance learning, even if they can’t attend their live Zoom class. She said they can still complete assignments, or watch a video that the teacher sends out. But staying engaged with remote learning is hard enough, even for students without the access and language barriers faced by many newcomers.

“School, when we were in physical sites, was a safe space for these students. They would want to come to school because this was the only space where they would feel supported, where they would feel where they would have access to a meal,” Noriega said. “When you take that away, it’s really hard for kids to focus on academics or showing up to a classroom or that space is no longer created because it’s really hard to virtually create that.”

My biggest concern is that they are not going to learn enough to pass this year, or even if they pass, it won’t be because they know all that they should know.

dora correa

Nuño-Villa and other OUSD family engagement specialists have been working with parents on how to stay involved in their students’ distance learning work, even if they can’t be present during instruction, or don’t speak or read English. Asking your student questions about what they’re learning, what happened during distance learning that day, or what they’re frustrated by, said Nuño-Villa, are all ways monolingual parents can be engaged with the material.

“It was too much”

Hilda Ramos, a mother of two who lives in the Fruitvale District, said parenting during the pandemic has caused headaches and exhaustion. When schooling first went online in the spring, between her 6- and 8-year olds being cooped up, and Ramos, who had never used a computer before, struggling to help them log into their classes, “I had a few months when it was too much.” 

Ramos’s youngest son, who has autism, started kindergarten at Bella Vista Elementary this fall. At the same time, Ramos’s headaches, which subsided during the summer, crept up again. As do most parents in his special education class, she tries accompanying him through his online sessions. But since she is the only parent in the class who doesn’t speak English, it’s nearly impossible for her to follow along. She’s asked the school if they could provide an interpreter for her, but she says they have yet to give her a positive response. 

The language barriers within OUSD have stretched the capabilities of the district’s interpreters. Two months into the fall semester, OUSD’s office of equity is still in the process of hiring interpreters for Arabic, Vietnamese, and Mam, an indigenous language spoken by a growing East Oakland community of Mayan immigrants from Guatemala. 

Nuño-Villa said the office of equity is constantly evaluating its strategies and developing new ones, based on feedback from families. A Spanish-language hotline is coming soon, she said, where parents can call in and speak to a live person who will track down the answers to their questions. But there’s still work to be done.

“What we’re learning,” said Nuño-Villa, “is that whatever issues we had before the pandemic, are really visible now and exacerbated.”

Despite the challenges, all of the parents we spoke to for this article said they are supportive of the school year being remote. “For [the children’s] safety, I wouldn’t want it to be in person yet,” said one of more than a dozen parents who shared their thoughts on the subject with El Tímpano. 

That support may be due to the greater likelihood among Latinos to know someone who’s had the virus. The rate of COVID-19 among Latinos in Alameda County is six times that of whites and nearly three times that of Blacks and Pacific Islanders. For Latinx parents who have experienced the virus themselves or within their families or communities, it’s easy to imagine the consequences of in-person instruction. 

“As we’ve seen in other places, some kids are asymptomatic,” said Acevedo, the father of two high schoolers. Despite precautions such as temperature checks, he said, those kids could go undetected. “And they can infect other kids, and it will spread, and then they’ll bring it into the homes.” 

“I feel like it’s better to continue like this, struggling in this way.”

Madeleine Bair is an award-winning journalist and media developer, and the founder of El Tímpano. Madeleine has been carrying a microphone in her backpack since she belonged to the Oakland bureau of the Peabody Award-winning youth media organization, Children’s Express. As Senior Program Manager at the international nonprofit, WITNESS, she led a pioneering initiative dedicated to advancing the use of citizen video as a tool for human rights. Madeleine has taught radio production to young adults, worked on a morning show at Chicago Public Radio, and produced multimedia for Human Rights Watch. Her stories have appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Colorlines, and Orion, and broadcast on PRI’s The World and Independent Lens. She lives with her partner and son in Oakland, where she spends her free time making mixtapes, dancing cumbia, and exploring the region on bike.