Lifting Latinx voices in schools and reimagining the old ‘normal’

A panel of Latinx experts gathered for what award-winning journalist and moderator Mariana Atencio called a “very raw, very current” conversation about how Latinx families can support students beginning to emerge from the depths of the pandemic, and how educators can connect student learning, mental health and family engagement.

Latinx family
Credit: kali9/Getty

What unique challenges are these students facing? What sorts of supports do they need? Those questions were top of mind at the virtual discussion Oct. 28, featuring AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus; Nerissa Bauer, a behavioral pediatrician representing the American Academy of Pediatrics; Richard Carranza, former New York City Schools chancellor; Rebecca Palacios, a National Board Certified teacher, senior curriculum adviser at and an AFT English language learner national trainer; José Rodríguez, director of parent and community engagement at UnidosUS, which sponsored the event; Bethzaida Sotomayor, an English as a second language specialist for Volusia County Schools in Florida and an AFT ELL national trainer; and two parents, May Hernandez and Alba Moreno.

“It’s not enough after the pain and suffering of the last year and a half, just to return to a classroom,” said DeJesus. “Latino parents, children, families and educators have all borne the brunt of the pandemic.

We need to recover from the trauma of the past 18 months, and most important of all, we need to reimagine public schooling in America, so that it truly works for all—todos—of our students, their families and communities, and our educators and school support personnel.”

Carranza described the disparate educational experiences of students of color and English language learners as “two different worlds,” adding that as pandemic conditions begin to ease, he doesn’t want to go back to “normal,” because “pre-COVID normal never served our children well.”

COVID-19 forced schools to confront the technological piece of a deep learning gap between Latinx and ELL students and white students when schools pivoted to a completely remote setting, said Carranza. When districts finally provided electronic devices and connectivity, many families had internet-connected computers in their homes for the first time. “That’s a game changer,” he said.

Barriers to learning have not all been technological, though. While Sotomayor heard of families going to Taco Bell so their children could use the Wi-Fi in the parking lot, she also encountered a lot of fear. The Latinx community was struck hard by the pandemic, suffering disproportionate illness and death.

“Our families are very, very scared,” she said. “It takes a lot of effort on our part for them to trust us, for them to feel comfortable with us, for them to know we have their child’s best interests at heart.”

That effort needs to include communication—in the family’s native language—and understanding social and emotional needs. Some children became shier during remote learning; some children from Puerto Rico “get panicky” when it starts to rain, because of their experience with hurricanes, said Sotomayor. “We need to listen to our families,” she said, and share what resources are available, like tutoring and breakfast at school—which can be a time to re-enter social life, even if the child eats at home.

Get connected

May Hernandez, a parent from Tampa, Fla., described her firsthand experience with the fears Sotomayor described. She and her husband were reluctant to let their three children return to school but, she says, but she was depressed and anxious with them at home: “I was very worried that they were not learning. And they were not happy doing online learning.” Now that they’re back in school, “They’re happy; they always come [home] with a happy face and tell me about their day.” Hernandez says UnidosUS’s Padres Comprometidos network of active parents helped her through the transition back to school, and she advised other parents to speak up if they need help to find similar resources.

Rodríguez described how Padres Comprometidos played a crucial role when COVID-19 forced everyone into a virtual environment; he had families who did not understand the differences between the phone and the computer, and others who had never heard of a hot spot. He remembers taking screenshots from his telephone to help people navigate systems that were brand new to them. But the network of about 300 community-based organizations and schools helped with outreach and, eventually, connectivity.

Palacios agreed that parent connection is key, and encouraged parents to take advantage of existing services—and even to speak up if they need them in their native language. She also advised parents to follow the “four E’s” as they go about their life at home, weaving learning into everyday living with experiences; explanation—even during mundane tasks like cooking and folding laundry, when you can use vocabulary words or explain “evaporation” over a pot of beans; expression, so that children are practicing language; and extras, like trips to the park, the beach and other COVID-19-safe spaces.

Staying involved

Parent Alba Moreno, a participant in the ESOL Science Academy, leaned into the “extras” when her family got cabin fever after being confined to their home because of pandemic restrictions. They took up fishing in a local park. It was a tremendous relief after months of juggling three children, including one with special needs. Like many Latinx families, Moreno’s had difficulty accessing services at her school for that child, her youngest: They spent hours driving to therapy (with the older children attending virtual school in the back of the car), and Moreno had to provide therapy herself, with virtual guidance, once the therapy provider shut down due to COVID-19.

These sorts of challenges have increased the possibility for mental health issues, said Bauer, who advised families to watch for increased anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts—conditions on the rise among young people. Watching for changes in behavior or learning can be key to making sure children get the attention and care they need, through their pediatricians, teachers, school counselors and others.

It’s one example of how parents need to be involved in their children’s lives both in and out of school.

“We can no longer be spectators. We have to be participants in our child’s education,” said DeJesus, recounting her own experience: When one of her daughters had an asthma attack, she turned to activism and wound up shutting down New York City schools that had dangerously unhealthy air quality.  

“We are Latinos, we are strong, we have voice,” she said.

[Virginia Myers]