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Why remote learning has been a headache for some Spanish-speaking families in N.C.
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Why remote learning has been a headache for some Spanish-speaking families in N.C.

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Like other families, Patricia Obregon and her 8-year-old son, Gael, find virtual classes and test-taking to be a constant pain.

It doesn't help that most of their school district's online systems are in English.

Gael is one of about 9,300 students in Durham Public Schools whose home language is Spanish. At 33.2%, Durham Public Schools has the largest proportion of Hispanic students of any school district in the Triangle, according to district data.

While Wake County schools brought some students back to class for several weeks last semester, Durham schools have remained fully remote since March.

And the headaches of online learning persist for some families who don't speak English as a home language.

There have been several times when a technical challenge disrupted Gael's schoolwork, Obregon said, and she worries for her son's mental health.

"I've seen that he's more anxious," she said in Spanish through an interpreter. "It has been frustrating."

The challenges for some Latino families are not isolated to one or two issues, said Alexandra Valladares, Durham's first Latina school board member.

"Language access in and of itself is not the only thing," Valladares said.

Now that children log into school at home, boundaries between the two kinds of environments have blurred, leading to miscommunication between teachers and parents, she said.

Navigating the schools' several, mostly English-language platforms also poses problems for parents who are not familiar with the technology, she said.

María Luisa Solis, a parent of a high school junior at Middle College High School, said the early days of remote learning were "a mess."

"With the Latino community, most of the people who come from Latin America are poor people. They don't have computer skills," Solis said. "They don't talk, they don't write English."

Most families have, however, adapted to using the online platforms since the beginning of the fall semester, she said.

Technical difficulties and language access

For Obregon and her son, the challenge is using Canvas, the school's English-language online learning platform.

Sometimes, she and Gael can't figure out how to submit an assignment to his teachers at Eno Valley Elementary. Other times, they can't find an assignment, and so Gael turns it in late or misses it entirely, she said.

"He's not learning as much," Obregon said.

The state's Department of Public Instruction has used Canvas for public school systems since 2015.

"Canvas's functions are determined by the state," DPS spokeperson Chip Sudderth wrote in an email.

The learning management system includes an "immersive reader" that "allows some level of machine translation in some contexts," Sudderth wrote. He did not answer follow up questions on how that works.

Obregon said if she wants to read anything on Canvas, she usually finds a way to translate it herself. She copies and pastes chunks of text into Google Translate. Sometimes, she snaps a screenshot of a web page and texts it to other parents, asking for help with understanding the content. Other parents send her screenshots, too.

At the beginning of the semester, many parents had to learn how to use Canvas before they could help their youngest children access schoolwork.

Parents have shared tips with others through messaging apps like WhatsApp and GroupMe, but Valladares still hears from moms who can't log their kids into Gmail or convert a PDF into a Google Form, she said.

Some parents also struggle to understand some of DPS' Facebook posts, Obregon said, which aren't always translated into Spanish.

The district often uses Facebook to post information about bilingual webinars for parents to attend and ask questions.

"Sometimes they use very complex language, and parents don't understand it either," she said.

DPS uses a combination of the Multilingual Resource Center and "careful use of machine translation" in order to translate Facebook posts into Spanish, said Sudderth.

Research through Duke University

The findings of a Duke University professor's research project working with young children whose home language is Spanish showed how the challenges facing Obregon and her child may be common for the community.

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"Online learning made it really clear that there were some children in families who had a major opportunity gap in that they did not have access to technology at home to support their learning," said Leslie Babinski, a professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and a director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke.

The study, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, includes about 100 children in kindergarten and first grade, across 17 schools, and it involved collaboration with the kids' ESL teachers. Babinski and her team were working in schools in the spring, when all public schools pivoted to remote learning.

She found that in the spring, more than half of the kids needed a device from the school and about a quarter also needed a Wi-Fi hot spot, to access the internet.

Simply providing a Chromebook and hot spot also wasn't enough to help students access online learning. Parents who weren't familiar with the internet ran into barriers with accessing the learning platforms teachers shared with students.

"And then if the parents' home language isn't English, they faced another barrier in understanding the instructions that teachers were sending out for young children to be able to access learning."

It went more smoothly in the fall, she said, as she saw parents, teachers, and students slide into the routine of online classes.

The ever-busy Multilingual Resource Center

One of the district's main resources for non-English speaking parents is the Multilingual Resource Center, where six interpreters assigned to several elementary and middle schools bridge between Spanish-speaking parents and schools.

They mainly help parents find answers to basic school-related question, like how to log onto Canvas and how to obtain a Wi-Fi hot spot. The center also has translators, who can change certain English-language documents into other languages.

Each interpreter has a caseload of about 800 to 1,000 families, said Pablo Friedmann, the supervisor.

The phone calls haven't stopped since summer.

"There's been no moment, like, 'oh, we're catching our breath," Friedmann said. "It's just been non-stop, day after day, week after week, since July."

Parents sometimes call the MRC with requests beyond the purview of the district, like for assistance with the state-issued pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer card.

The state's pandemic EBT system provides financial assistance to families for buying groceries. It is similar to food stamps, and families with children receiving free and reduced-price school lunches can use it.

"I've gotten a few calls about evictions," Friedmann said. "I've gotten a few calls from folks who are diagnosed positive with COVID."

Friedmann sees it as a vote of confidence.

"That means they trust us," he said. "And while it's not our direct area responsibility, we are listening."

In the first four months of the pandemic, Durham's Hispanic and Latino community had the highest rate of COVID-19 cases, reaching nearly 70% of cases in July despite the demographic being about 14% of the county's population.

"There was nothing in Spanish, and the pandemic was hitting the community," Friedmann said. "Really, there was little information out there."

About half of Obregon's family and friends in Durham have been infected with COVID-19, she said. A majority contracted it at their workplaces, including her husband, who she said works in construction as a plumber.

Cultural differences and the home

There are some challenges that may be harder for the school district to meet for some immigrant families: the blurring of work-home boundaries and cultural differences between teachers and parents.

A living room, bedroom or a kitchen became a temporary classroom for thousands of students.

Jen Painter, an ESL teacher at Jordan High School, said she realized soon after the district went remote she needed to be flexible with her students.

"People may not live in a large space. They may not have their private rooms for virtual learning or they may be babysitting," Painter said.

A lot of kids appear to occupy two kinds of spaces at once: the home and the classroom.

"I've had students, you know, rocking a baby on Zoom," she said.

In her research project, Babinski also found that among the Latino families she worked with, some kids as young as second grade were taking care of their kindergarten sisters.

Valladares has heard from parents that some teachers may not also fully understand the "cultural piece" of what the home signifies for some Latino families.

"Teachers are asking parents to leave the room," she said. "Sometimes, there's a mom who wants to give their child a snack while they're engaging in remote learning, and teachers who, you know, don't appreciate that."

For Obregon and her son, another challenge has been the inability to gather with others.

"We Latinos, if I dare say it this way, we like seeing people," Obregon said. "We like to be able to bond and see people."

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