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Online Education Resources for Low-Income and Immigrant Students

Parents working to provide their children with the best education and opportunities available is already challenging when juggling the responsibilities of work and day-to-day life. But imagine having the added pressure of not understanding the language used or lacking internet access to navigate existing education systems.

Even before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic, many immigrant and low-income families said they struggled to access educational opportunities for their children. This situation has only worsened following statewide shutdowns across the United States as families had to stay at home, with many household breadwinners laid off from their work.

As a result, many low-income families and immigrant students have been adversely affected by the pandemic and are seeking online solutions to support their continued education.

Some resources proving helpful during this period include multilingual learning tools and communication lines, expanded WiFi in low-income communities, and hardship funding. Certain school districts have also shared their plans to provide low-income and immigrant students with safety nets during this time to ensure their continued learning development.

Threatening an Already Tenuous Access to Education

Education systems in the U.S. often require students to pay for their own learning supplies and are predominantly taught in American English. And in today’s tech economy, digital devices and the Internet are practically essential for work and education. However, students in low-income and immigrant families may not have resources to navigate and connect to online educational opportunities, which have become the lifeline to learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Census Bureau found that 38.1 million people in 2018 were poor, meaning that about one in eight Americans still live below the poverty line. Poverty rates for immigrant households are even higher, with nearly a quarter of immigrants and their U.S.-born children living in poverty.

The trend can instead be expected to worsen moving into 2020 as already demonstrated by the 2.2 million workers in the U.S. that applied for unemployment benefits at the beginning of June, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Meanwhile, an analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies of data released on June 5 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that unemployment remains extraordinarily high for immigrants, at four times of what it was before COVID-19.

Although most low-income families have some form of internet connection, many are under-connected and rely on mobile phone access with inconsistent connectivity. Hispanic immigrants, in particular, are less likely to have access to a computer or home internet service.

“Starting in 8th grade, we got dial up internet, but it was really slow, and I shared it with three younger siblings and my parents,” said Jessica, commenting on being a student born into a low-income family in Antelope Valley, California. “I think the internet is really expensive, let alone computers, printers and ink! People think access is across the board now but it’s really not.”

Jessica’s family did not have a computer until she was in 12th grade and even then the entire family shared it. She explains that her family would all walk to a nearby local library and sign up to use computers there.

Beyond experiencing weak financial income, some families may not have social support networks or English language comprehension useful in seeking and finding help. This can make it difficult for students in those families to access tools and support necessary to leverage available educational opportunities.

“English wasn’t my first language. And my school didn’t offer bilingual education so acclimating into the system was really just sink or swim,” a Hungarian immigrant living in Los Angeles said regarding his experience of coming to the U.S. and entering the school system as a child. “Luckily, kids learn fast, so I picked up the language quickly.”

In immigrant families, younger children or those born in the U.S. may have a stronger grasp on or learn English more quickly than their parents. As a result, they often take on a role as translators for their families. But a child can not be expected to have the same knowledge or skill set required to navigate government and education systems to find resources. Even aiding an adult in the process can be difficult and time-consuming, which is not always an option for busy or working parents.

Students in low-income families also often lack support from their parents who must prioritize their jobs to earn income for their families.

“You really have to be self-motivated to navigate the system,” said Jessica. “Part of the problem is most lower income parents don’t have the time. I did everything myself and later helped all my three younger siblings.”

“For students that may be more depressed or hopeless about their future, or whose teachers weren’t helpful, or who struggle in school and don’t have good reading comprehension or test taking skills, there are so many barriers that get in the way,” Jessica explained. “I was a product of hard work, for sure, but I was also insanely lucky.”

Recognizing the pandemic’s threat of shutting off already tenuous access to education for those low-income and immigrant families stuck at home, some local schools and non-profit organizations are working to create support systems and resources.

Building Safety Nets for Students

Digital inequality and limited language offerings exacerbate already disproportionate access to educational opportunities for low-income and immigrant families. Therefore, these factors are critical fulcrum points to address during the pandemic period, when students and their families are stuck at home.

For some school districts with large low-income and immigrant communities, like Los Angeles, the first order of business was reaching out to families and students—often in multiple languages—to connect with and provide support to students.

How Los Angeles Unified School District Supports Students

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) drew up an action plan to find out if students had access to technology, food and other essentials at home, and is now working to provide that safety net.

“Every student who needs a tablet or computer and an internet connection now has one—100 percent,” said Austin Beutner, the superintendent at LAUSD.

Ninety-nine percent of high school and middle school students and 83 percent of elementary students have used devices to connect with school, he explained. The difference is that many elementary students use tools other than the Schoology learning management system employed for other grade levels. Overall, 99 percent of students are connected when this variation in data is accounted for, he said.

“Altogether, more than 400 different instructional applications are currently being used in schools across Los Angeles Unified,” Beutner said. The use of apps, such as ClassDojo, Amplify Reading, and ST Math, vary across different grade levels, he noted.

Currently, LAUSD is working with various providers of these tools and technologies to better connect the tools and simplify how they are being used by teachers, students and families. As of June, LAUSD said it has collected the views of about 10,000 teachers on these apps to draw up a clear picture with which to improve the system.

“We expect to complete much of this work before the new school year starts on August 18th though it will be a process of continuous improvement as our educators learn more and as the tools and technologies continue to evolve,” Beutner said.

How Sunnyside Unified School District Supports Students

While digital devices are pertinent to connecting with online education, so too is internet access.

When it came time for students to complete academic work outside of school using district-provided devices, Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Arizona found many families in the district could not afford internet access at home. Nearly 90 percent of the districts, 17,265 students identify as Hispanic, while 86 percent of all students are eligible for free or reduced price meals, according to the school’s website. To provide access, the district is offering free or reduced cost WiFi to families, enabling students to access the internet and do homework at home.

Other Districts Ensuring Educational Access

To help ensure all students can access online education while schools are closed, San Francisco Unified School District and Portland Public Schools also announced on April 23 their plan to pay the monthly cost for essential internet access through Comcast for eligible, low-income households.

In addition to supporting students’ access to digital devices and the internet, school districts across the nation have also worked to set up communication lines and digital offerings in multiple languages.

In Northern California, Oakland Unified School District has published an online list of learning resources in Spanish, Chinese, Khmer and Arabic. Meanwhile, in other states, like Nebraska and Texas, some districts are airing classes in collaboration with local broadcast stations, including instruction in Spanish. Guilford County School District in North Carolina has also established an information hotline staffed with interpreters available in seven languages. Many schools in California and New York also use software, like messaging application Talking Points, that can send text messages to parents in multiple languages.

Paths for Progress

Clearly the pandemic period has highlighted the need to bolster support to students in low-income and immigrant families. So while there are many positive efforts, the coming months will demonstrate the success of these solutions.

Possible solutions to help low-income families and immigrant students in the future may include expanding WiFi hotspots in poorer neighborhoods and hiring more translators in school. A national teachers’ union, the National Education Association, is pressing Congress to include both in the next economic stimulus package, while in Colorado, the teachers’ union is calling for the creation of a hardship fund to help undocumented migrant familes currently barred from accessing federal economic relief.

Beyond this immediate need, it will be important for school educators and administrators, as well as the nation at large, to consider the endurance and long-term efficacy of these paths for progress moving forward.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.