RETURN TO LEARN: The challenges of online learning for immigrant families

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This is article was published on CBS 2 Iowa by Emily Chavez on October 14, 2020.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Online learning can be a challenge for any family, especially if English is your second language.

Iowa’s News Now takes a deeper look at one of Iowa’s most vulnerable populations and the barriers a computer screen creates for their children at home.

Nearly a quarter of immigrants and their U.S. born children live in poverty. On top of that Hispanic immigrants are not as likely to own a computer or have internet at home.

In Iowa, immigrants make up about six percent of the population and at the Iowa City Community School District, about 1,100 families have immigration status.

“Of all the dozens and dozens and dozens of families we’ve worked with. There is not a parent in those families who does not want their child to succeed in school,” explained Co-founder of Open Heartland, Deb Dunkhase.

One of those parents is Rufina, she has four children enrolled in the Iowa City Community School District.

That district requires the use of technology at home.


“My first thought was ‘how am I going to do it and how are we going to do it?’ because it’s totally different,” Rufina said in Spanish.

Marlen Mendoza is the president of the League of Latin American Citizens Council 303. LULAC is a civil rights organization that serves as a voice for Latino and Immigrant communities.

“In this situation we’re looking at, immigrant children and their parents, English language learners. So, you might have students who English is not their predominant language or populations that are low income that may have very little to no exposure to technology,” explained Mendoza.

There are currently about 1,700 English language learners at ICCSD.

“Just to differentiate the learning environment. I think it’s been a challenge to do that, yet on the flip side it has really raised the awareness that some of those instructional strategies that we’ve been kind of pushing all along, now they’re really needed because of that online only format,” said the director of learning support at ICCSD, Lora Daily.

That awareness isn’t just language, Mendoza says there are a number of barriers that come with online learning, like knowing how to ask a simple question.

“We can’t ask [questions] sometimes because of the language and because truthfully we don’t know how do it or how to ask for help,” said Rufina.

“For many it can be minor technological issues, but when you add fear of certain immigration status, compiled with fear of asking for resources or speaking out. Plus, a language barrier, plus a technology barrier, plus the fact that you may not have enough resources to hire a babysitter. All of these things, they add up and these are continuous stressors for these families,” listed Mendoza.

Another stressor Mendoza says is the fear of truancy.

“We need a further investigation to see how is the school board district approaching families case by case when they see when they’re not logging in online,” suggested Mendoza.

Daily says communication between the district and families can always be improved.

“Absolutely we need to hear from our immigrant and refugee communities how would I know what their experience is,” questioned Daily, “I wouldn’t know that. To the best of my ability I would be able to understand it only by listening.”

The district has cultural liaisons to help reach their immigration and refugee population

“Our cultural liaisons are staying in touch with various immigrant and refugee communities and then sharing that information with district leadership so we know challenges, success anything we can do to improve,” explained Daily.

For now, many immigrant families rely on community services like Open Heartland to help with the online transition.

This organization opened to help support parents and their kids. So, we have families that have come, stayed here for a week and learned how to navigate everything and then moved to their house because they have the internet,” said Co-founder for Open Heartland, Elizabeth Bernal.

While following COVID-19 protocols, Bernal says their organization sees about 25 families a week.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to educate the community and so the Latino Community can get through. More than anything, today is the future,” said Bernal. ” You don’t have to wait until tomorrow. We can start today for the best future that you see in the children.”