Charmaine Salmon is an Afro-Latina single mother of two struggling to keep a roof over her head. Like many Black and Latino parents in New York City, she fears for her children’s future. Remote learning was extremely tough. Despite Salmon’s best efforts, her daughter, who has a learning delay, fell behind in every subject. Remote learning also meant more meals at home. Food was short. Money was short. The mother was desperate.
Stories like these exist all over New York City. We’ve heard them time and again from the parents we work with at the Hispanic Federation and INCLUDEnyc. And there is no question the pandemic has disproportionately impacted students of color, English learners and students with disabilities. Across New York State, more than 4,000 children lost a parent or guardian to COVID-19, with Black and Latino children experiencing the death of a caregiver at twice the rate of white and Asian children. These life-altering events affect students’ cognitive development, academic outcomes and mental health, not just now, but over time.
As districts continue to navigate ongoing changes in health and education guidance and policies as classes resume, schools need to bolster their methods for reaching disconnected families, particularly those who are undocumented and mixed-status and historically have been afraid to reach out for support. Starting in March 2020, when schools closed to in-person instruction, these families did not receive information regarding how to access online learning, special education services and devices, as well as critical school health and safety guidelines in their home language in a timely manner.
It is imperative that the next mayoral administration and its education leaders leverage new resources coming from the American Rescue Plan Act to identify ways to address these critical equity issues in the coming school year.
The pandemic highlighted the need for communication in families’ native languages and greater digital literacy. According to a survey from the New York Immigration Coalition Education Collaborative, nearly 40 percent of New York City public school English learners and immigrant families did not receive information or assignments in their home language when school closures started in March 2020. As a result, many families were excluded from understanding and meaningfully participating in their child’s learning at school and at home — and may not fully understand their rights. Until now, schools and their staff, rather than the city Department of Education, have been responsible for individual translation requests from parents who speak a language other than English.
We commend the city’s recent decision to further invest in the department’s Translation and Interpretation Unit. Families can now request interpretation at special education meetings and translations of children’s individualized education plans, assessments and notices. This is a first step toward building greater trust and strengthening communication between parents and schools. Although this is a great investment, more efforts should be made to ensure parents receive information on how to make these requests.
There is also no doubt that the digital divide has affected many families of color. School districts have made some efforts to create tools to help families become involved in their children’s schooling, like the department’s launch of Parent University — on demand, pre-recorded courses that cover topics such as Google Classroom and learning supports for multilingual children. Schools should utilize their federal funding to create similar culturally relevant and linguistically appropriate training on remote instruction and digital literacy for parents.
Culturally responsive communication requires culturally responsive educators. The city’s recent Academic Recovery Plan commits to a culturally responsive curriculum for all children and youth, in which students with disabilities and English learners see themselves represented in what they are learning. Similar standards should apply to teacher recruitment. From what we have heard directly from our families, districts need to recruit more bilingual teachers in general and special education who have received high-quality training and can adequately address barriers to family engagement. Districts must track and report on teacher retention and create strategies to ensure the longevity of a diverse workforce equipped to serve English learners and students with disabilities.
Students are also still coping with a significant loss of instruction during remote learning, and the American Rescue Plan allocates federal dollars to address this. Districts need to create plans to provide compensatory services for students with disabilities who missed instruction and related interventions, including physical, speech and occupational therapy, as well as counseling. About 30 percent of students with bilingual speech services on their IEPs are not receiving any or all of their mandated services. Students should be able to receive these missed services without being required to provide documentation of lost remote instruction or demonstrate lost skills.
At this pivotal time, schools have the opportunity to reimagine education by creating an equitable and just education system to ensure the next generation thrives in a post-COVID world.