With schools closed, immigrant communities struggle with access to technology and connection
DILLON — Jorge and Rosa Barahona have parented through much of the pandemic the same as many other couples in Summit County: in shifts.
In the mornings, Jorge is there to help home-school their 14-year-old son, Erick, and 7-year-old daughter, Mia. After leaving at 4 a.m., Rosa works at a Summit County grocery store before returning home by 12:30 p.m. When she does, the mother undertakes the COVID-19 safety precautions she and her husband have executed on a daily basis throughout the pandemic: They immediately take a shower and put their work clothes into a bag to be promptly washed.
Jorge undertakes the same regiment when he returns home each evening from his job as a custodian at Dillon Valley Elementary School. He is one of the workers doing the deep cleaning — copiously washing door handle after door handle, light switch after light switch, “trying to not miss anything,” he said.
But perhaps the toughest part for Jorge and Rosa has been balancing their work obligations with their children’s home schooling. On some days, when Jorge needs to go into work early at 10:30 a.m., there could be a two-hour window when Rosa has yet to return home from work. During that time, Erick watches Mia while they both complete schoolwork.
“At home, it’s really difficult,” Jorge said.
“Some of the challenge is our Latino community needs to work,” Dillon Valley Principal Kendra Carpenter said about parents who often cannot work from home. The principal said a majority of the elementary school’s population, 55%, comes from a household where the first language is Spanish and that many of them are immigrants.
“So siblings (are) having to be in charge of siblings,” she said. “(They are) trying to get work done.”
Dialing in ‘dismissal’
The Barahonas’ struggle to find work-school balance is just one example of the many challenges families faced during the two-plus month period the Summit School District referred to as a “dismissal” — when students interacted with teachers from home. The educational hurdles came suddenly after the district switched to its online learning model in mid-March. Without their children attending school in person, many families encountered challenges with access to technology, food and social connection.
“The main problem at the beginning was internet connection and the computers,” Dillon Valley Elementary teacher’s aide Medaly Fonseca said. “… It was new to everyone, even myself.”
“So many times, some kids (were) just laying on the bed, playing,” Fonseca said about her video conferences with students. “… They didn’t have routine or structure at home because everything was sudden.”
Local mother Yerania Reynoso of Silverthorne experienced what Fonseca described. Reynoso was candid in saying home schooling was bad during the first week. She was out of work and home with her then 9-year-old son, Leo.
It wasn’t long before she empathized with Leo’s teachers about the challenges of keeping an energetic elementary school boy on task with distractions around. The difficulty of it all was amplified by the confines of home.
While Reynoso’s husband kept his job at a fast food restaurant, the mother had her hands full at home. She had to balance helping Leo with his school work with the needs of her 3-year-old son, Derek. Often, she would be up until 10 p.m. helping Leo finish assignments.
“You have to work all day to make sure that he has met everything,” Reynoso said.
Reynoso and her son also spent time helping Leo’s best friend connect to the internet to complete his course work. One day, with Leo struggling with his computer, Reynoso traveled to Dillon Valley Elementary to troubleshoot. Many families brought their children’s school-provided tablets to the school’s front foyer. That’s where district technology support staff provided help in a makeshift hub.
Even after the computer was fixed, there was still a learning curve for the parents and children.
“All that week, my son was teaching the other kid that program,” Reynoso said. “Myself, I was doing homework with my own son and taking care of my baby, and teaching another kid, too. For another mom, it was the same.”
With Spanish being her first language, Reynoso said she was able to help more with assignments like math than English. But sometimes the language barrier even made helping with math difficult.
As the weeks passed, Reynoso said the process improved as teachers and parents learned together how best to educate elementary students in the unprecedented situation.
“I definitely feel for the parents,” Dillon Valley special-education teacher Amie Branson said. “They really feel worse about themselves because they didn’t know how to do this or couldn’t figure out the technology, and they had to work and figure out other things. It’s not that they didn’t want to. They couldn’t. And they really beat themselves up.”
More than school
Carpenter and other district staff said the resource difficulties were more acute among the district’s Spanish-speaking households. And those struggles varied widely.
At one end of the spectrum, there were families like the Barahonas, who struggled to balance home schooling with two parents working full time. Then, in the cases of Reynoso and Evelyn Galicia Lima of Dillon Valley, the difficulty of losing a job was tough in a different way.
Galicia Lima was suddenly home in a role similar to that of a teacher’s aide for her three children in different grades: Carlos at Summit High, Jennifer at Summit Middle and Dulce at Dillon Valley Elementary.
Until she returned to work at the Outlets at Silverthorne a week ago, Galicia Lima’s experience was a test in patience, time management and communication. Through it all, she said it was her elementary-age daughter who proved the most challenging with home schooling, as Dulce’s shy nature wasn’t ideal for virtual meetings.
“She wanted to play video games,” Galicia Lima said.
Without work, Galicia Lima sought out the district’s free meal services. On top of being unemployed, her husband, a painter, also was without work for a month. Through the worst of the pandemic, she stopped by the school’s midday meal service each weekday. After a grant extended the daily food service into summer, she’s been coming twice a week into June.
For many of the district’s immigrant families — whether they hail from Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, the Czech Republic or elsewhere — the free food helps save money on groceries during a tough time when every dollar has to be carefully spent.
In order to provide these resources, district staff — from administrators to teachers to teacher’s aides — learned and helped on the fly.
“We did a ton of calling,” Carpenter said. “We set up a system where everyone on our staff was in charge of 10-15 families. Then we reached out to them personally and asked, ‘How are you doing? What do you need? How can we help you?’”
As a custodian at Dillon Valley Elementary, Jorge has been one of the mainstays at the school building with his work boots on the ground. When he pops his head out of the school’s front doors, he can often see the network of Summit’s parents, teachers and school officials trying to make the best of a bad situation.
From his vantage point at the school, he has seen special-education teachers, like Branson and Anna Goldfarb, post up at the school’s playground. It’s a place they felt they could safely engage with students whether that be by reading a book or simply kicking a soccer ball around.
Weeks into the shutdown, the school extended the building’s Wi-Fi connection to help community members get on the internet.
“(Goldfarb) felt kind of sad for some kids who couldn’t get connected because of technology issues, internet connections,” Dillon Valley paraprofessional Fonseca said. “And she didn’t want them to lose the opportunity. So she invited them to join her, like two siblings (at a time), then in the next hour inviting another kid at a different time.”
Jorge also has seen aides like Fonseca and Adela Guardado do what they do best: help in whatever way they can.
The respected bilingual members of the county’s Spanish-speaking community donned their face masks and put on their gloves daily to help hand out meals the school staff would pack. Fonseca estimated 85% of the families who came to the elementary school’s meal service were from the local Latino community. On the busiest day, 190 meals were provided.
With in-person classes shuttered, the lunch drive-thru at the school’s exterior became an educational and community hub. Come 11 a.m., mothers walked up holding their daughters’ hands, brothers came by while bouncing a soccer ball, and elders drove up and rolled down their car windows. Here, Fonseca and Guardado could catch up with familiar faces and ask how they were doing.
Carpenter knows the value of someone like Guardado, a longtime local in the Spanish-speaking community who people ask to speak with when they call the school.
“And if Adela is not there, they will call back,” Carpenter said. “They don’t want to talk to anybody else. She’s really, really connected with them, and we really rely on her a lot as a family liaison.”
Just a short walk down Straight Creek Drive from the school, another COVID-19 resource was on display until recently. It was a school bus equipped with Wi-Fi in case anyone in the Dillon Valley community needed to get online. It was one of several the district set up around the county to help those lacking an internet connection. Some school officials and teachers also took the step of calling providers to get internet access at students’ homes.
Forecasting the fall
While chatting from underneath their face masks at the Dillon Valley meal service, teachers and aides reflected on the whirlwind experience that was the home-schooling trial of spring 2020.
They realize district leaders and administrators, including incoming Superintendent Marion Smith Jr., are focused on refining a “blended” learning approach for fall. The goal, Carpenter said, is to improve, coordinate and standardize remote-schooling communication between parents and teachers.
At the same time, the teachers and aides know the importance of in-person connection.
“It’s enormous,” Branson said. “You can’t get around it. We can manage this this year because we have all the connections with students. The parents know us. But next year, starting fresh, we don’t have those connections built in. … School is enormously social.”
Whatever next year has in store, Reynoso is grateful to community educational helpers. That includes her Colorado Mountain College professor Sharon Aguiar.
It was Aguiar who encouraged Reynoso to not feel ashamed to go to the free meal services. And Aguiar was the educator who surprised Reynoso with the mother’s best moment of all amid the pandemic. It came May 15 on Leo’s 10th birthday.
“She gave me a cake,” Reynoso said.
Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part series about the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on the Hispanic community in Summit County.
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As the Summit School District prepares for all online instruction, adults are focusing their attention on the health and well-being of the students.