How Catholic schools are serving immigrant families during the coronavirus pandemic

Classroom closures have meant that many parents are struggling to balance their own work with their new role as teachers during the Covid-19 pandemic. (iStock)

Just like every other school in the nation, the classrooms at Queen of Peace in Mesa, Ariz., are empty. The parochial school serves a largely immigrant community, with families tracing their roots to Mexico, El Salvador and Peru, among other Latin American countries. About 95 percent of students at Queen of Peace are Latino, and most of their teachers are Latino and speak Spanish.

The classroom closures have meant that many parents are struggling to balance their own work with their new role as teachers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Parents are overwhelmed with schooling at home, according to Renée Baeza, principal of Queen of Peace. The school is doing its best to ease the transition. “Parents aren’t teachers,” she said. “They know that and we know that. We’re adjusting.”

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Students in fourth through eighth grades each had Chromebooks from the school even before the pandemic, Ms. Baeza explained. That has helped in the transition, but it has not been perfect. “We’re going to make mistakes,” Ms. Baeza said. “It’s a learning experience for all of us.”

"We’re going to make mistakes. It’s a learning experience for all of us.”

Families who already had a computer at home are turning in their school-issued device so other families who do not have a home computer can use them. And for those who are not comfortable using computers, the teachers distribute hard copy handouts every two weeks.

Two specialists reach out to immigrant families and children in special education. Teachers and staff are also working individually with parents, who are mostly Spanish-speaking and struggle with English-language learning materials.

“My teachers work so hard, I’m really proud of them,” Ms. Baeza said, adding that teachers make themselves available for one-on-one help from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. “They work even harder now because they’re learning as they go.”

Queen of Peace is not alone in this struggle. In New York City, often referred to as the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, Catholic schools closed on March 13. Jessica Maldonado, principal of St. Thomas Aquinas School in the Bronx, started preparing for online learning well before the closure. They checked in with families, asking about internet access, technology and work schedules. Initially, teachers prepared packets for two weeks, hoping it would be over by then.

Around 85 percent of students at St. Thomas Aquinas are Latino, and others are African or African American, Ms. Maldonado said. Most of the staff speaks Spanish and the families from Africa speak English, so language has not been an issue.

“They have been super excited to log on to Zoom every morning. They are in their space.”

“Most of the time, it’s the kids helping the parents [with the technology],” Ms. Maldonado said, adding that some of the students who had been less engaged before are now participating more often. “They have been super excited to log on to Zoom every morning. They are in their space.”

Each day at 10 a.m., Ms. Maldonado leads prayer on Zoom for the entire school—including 188 students and 25 staff members. Students, who wear their school polo shirts, take turns doing the reading and responsorial psalm. Teachers take attendance, and if a student is not logged in to the call, parents get a phone call.

“But the children have been amazing. They have a good, positive attitude about all of this,” Ms. Maldonado said. “They’re having fun with and loving it because it’s new.”

Many of the parents work in health care, and some have contracted Covid-19 and have had to send their children to stay with other families while they quarantine themselves. In those cases, Ms. Maldonado said, teachers worked with aunts and uncles or grandparents to explain the online learning process.

Unfortunately, more than half of the school’s parents have been laid off during the pandemic. They have had a hard time keeping up with tuition, but the Archdiocese of New York has come through with funding to help make up the difference so far, Ms. Maldonado said.

Michael J. Deegan, superintendent of the 210 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York, said funding is an ongoing concern. The archdiocese, which has the second-largest Catholic school system in the country, supports schools through its Inner-City Scholarship Fund and is distributing thousands of Chromebooks to students. Mr. Deegan said his office accesses needs on an individual family basis. “We don’t want to lose anyone,” he said.

“No one could have prepared our school system for the coronavirus pandemic,” he said, “but we have the infrastructure and support to make it through. That includes our prayer and spiritual life, which continues to serve as the underpinning to everything we do.”

Mr. Deegan formed a health and safety task force for archdiocesan schools and is collaborating with a number of other archdiocesan agencies, like ArchCare, a service for the elderly, and Catholic Charities.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan has been sending out recorded messages for Catholic school students, Mr. Deegan said. For Easter, for example, Cardinal Dolan told students in a YouTube message “that we miss you in the schools and the programs, that we miss you in church, because the church buildings are closed. But Jesus is never closed. He’s always with us. And he’s especially with us in tough times.”

“During the first few days of isolation it became apparent that some of our families did not have enough technology for the number of children in the family.”

The Diocese of Fresno is also learning to adapt. It covers more than 90,000 square miles in the Central Valley, Calif., one of the greatest agricultural producing regions in the world. It is also home to 1.2 million Catholics.

The 21 Catholic schools in the diocese began offering online learning on March 16, according to Mona Faulker the superintendent of schools. Her office advised schools to begin preparing for digital classrooms and communication in mid-February to allow for the plans to be tested. As families came to pick up their children on the last day of school, March 13, teachers sent them home with the textbooks and technology they would need.

The following Monday, teachers began class on Google Classroom and Zoom. Those classes have continued, Ms. Faulker said, and students’ daily schedule includes music, physical education and art.

“During the first few days of isolation it became apparent that some of our families did not have enough technology for the number of children in the family,” Ms. Faulker said in an email to America. “Principals and teachers delivered additional iPads or Chromebooks to help those families, leaving them safely on the doorsteps.”

Schools have allowed parents to freeze tuition payments until the economy picks up, she said. “Our goal is to help families with every resource we can possibly afford,” she said. Last week counselors began small support groups to help students with the emotional burden of the pandemic, Ms. Faulker said. Most of the groups consist of high school students and “seniors particularly in need of support,” she said.

Her office also surveyed school families to check in on online education, Ms. Faulker said. “Overwhelmingly, families are so grateful and positive about the quality of the lessons and the level of communication they have had with our teachers,” she said. “We have had issues, as was to be expected, but we fix the problems and continue on. Education of these children is an essential service to our nation and of our Catholic faith.”

Like Fresno, schools in the Diocese of Dallas, Tex., are allowing Catholic school families to push back payments, according to Verónica Alonzo, associate superintendent for operations. “Even if they can’t pay, we’re still allowing them to finish out the school year,” she said. Thus far, they have not seen any “mass exodus” of families leaving schools.

"Education of these children is an essential service to our nation and of our Catholic faith.”

“Families are still here, but they need help,” Ms. Alonzo said, adding that schools have learned a lot over the last several weeks. They began by addressing technological needs: Does a school need devices and, if so, how many? The schools pooled resources and funding from the diocese to help school families.

Connectivity was another issue, Ms. Alonzo said. Schools surveyed families about mobile hotspots and wifi availability. One family, for example, struggled to connect to the internet because they live in a rural area and had to drive to a McDonald’s parking lot to get online.

Some parents have a hotspot, but have to take it with them to work. The city of Dallas made resources available to connect students to the internet, but some families needed help accessing the instructions. So schools walked them through it.

“Some families have internet, but with a large number of people using it, it gets bogged down,” Ms. Alonzo said. Teachers coordinate to spread classes over the day. Schools also use both synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (pre-recorded) methods, she said, which give students both interaction and the ability to learn on their own time.

“The next school year could be a combination of what we’re doing now and the more traditional classroom setting,” she said. Schools are preparing for various scenarios.

Teachers at St. Mary of Carmel School in Dallas have been proactive in meeting the needs of families, according to Kaitlyn Aguilar, the school’s principal. “Flexibility and compassion have been key tenets for our teachers at this time,” she said in an email to America. “We are flexible with due dates and ‘class’ zoom meetings, since we know students are sharing devices, working after parents are home, etc.”

Teachers called each family to check in and address expectations, she said. Every week, teachers have also incorporated family “meet ups” to facilitate communication with students and parents. The school is also doing food distribution and connects families in need with other nonprofit organizations that can help with food, utilities and other matters.

“These are trying times for all of us as we go through this unprecedented experience of closing schools to keep our community members safe,” Gail Richardson-Bassett, principal of Good Shepherd Catholic School in Garland, Tex., wrote in an email. “It has been an adjustment to go from a social environment where teachers and students interact with one another to one where learning experiences take place in isolation on a home computer.”

Her school was on spring break when she found out it would close to maintain social distancing, leaving educators little time to prepare for the change. But teachers have been creative, Ms. Richardson-Bassett said, finding online resources to continue their students’ education.

“As the weeks progress with no pay, families are struggling to meet their basic needs and they are unable to make their tuition payments." 

“Many of our students come from low-income Hispanic families that sacrifice to send their children to a Catholic school,” she said. “The pandemic meant many parents would not have any income because their employers were closing or had no work. Those who did have jobs had to find care for their children. Everything happened so fast it was a scramble to determine how to best meet the needs of our school community.”

Like Queen of Peace, Good Shepherd has a one-to-one laptop program for middle school students. Good Shepherd distributed the devices to the families that needed them, Ms. Richardson-Bassett said, and provided hotspots to families that did not have internet at home.

“Staff members have become tutors especially for the students whose families are Spanish speakers and are unable to help with lessons,” she said. School staffers are serving as contact points for families, routinely checking in to address their needs.

“The most frequent request is for help with tuition,” Ms. Richardson-Bassett said. “As the weeks progress with no pay, families are struggling to meet their basic needs and they are unable to make their tuition payments. We have waived those payments in order to provide some relief for those struggling in this difficult time.”

School staff members are serving families in many ways, she said, including personally delivering forgotten school items to their homes, assisting with food needs and facilitating Zoom meetings to continue the established sense of community.

“It’s been an adjustment for all of us and we know our primary purpose is to offer comfort and hope to our school families while maintaining a sense of normalcy in the education we offer their children,” Ms. Richardson-Bassett said. “In this unprecedented time, that changes every day.”

[Explore all of America’s in-depth coverage of the coronavirus pandemic]

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