Vanessa Luna is the co-founder and chief program officer of ImmSchools, an immigrant-led nonprofit transforming schools into safe and welcoming spaces for undocumented students and families in the K-12 system.
Marleny De la Cruz is a New York City immigrant parent of two students attending New York City Public Schools. She is a proud part of ImmSchools New York City family programs.
This school year was challenging for all of us, including our immigrant students and families. As New York City became the national epicenter of COVID-19 and schools closed, many immigrant families were disproportionately affected and struggled to support our children. The initial lack of access to technology made it difficult for our children to complete homework assignments, and the language barrier made it almost impossible for us as parents to support our students with their assignments. We witnessed teachers and school staff try their best to support us in this time of crisis while we underwent severe hardships.
Many of us lost our jobs, our family members got sick - both in New York City and in our home countries - and for those of us who are undocumented, we were not eligible for unemployment or most assistance programs provided by the government. We struggled to access our most basic needs and questioned what was the message the government was sending to us and our students when we are unable to receive support because of our immigration status. And with the rent moratorium set to expire in August, immigrant families’ anxiety is only growing as we try to scrape together money for rent and avoid becoming homeless.
Despite this uncertainty, we continued to seek educational opportunities for our students. We accessed resources, attended virtual family workshops, and were elated to be a part of virtual graduations that celebrated the accomplishments of our students and our larger immigrant community. Another bright spot was the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to temporarily protect DACA recipients, many who are part of our families and our larger immigrant community.
With the school year over, we wanted to reflect and offer recommendations for New York City educators, leaders and policymakers:
Ensure the school system is prioritizing the most vulnerable families. We must first support the most vulnerable families, those with fewer resources. For example, many of our families had access to only one computer at home during the school closure, which had to be shared by two or three school-age siblings. Other families’ children were forced to use a cell phone to join online classes and complete assignments, all while working in a small often crowded apartment, which was nearly impossible. While we deeply benefitted from accessing iPads, for some of our families this process was difficult, with language barriers and limited technology literacy complicating families’ ability to properly complete the request forms which often delayed students’ access to virtual learning.
The safety of our children must be the priority. We must ensure our children are safe from COVID-19 when returning to summer school and in the Fall. We have to be informed and prepared before we risk the health of our children who are attending summer school. For those of us who have students with disabilities or with an Individualized Education Plan, we have to choose between the health and well being of our child or the fear that they are going to be left behind. We need more clarity before we feel comfortable having our children return to school for summer courses and in the fall. In addition, we want to know the plan to support the social and emotional well being of our students, as many have experienced challenges not only as a response to the pandemic but also in the fight against racism and the threat to Black peoples’ lives.
Include immigrant families in reopening plans. From a hybrid school arrangement to massive budgets to social distancing, we know there are many plans in place and others that are still being considered. A staggered school schedule, in which students alternate hours or days that they physically attend school, concerns immigrant parents. What would it mean for a parent who has to take whatever job they can get right now just to make ends meet, and possibly have to pay someone for childcare? Our families must be able to share these concerns to ensure plans are inclusive of our community.
Improve communication and have a clear message. We are hearing contradictory messages from education leaders across the city, which can often lead to confusion about what is actually occurring within our schools. A uniform message that is transparent and has been informed by parents and students should be what we continue to strive for even in this moment of crisis.
While there may not be a perfect way for New York City schools to reopen in the Fall, we must prioritize the voices of those who have been hardest hit during the pandemic. As the largest school district in the country, we have a tremendous opportunity to work together and lead the effort in reimagining how public schools can be more inclusive and supportive of immigrant and undocumented students and their families.
Vanessa Luna is the co-founder and chief program officer of
ImmSchools, an immigrant-led nonprofit transforming schools into safe and welcoming spaces for undocumented students and families in the K-12 system.