How can you keep school children—not to mention their whole families—healthy and academically engaged during the pandemic? And how can this crisis serve as a catalyst for greater civic engagement?
These are the kinds of questions a Spanish-language school reopening webinar sponsored by UnidosUS and the National Education Association (NEA) sought to answer this month with a panel of Latinx educators and leaders across several states. It opened with a pre-recorded video of a Latinx family in Miami finding creative ways to do just that.
In the video, Sofy Encanto introduces herself as a U.S. citizen hailing from Honduras, a professional musician and front woman for the local “Latin funk” band Elastic Bond, and the mother of Class of 2020 high school graduate Yorel Romans. For years, music has been backbone of her family’s income, with Sofy getting some of her money from music teaching and mentoring through programs such as Guitars Over Guns, and the other part through live performances. But the pandemic cancelled live, in-person music shows, leaving her scrambling to make ends meet.
Music is also the area of study Yorel pursued through the Miami Arts Charter School and continues to develop through Miami Dade Community College. Sofy has had him on lockdown throughout the pandemic because he has asthma, putting him at a higher risk for navigating the infection.
“It was tough at first because music is something you usually play in person with other people,” says Sofy, explaining that the Yorel and his classmates had to pre-record themselves and then try and match their respective song parts digitally when they met online. But she also showed her determination in helping her son reach his academic and professional goals by practicing with him at home. In fact, the video depicts her and Yorel performing a jazzy, indigenous-inspired number called “The Curandera,” or “The Healer.”
In typical kid fashion, Yorel chides his mom on the speed of the piece, complaining at one point that it wasn’t a waltz, but soon the two fall into a rhythm until the song becomes downright soulful.
The same could be said of the way the two are working on family and civic engagement.
In the video, viewers can see Yorel and his mother filling out the census and ensuring they’re both registered to vote.
Yorel just turned 18, so this will mark his first time voting, and he says today’s tumultuous political climate has reinforced his decision to do so.
“I’m not exactly excited, but it is a very important decision,” he says.
“I believe the Latinx community has been very affected by this pandemic. It’s impacted us economically and also taken a toll on our mental and physical health,” affirms Sofy. “I think it’s very important that we’re directly involved in the Democratic process like this so that we can see which leaders have our rights and our well–being in mind.”
The kind of civic engagement depicted in the video fell right in line with what the webinar organizers want Latinx families to be doing as they navigate this fall’s pandemic back-to-school landscape and as some of them—or their own loved ones—head to the polls for the 2020 elections. Representatives of both UnidosUS and NEA used the rest of the webinar to help those families come up with the best strategies, relying on a series of short chats to cover the most common themes.
Educators and Parents as Joint Advocates
At the onset of the pandemic, parents like Sofy were scrambling to get the information they needed about how to get their kids in school or online, all while learning the latest information on coronavirus and its spread, and struggling to figure out what to do in the case of lost wages. But these are all services the UnidosUS Affiliate Network can help to provide.
Maria Garavito, director of the UnidosUS parent engagement for the UnidosUS Affiliate
Hispanic Services Council in Tampa, quickly worked to produce Zoom meetings and make regular calls to families to address those needs. Soon, she and her staff were helping parents figure sources of income, reduced or free food, medical attention, and to troubleshoot with the technology they or their children might need to keep working and studying.
“The result was that the people who received adequate and relevant information in the moment they needed it reduced their stress and were able to make better decisions for their families and for themselves,” Garavito said.
This outreach also required that Hispanic Services Council liaise with schools. In fact, she recommended that schools take full advantage of community organizations like hers to facilitate culturally relevant communication. This helps to ensure that contact with families comes in all the most common forms—phone calls, emails, text messages, WhatsApp chats—and in the preferred language of those families.
Noel Candelaria, NEA’s Secretary-Treasurer, shared on their similar support network from a national perspective. Back in May, the teacher’s union published a guide called “All Hands on Deck” with the goal of being well-prepared for the summer session and upcoming schoolyear. It also created a landing page called EducatingThroughCrisis.org, which offers useful information on navigating back-to-school in the context of COVID-19, blended learning options, mitigating the trauma of the pandemic and its reinforcement of systematic racism and inequality, and tracking COVID-19 cases in one’s community.
“We all want the schools to reopen, but we want them to do it in a way that accounts for the wellbeing of everyone,” said Candelaria.
He also noted that every 30 seconds, a Latino turns 18 in the United States, and he wants them all to do what Yorel did: Register to vote.
“They are the future of our Latino community, the future of our children, and the future of our country,” said Candelaria.
But 18-year-olds aren’t the only ones who should be doing it, he says, noting that there are some 32 million eligible Latino voters in the United States.
Community Advocates and Leadership Support
As the only Latina sitting on the Orange County School Board in Orlando, Johanna Lopez knows what it takes to push for many of these aforementioned information–sharing and engagement strategies. Thankfully—and thanks in part to the efforts of educators like herself, a former school teacher in the district—Orlando is a tech-savvy, metropolitan region where just about all students have access to a laptop or tablet for online learning, and most school communications are available commonly spoken languages. In addition to English, those include Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole.
Through that technology and those languages, Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) was quickly able to create a series of surveys asking parents about their preferences for in-person verses various models of remote learning. Additionally, they worked with a medical committee and a mental health team to provide information and support to students, staff, and families.
The surveys and other outreach efforts informed the school board and the district that teachers giving online class instruction and in person need extra supports. They also learned that they needed to provide parents with some technological training and reassure them that “it’s not their job to be the teacher.”
The question which most impassioned Lopez was when moderator Jorge Narváez, a parent of two school children and founder of the family video blog series Reality Changers, asked Lopez: “How important are school board elections for the Latino community?”
“My Lord, this is a huge determinant. I really appreciate that question. It’s very important to vote for a president, but it’s also important that we cast votes for the members of the school board,” she responded. “The school board is the voice of the parents. It’s the voice of the people. There has to be a genuine commitment between the members of the school board and the community. Through this, we can make sure they develop initiatives and approve budgets, and that they represent for the public community and at the state level the needs of our students.”
María Paula Zapata, associate director of educational programs at the UnidosUS Affiliate Conexión Américas in Nashville, Tennessee, spends much of her time helping parents feel confident in engaging those school boards, as well as the teachers and staff at their children’s schools.
“First I want to thank the parents in our community and tell them that their work is more important than ever,” Zapata said. “I also want to say it’s totally normal to feel exhausted, confused, and maybe even a bit angry in this moment We’re all going through something that’s totally new, and it’s very uncomfortable.”
But she also told parents to be persistent, even when the answers to their questions don’t come right away.
“All those times that you’re calling and insisting and saying, ‘I don’t know,’ it’s for the love of your children,” she said.
And while she noted that many people have a love-hate relationship with technology, parents need to make sure they have an active email and that all their other contact information is up to date so that they can keep the lines of communication open with schools and other community leaders.
“Do everything you can to stay informed. Information is always power, especially in this moment” said Zapata. “The more you know about your district and the changes, the more you’ll be able to use this power to advocate for your children, your community, your school, and everything else you need.”
She said parents should expect to be receiving lots of surveys right now, so if they aren’t, that’s a telling sign they may need to double check the contact information they have on file.
Tools for Advocacy
UnidosUS Education Policy Analyst Tania Valencia likened the processes and procedures highlighted throughout the webinar as a map, since that’s a common visual tool for considering community changes.
“It would be difficult, if not impossible for a member of that community to create their community maps alone,” she said, noting that parents can begin their map by asking schools about their forms of communication. In addition to calling, emailing, and texting, she noted that schools can make use of mass media such as newspapers, radio, television, and social media channels.
Then, Valencia and UnidosUS Florida Policy Analyst Raisa Sequeira offered a list of questions that parents can ask schools about the logistics of today’s school options, such as online, in-person, or a hybrid version of the two, especially since those options may vary throughout the pandemic.
Those include questions like these:
- Who in the school will be physically present or assisting the students virtually?
- How will my child’s schedule change?
- How will the districts or schools monitor students and or employees with signs of COVID-19?
- What will the school do in the event of a case of COVID-19?
- How will the students safely move through the facilities, including the halls, bathrooms, stairs, entryways, gyms, and cafeterias?
- What measures are the schools taking to reduce class sizes?
- Do schools need to hire additional staff to meet the needs of English learners and students with disabilities?
- How will school staff facilitate trauma-informed attention centered on the mental health of students, families, and employees in person or remotely?
- Is the school district or the school providing the technology and corresponding training students and teachers need to engage in online learning?
- How will students who depend on free or reduced meals receive this food when they aren’t physically at the school? The event wrapped with one final 2020 civic engagement call from Narvaez.
The event wrapped with one final 2020 civic engagement call from Narváez. He said he hoped parents felt more informed, prepared, and motivated to engage their school systems, but add “advocacy doesn’t end there.” He then asked the audience to find ways to engage their elected officials at the state and federal level.
He asked the audience to consider doing so by registering to vote and then voting, filling out the census, which helps to direct funds and resources to the communities who need them most, and asking Congress to pass the HEROES Act, a piece of legislation that could have provided the funds needed for many of the supports covered in this webinar.
A few things have changed since that October 5 presentation, but there are still plenty of ways to engage the political system, Sequeira told ProgressReport.co in a follow-up interview this week. For example, the deadline to fill out the census had been moved back to October 31, but on October 13, the Supreme Court granted the Trump administration’s request to halt the Census count, as appeals to continue it play out in lower courts. Last May, the House of Representatives passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES), originally a $2.2 trillion stimulus package aimed at responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with supports for small businesses, paycheck protection, bolstered funds for education and childcare, and more. It then passed an updated version of the bill worth $3 trillion on October 1, but conversations around pandemic-era stimulus money have stalled in the Senate. And while voter registration deadlines to vote in the general election have passed in many states, those who are registered can vote by mail or head to the polls for early voting ahead of November 3, which is the official 2020 Election Day.
“Although the census has closed, as a community, we still have the power to shape the outcome of our local, state, and federal elections. Over 60 million Americans have already voted and young voters are making their voices heard in great numbers,” Valencia told ProgressReport.co in a follow-up interview. “Latino families know that so much is at stake this November with direct impacts to education. Make a plan to vote safely and securely and continue to call your Senators to support the HEROES Act.”