By Paola Gilliam, December 8, 2021
Many Opportunity Culture districts serve significant numbers of students whose families speak primarily Spanish. How did the spring 2020 shift to remote learning affect them, and did they have any new educational experiences that they wish would continue post-pandemic? We interviewed a parent and child from seven families in five Opportunity Culture districts—from small rural to large city districts—to find out.
And what we heard reinforced what we hear in all Opportunity Culture schools, pandemic or not—it all comes down to relationships and communication. Families told us what challenges they confronted, and what successes they hope continue.
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Victor Tebalan (far right), Lidia Paredes, and family.
Challenge: Language Barriers
mother of Brandon Weaver, Indianapolis Public Schools had a double vantage point on how schools responded to Covid. As a bilingual administrative assistant at Lew Wallace School 107 in Indianapolis and parent of a first-grader at the school, Perez saw firsthand how the pandemic disrupted traditional forms of communication and left staff feeling strapped.
“At first it was hard for everyone—for us at the office and all the technology and everything,” Perez said. That was true at most schools, of course—but, Perez said, it was compounded by the language barriers in her school with families from 37 countries, speaking 21 languages.
As schools scrambled to support their students and educators at a distance, many provided technology and meal services. But some Spanish-speaking families, especially initially, missed out on remote learning updates from the school, such as mother of Derek Aguilar Orellana, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the mother of a fifth-grader in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. [Orellana de Aguilar’s quotes, like all other parents quoted here except Perez, have been translated from her interview conducted in Spanish.]
“I truly did not know that the school was giving computers or some type of help,” she said, so she bought a new laptop so her son could participate in remote learning.
Orellana de Aguilar had planned to take English classes at her local community college, but when students were sent home, she had to give that up.
“For us Hispanic moms, it has been very difficult because of the English,” she said. “I had to be here so that I could pay attention and help him with the homework, so I had to abandon my English classes because I did not have time for anything.”
Kania Orellana de Aguilar: “For us Hispanic moms, it has been very difficult because of the English. Even though I have looked for places that can be accessible to me, which is why I applied to CPCC [a community college] because it was from 12 to 2, and at 2 I would leave for work. But it was because my son was going to be in school. Because that didn’t happen then I had to stay home. But because things were so difficult at the beginning, and he tried to connect and the connection would fall, so I had to be here so that I could pay attention and help him with the homework, so I had to abandon my English classes because I did not have time for anything.”
mother of Helen Toro, North Little Rock School District, a mother in the North Little Rock School District of Arkansas, also found the language barrier difficult. She was still learning English after she and her daughter moved to the United States three years ago, but she had another problem that made it difficult to support her daughter with remote learning.
“They would call me or write me via message, but I don’t understand much about the internet and those things because I didn’t go to school—I only went until first grade and I know how to read [Spanish but not English],” Toro said.
Despite this limitation, Toro helps her daughter in the areas that she’s familiar with.
“Right now, the problem I’m having with her is that she can’t really read and she’s struggling a lot because of that,” she said. “But when I’m here with her, I take a book in Spanish. And I read with her, I tell her, and she repeats what I read. It’s more complicated for me—what I help her the most with is the numbers and with learning how to read, and I can’t do more because I didn’t go to school.”
Maria Sarai Toro: “But the teacher did tell me that there are things that she — more than anything is the English. Right now, the problem I’m having with her is that she can’t really read and she’s struggling a lot because of that, because she forgets. But when I’m here with her, I take a book in Spanish and I read with her. I tell her, and she repeats what I read.”
For Videncia Acosta Rodriguez and her son, Isaac Leonel Canales, a mid-pandemic move within Charlotte meant Isaac switched schools after the 2020–21 school year began. At his previous school, Acosta Rodriguez said, she had a great connection with a Spanish-speaking teacher who would keep her up to date with school news. But she struggled to get her son connected to classes at his new school. Even after his English-speaking uncle helped him get into his remote classes, she could not form a connection with teachers or other school staff.
“Because with his new teachers, there really isn’t much communication, not really, none,” Acosta Rodriguez said. “I called once and I asked them, and they told me that they were going to release [information] in Spanish, but it was never released… And if you call the school, they almost always only answer in English and, and just like that, there is no communication.”
Success: A Go-To Staff Member and Regular Communication
Having a Spanish-speaking staff member as their school’s point person was essential to many parents during the pandemic. They could receive school updates or guidance on technology, ask questions about their child’s education, and communicate issues that teachers or other staff needed to know.
“I have the translator whom I contact all the time, and I ask her questions,” mother of Veronica Cruz Rodriguez, Vance County Schools, a mother in Vance County, North Carolina, said. “She tells me that she will look into it right away with the teacher to see what is going on today, and then she informs me.”
Spanish-speaking school staff could also help facilitate teacher-family relationships by translating during online parent-teacher conferences.
The English-speaking teacher of mother of Derek Aguilar Orellana, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’s son used a messaging app that translated from English to Spanish.
“She helped us a lot,” Orellana de Aguilar said. “She was always on top of everything. And I think that she did a lot, because whatever happened, she would get in touch with us. If the Zoom wasn’t working, I would send her a message and she really tried to help with everything.”
Even without the language barrier, for parents who were comfortable speaking English or who had a family member who could translate, it was comforting to have their child’s teacher regularly check in with them and provide updates.
mother of Brandon Weaver, Indianapolis Public Schools applauds the teacher support she experienced. “She was always, ‘All right, do you have any questions? Or do you want to stay here and do it with me? I can help you if you don’t know how to do this.’ So, she was great.”
One school put updates for families on WhatsApp, a messaging app commonly used in other countries—which can be more familiar to immigrants or to those who use it to communicate with family and friends in other countries.
Challenge: Tech Platform Obstacles for Spanish-Speaking Families
With school buildings closed, educators had to rely on email, phone apps, and other technology to communicate—but parents and students who lacked experience with these platforms prior to the pandemic say they were left in the dark.
“We were not able to connect face-to-face with the teachers with this password they gave us,” said mother of Victor Tebalan, Edgecombe County Public Schools, a mother in North Carolina’s Edgecombe County Public Schools. “None of [my kids] could, and I would call the teachers and tell them to explain it to the kids over the phone because I don’t know how.”
Information about how to connect was going to her husband’s email, but he was at work and unable to help the children log on.
Eventually, teachers did get her children connected. But other parents interviewed also said they lacked their own email address, required by most platforms to create an account.
“Sometimes the lady calls me and tells me, but how am I going to join if I honestly don’t understand that or emails?” said mother of Helen Toro, North Little Rock School District
To help, the school would send Toro’s fifth-grade daughter, Helen, physical copies of her work. Though these were helpful, Toro said that they were not able to complete them all because they could not understand all of them. Fortunately, the school reopened for in-person learning in fall 2020.
Maria Sarai Toro: “At the beginning of the pandemic, when they chose virtual, well they, they couldn’t because we didn’t have internet. And that’s why they would send us the homework sheets that she needed to do. Well, she would do the ones she could because sometimes we also don’t understand very much. But the ones that she could do, she would hand them in to the school.”
When parents struggled, it was often up to their students to figure out remote learning—on platforms that were often new and unfamiliar.
“I have to get accustomed to the system, and, like, I didn’t know how everything worked until like they explained it even more,” said Derek Aguilar Orellana, the fifth-grade son of Kania Orellana de Aguilar.
Lisdenia Juarez, a fifth-grader in North Little Rock School District, also struggled with remote learning at first. “I didn’t understand what to do—it was very complicated,” she said.
Success: Time Set Aside for Technology Training
As the school year progressed passed, most teachers and schools got better at technology and communicating how to use it during remote learning.
Parents said they especially appreciated when schools set up safe, in-person time to show students and parents how to use their laptops and the needed services for classes.
“I went to Phillips [Middle] School with an appointment, and I met the teachers in every class, and they explained to [my son] how they were going to connect,” mother of Victor Tebalan, Edgecombe County Public Schools said. “Each teacher was talking to him. … Then we all went by their classrooms, and each one gave him a piece of paper where there is a code that says where they are going to go at such-and-such time. They explained what they were going to do each hour they were online and the time they are going to be studying.”
Lidia Paredes: “I went to Phillips School with an appointment, and I met the teachers in every class, and they explained to him how they were going to connect, because the kids understand more than me. Each teacher was talking to him, and there are also male teachers, there are both men and women. Then we all went by their classrooms, and each one gave him a piece of paper where there is a code that says where they are going to go at such-and-such time. They explained what they were going to do each hour they were online and the time they are going to be studying. For example, Victor will be studying with such-and-such teacher at such-and-such time, and with such-and-such teacher at such-and-such time. They explained to him. They also taught him how to get into the Chromebook.”
The schools had translators available to explain it all to her in Spanish, Paredes said.
mother of Brandon Weaver, Indianapolis Public Schools said school staff also visited students at home to provide support.
“Our teachers are awesome, like they used to even go to kids’ houses, even with the pandemic, and they help them to log in, because we have some kids that don’t have transportation,” she said.
As an administrative assistant at her school, she also had experience helping parents with technology issues over the phone. Once staff returned to school, parents were encouraged to come in for help.
At Veronica Cruz Rodriguez’s school, video tutorials for the different websites and platforms that students needed to use were helpful, even for students who felt tech-savvy. A fifth-grader in Vance County, Veronica has been using some of the programs since first grade, so she was quite familiar with the platforms used for remote learning.
“They did a video on how to do everything, and then some of it we already knew,” she said. “They told us every single detail on how to use a computer.”
Keeping technology simple and accessible helped ease communication and technology mishaps throughout remote learning. Most districts were able to provide either internet hotspots in neighborhoods or directly to families if they needed it.
Families and students also appreciated when schools tried to reduce the number of websites and apps needed to keep track of student work.
To keep it simple, one school had students use the same Zoom link for classes with different teachers, with teachers, not students, changing from one class to the next.
Challenge: Helping Children Stay Focused on Academics
Parents noticed it was hard to keep children focused while learning at home. Some children had younger siblings at home who distracted them. If teachers didn’t keep students continuously engaged, they could get bored and lose focus—sometimes leaving their virtual classes or playing online games during class. Some students lacked enough challenging work to keep their attention, while others lacked enough support to keep up.
mother of Derek Aguilar Orellana, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools wished teachers could keep her son engaged better. She noticed he would complete his work or tests quickly, then have little to do while his classmates finished. He filled some of the time with more online games than he played pre-pandemic. She acknowledged just how challenging it must be for her son to be online all day, since she had experience working online at a previous job.
“I felt bad because of this change, of course, because they were not used to being in front of the computer all the time. I felt like he was very tired—for the kids, it was a little bit tedious,” Orellana de Aguilar said. “And I just thought to myself that well, yes, the academic standards had to be met but that they should not be too rigorous because that would cause more stress, and in fact it did. And I would imagine to myself, well, one thing is to have to deal with one or two children, maybe three, but there are people here that have up to five children. So then, people had to face the problem of the computers and that they could not be helping one child because then the other one needed help.”
mother of Victor Tebalan, Edgecombe County Public Schools also saw that while her sixth-grade son usually stayed focused on class, her two other sons seemed distracted much more often. One son who was struggling academically particularly worried her during remote learning. And despite trying to keep a quiet learning environment at home, it was hard to remove all distractions, such as a younger sister who wanted to be with them.
mother of Brandon Weaver, Indianapolis Public Schools said that while things improved over time, when virtual learning began, her son “was getting very stressed, like to be at home all of the time and then, like, be in front of the camera for like hours, it was real hard.” Feeling very anxious and unable to focus, her son needed to move around, she said—which she heard about many other students as well.
Even students who felt engaged in their virtual classes shared how tiresome online learning was.
“I don’t like to sit in the house with a computer in front of me,” Victor Tebalan, Paredes’ sixth-grade son, said. “I don’t want to sit in front of a computer because it’s kind of boring.”
Success: Strategies to Make Remote Learning Engaging
Although several parents highlighted the challenge of keeping their kids engaged, families also saw improvement here. Both parents and teachers quickly noticed that students needed a break from long periods of remote learning, and many made adjustments from spring 2020, when the focus was on resolving technology issues, to the following fall. mother of Brandon Weaver, Indianapolis Public Schools said her son’s teacher began incorporating some fun “brain breaks.”
Esther Perez: “When we started like going virtual, he was getting very stressed, like to be at home all of the time, and then be like in front of the camera for like hours, it was really hard. So he was like, “I need to go to the restroom,” and he was like moving around and he was like, like very anxious and not focusing, and I know from other parents that it was the same with most of the kids. So parents were not very happy about it, but then of course yeah, we were safe and it got better. For him, the second, like the beginning of the semester when we went virtual, there was a big difference. I mean, he was excited, he was waking up, getting ready, getting breakfast, and then the schedule was more, more breaks, like the teachers, his teacher is awesome, like she was giving them like, ‘OK, now let’s dance, like for 10 minutes’ so they were like dancing and playing and singing for 10 minutes and then, they come back to class and then now do this independent work.”
Brandon Weaver: “They say it’s a ‘brain break’.“
Esther: “It’s a brain break, yeah, so it was much better.”
“For him, the beginning of the [fall] semester when we went virtual, there was a big difference,” she said. “I mean, he was excited, he was waking up, getting ready, getting breakfast… His teacher is awesome, like she was giving them [more breaks] like, ‘OK, now let’s dance, like for 10 minutes.’”
Other teachers engaged their students by incorporating games into class activities or using them as a reward for finishing work early.
Students said they enjoyed getting shout-outs or rewards for staying motivated, completing work, and attending regularly. Some students even had teachers who delivered or mailed diplomas, certificates, and prizes.
Students noticed and appreciated when teacher kept a sense of normalcy and maintained prior routines.
“They would greet me every morning, and they never missed a good morning or a good afternoon,” Victor Tebalan said.
Students said it also helped when teachers acknowledged how challenging the pandemic is and showed compassion.
“[My teacher] tried to put a lot of effort, and she kept telling us, ‘I know it’s hard for you guys, because you guys are in a different environment other than school,’” Derek Aguilar Orellana said. “She kept telling us, ‘it’s OK to take your time’…as in, if you get frustrated or something, or something happens that doesn’t work for you, just take a little mental break.”
Success: Extra Academic Support
Some schools were able to create academic supports for students during remote learning and the pandemic.
In Vance County, Veronica Cruz Rodriguez went to a virtual summer camp in 2020 that broke students into two groups focused on reading during the academic portion of the day.
“They helped us with, like, the word’s definition, the character, the big, long words and everything. And once we were out of the group, we came back together, and then we went outside every single time we were about to finish; we would play like a Kahoot game.”
Veronica’s mother found the virtual camp gave her daughter a boost.
“I think they did have fun, even though they were at home, right?” she said. “They even brought her a lot of gifts, since she was the one who won the first place in the summer classes, and yes, [she] enjoyed it, too, because they were happy there studying.”
Edgecombe County Public Schools began a small learning hub program during remote learning. A small group of students could go to a school to receive in-person academic support from teachers. One of mother of Victor Tebalan, Edgecombe County Public Schools’ sons was struggling academically during remote learning, and a teacher recommended he attend the hub.
Once students began to return to in-person learning, some schools also offered tutoring to students.
Challenge: Illness and Isolation
Despite the loneliness and frustrations of learning remotely, families noted the need to stay safe from Covid and the stress that the fear of catching it created.
“I felt, like, worried and then somehow the teacher said, ‘Y’all can find information about this virus,’ and I saw that it could come so hard [and] it could affect a lot of people,” Veronica Cruz Rodriguez said.
Kania Orellana de Aguilar: “Because of what was happening with this sudden change and the situation with the children, well, for us personally and also based on what I talked about with other friends, the main thing was the fear, right? And so, to be able to overcome that and the balance of fear with reality and getting used to everything little by little. I think this happened to all of us. So then, that’s the situation that we had. My son did not even want to go to the door. So, for a long time he did not want to go out because he said that that’s where the coronavirus was and that he was going to die.”
For mother of Victor Tebalan, Edgecombe County Public Schools , the fears hit home when she tested positive in February 2021.
“I told my husband, ‘If I have it, I think everyone at home has it because we are living in the same house.’”
Her sons’ school district had opened for in-person learning the month before.
“I couldn’t leave the house, and neither could the children. I didn’t send them to school, but I sent them to do the test, and during that time something happened that I didn’t expect.”
Soon after she tested positive for Covid and her family was quarantined, Paredes said, their area’s internet went down, so her children lost the ability to work remotely for three days. The district sent work packets to them, but their isolation continued for a total of 20 days after they all tested positive.
Lidia Paredes: “I contacted a teacher and told her ‘There is something seriously wrong.’ I told her: ‘I am positive for the virus and so are the children. We have no internet, no home phone, only my husband’s cell phone and my cell phone.’ And I told them ‘There is nothing we can do. The children, they can’t study, because I can’t take them anywhere, because they are infected.’ And at home I told them that we are going to have to wait until the internet signal comes back. And the teacher told me ‘It’s okay, don’t worry, let them do homework like in books or on sheets of paper.'”
For two students interviewed, a mid-pandemic move to a new school with remote learning heightened the usual school adjustments.
Derek Aguilar Orellana had moved from New Jersey to Charlotte in 2019, and moved to a second school in the district for the 2020–21 school year.
“And he told me that he did not want to go to that school, that he wanted to stay in the other school,” his mother, Kania Orellana de Aguilar, said. “It was not easy, you know, because of the situation.”
Parents all said their students wanted to get back into the classroom.
“I wanted to go back to school because the teachers can’t wait for us to go back,” Victor Tebalan said. “They missed all of us because they wanted their classes full of students.”
Even parents who were concerned about sending their children back to in-person learning often relented for their children’s happiness.
“I sent her because she would cry a lot,” mother of Helen Toro, North Little Rock School District said about her daughter. “She would say that she wanted to go to school, that she didn’t want to stay.”
Though Antonia Rodriguez Muñoz, Veronica’s mother, was satisfied with her daughter’s remote-learning experience, she knew what her daughter was missing.
“They miss out on many friendships there, spending time with the children, playing and everything, and here, they are here studying,” she said. “It’s not the same.”
Though schools offered services, such as free meals, during remote learning, some parents still faced challenges to access them.
Esther Perez: “I know one fact that were like preventing some students and parents from keeping the kids at home is also food, like lunch or breakfast; if they go to school they have the option, right, they have breakfast and lunch and we have a lot of kids from different status and some of them, I mean, if they don’t go to school sometimes they don’t have access to all of the meals, so it is hard. I know they offer meals and everything but sometimes transportation for parents is hard.”
Success: Kindness and Connection from Educators and School Staff
Even with everything families had to balance at home, parents said they trusted that schools and educators were doing their best. Many appreciated the efforts schools and educators made to support them. They acknowledged how much good teachers could improve their students’ moods, even during virtual learning.
Families and students consistently highlighted educators’ and staff members’ kindness and helpfulness during the pandemic. Despite the time it took everyone to adjust to pandemic life, the compassion and patience schools and families showed each other improved families’ experiences with schools, strengthening their bonds.
“We are all learning a lot—the community and the schools,” mother of Brandon Weaver, Indianapolis Public Schools said. “Our teachers are awesome, too.” Teachers delivered books, supplies, and prizes to students, to encourage patience and motivation on all sides.
For mother of Derek Aguilar Orellana, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, whose son had recently started a new school, it was reassuring to be welcomed, especially during the pandemic.
“And since the moment that I went there in-person, I was well-treated by the secretary…the attention that we got from them was good given the situation and the fear,” she said.
While she and her family quarantined while sick with Covid, mother of Victor Tebalan, Edgecombe County Public Schools was surprised and touched at the thoughtfulness of the staff at one son’s school.
“They would call me, and they were worried about our son, and they were sending him letters,” she said. “They left him a box, [and they said] that they hoped to see him soon, and they brought him these little things, like lemon tea, and actually that’s what I was giving them when they were all sick… And that was what I really liked about the school. Something that had never happened before because we hadn’t been in a pandemic.”
Success: Creating the Potential for Future Remote Learning
Though all the students were excited to get back in person, several parents acknowledged the potential usefulness of remote learning in the future.
When a few districts faced severe weather, remote learning was more accessible, leaving parents thankful their children could stay safe and learn at home.
Parents also mentioned that a remote learning option would be useful for days when students have medical appointments, keeping parents from making multiple trips to school. Similarly, a parent mentioned that remote learning could be useful for families with transportation challenges.
Lidia Paredes: “I said now they are going to study at home. See it’s good, both things. To be studying at school and here, in case something like an illness like this happens, and we can’t see anybody, we can’t leave the house. So, then we can do the Internet.”
Meet the Families We Interviewed
Two families had students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, North Carolina’s largest school district, which serves over 147,000 students, of whom about 13 percent are English language learners.
When the district went remote in spring 2020, it continued to provide meals, technology, and hot spots for families to pick up if needed. The district opened fully for in-person learning in March 2021.
Derek Aguilar Orellana was in fifth grade at the time of his interview. His mother, Kania Orellana de Aguilar, whose interview was conducted in Spanish, works nights and was the primary person helping Derek with remote learning at home. She was planning to take English classes at her local community college but had to stop to support Derek with online learning. Her husband works during the day and is fluent in English.
After the family moved from New Jersey to Charlotte before Covid struck, they moved again during the pandemic, which meant Derek began at another school in fifth grade. In New Jersey, he received a scholarship to play on a competitive soccer team, but his parents have had trouble finding a new team for Derek to join in Charlotte. Derek is fluent in both English and Spanish and was interviewed in English. He has a 24-year-old brother.
Isaac Leonel Canales was in third grade when he was interviewed with his mother, both in Spanish. His mother, Videncia Acosta Rodriguez, was the primary person supporting Isaac while he attended school remotely. She has a brother whose children attend the same school, who translated messages from Isaac’s teachers and helped the family stay connected to the school.
Isaac moved from one Charlotte-Mecklenburg school to another in October 2020. He shared that once he returned to in-person school, he was feeling more comfortable with English. He has a preschool-age sister.
Isaac Leonel Canales and family
Victor Tebalan was in sixth grade in Edgecombe County Public Schools when he was interviewed. His mother, Lidia Paredes, was the primary person supporting Victor and his siblings with remote learning. She was interviewed in Spanish.
Edgecombe County Public Schools, a rural North Carolina district serving over 6,000 students, provided hot spots throughout the district during school closures and distributed technology to students, and delivered meals to families twice a week. The district also provided some in-person support to students who needed it by creating learning hubs, small groups of students supported by educators during remote learning. The district opened for in-person learning in January 2021.
Victor, who was interviewed in English, has a younger brother and an older brother also in the district, and a preschool-age sister. One of his brothers attended a learning hub during the pandemic.
Brandon Weaver was in second grade in Indianapolis Public Schools when he was interviewed; his mother, Esther Perez, is an administrative assistant at Brandon’s school, and her position went remote along with the rest of the school in spring 2020. She returned to work in person before the school reopened to students. She and Brandon are both fluent in Spanish and English and were interviewed in English. Brandon has adult siblings.
Indianapolis Public Schools, Indiana’s second-largest school district, serves about 23,000 students, of whom about 22 percent are English language learners. The district distributed meals from school parking lots when schools closed; in-person classes restarted in February 2021.
Two families had students in the North Little Rock School District, which serves about 9,000 students. The Arkansas district provided meals, computers, and hot spots for families as needed during school closures; students returned to in-person learning in fall 2020.
Lisdenia Juarez was in fifth grade when she was interviewed; she is fluent in Spanish and English and was interviewed in Spanish with her mother, Jeidy Santos.
Helen Toro was in fifth grade when she was interviewed in Spanish with her mother, Maria Sarai. Maria, who was interviewed in Spanish, was the primary person supporting Helen with remote learning. Helen has an eight-year-old brother who also attends school in the district and a three-year-old brother.
Helen Toro and her mother, Maria
Veronica Cruz Rodriguez was a fifth-grader in Vance County Schools when she was interviewed in English; her mother, Antonia Rodriguez Muñoz, was interviewed in Spanish. Veronica has an adult sister, and two other sisters in district schools, one in middle and one in elementary.
Vance County Schools, a rural North Carolina district on the Virginia border, serves about 6,000 students, about 14 percent of whom are English language learners. The district provided meals and laptops for families to pick up during school closures, and placed Wi-Fi-connected buses around the district. It reopened for in-person learning in March 2021.
Veronica Cruz Rodriguez and her mother, Antonia