NEW YORK CITY — Trina Haque had always felt it: the glare from others, the slight change in tone in a conversation when it became clear that she couldn’t speak English fluently. But the pandemic brought it even closer to home: Her children told her she could be of no help with their remote learning because of the language barrier.
Haque, a Bangladeshi immigrant who has lived in New York City for 15 years, said although not speaking English was an underlying challenge before the pandemic, it was often mitigated by meeting with her children’s teachers in person, where something as simple as body language would be able to help get the point across. But with that option gone during remote teaching, the challenges of her language barrier became even more pronounced.
Haque hasn’t been alone in this struggle during the pandemic. As stay-at-home orders pushed schools into the tricky-to-navigate territory of remote learning, many immigrant mothers say they felt the weight of it disproportionately. The pandemic and remote learning led to students falling behind across the board, with students of color often falling further behind than their White peers. For many families who migrated to the United States for better education opportunities for their children, this drop in standards and participation can be especially frustrating.
Dennis Morales, who is finishing his first year of teaching at the Dreamyard Preparatory High School in the Bronx, said he has witnessed a heavier weight on mothers when it comes to taking care of their children’s education.
“In certain cultures, there are these power dynamics, these power structures where females are supposed to be the ones who take care of the kids,” he said.
Priyanka Bhowmik, a community health-care worker at SAPNA NYC, an organization that provides financial literacy courses and education to immigrant women in their own language, said it’s common to see this among the mothers she works with. But before the pandemic, teachers were more available to pay individual attention to students in class. With that missing, oftentimes it’s mothers who have to do it, Bhowmik said: And doing so can be impossible when the mothers don’t understand the instructions.
That is why the pandemic — which forced many parents to take on the role of at-home teachers during remote learning — added multiple layers of challenges for mothers who do not speak English, she said.
Rosa Bao, an Ecuadorian community organizer, said she constantly worried she wasn’t able to correctly teach the children in her home — two teenagers and her 8-year-old nephew.
“I had to become a teacher as a mother,” she said. “We were being given instructions and we weren’t being taught [about those instructions].”
Bhowmik, whose clientele at SAPNA NYC includes a group of Bangladeshi, Indo-Caribbean and Hispanic women, said she has heard a similar grievance from her clients. She shared the story of one mother who sat with her child in front of the computer for an hour because she did not understand a notification from the school that class had been moved to a different time.
Andrea Ortiz, manager of education policy at the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), said that during the initial shift at the beginning of the pandemic, there was an increase in requests from tutoring at the organizations she works with. She added that younger children are often affected more when there is a language barrier between parents and teachers.
Some families, such as Bao’s, encouraged their elder children, who understand and speak English, to assist children from other families.
This was a common thread among many women, who used and offered resources within their communities, sometimes through mutual aid networks or on an individual basis, for their children’s education.
Monica Aviles, a community organizer in Queens, said she helped her neighbor’s daughter, a first-grade student, because her mother only speaks Spanish. Aviles also taught a friend’s son who, owing to the lack of communication between his parents and the teacher, grew riddled with anxiety over the course of the year — an indication, Aviles said, of the mental health effect on both mothers and their children in such situations.
Ortiz said challenges with language barriers are hardly new, and years of systemic inequities has led to this crisis, which was only exacerbated by the pandemic.
“English language learners were disproportionately left behind even before the pandemic,” she said.
Accountability has become more of an issue during the pandemic, though, according to Morales: Going remote has given children more opportunity to take advantage of a lack of communication.
“A lot of our students were telling their parents: ‘I’m doing fine in the class,’” he said. “We’re trying to foster an education and we’re using the student during the pandemic as a translator and we don’t even know if he’s translating correctly.”
In many cases, the language challenge can be further compounded by the circumstances for those who are single mothers.
Zaynab Tawil, the domestic violence program manager at the Arab American Association of New York, explained how her clients, most of whom are single mothers, were unable to hold their children accountable for their education during remote learning.
These women are often victims of domestic violence and embroiled in court battles around custody, child support and/or immigration, or busy with their jobs as the sole breadwinner of the families, according to Tawil. Some don’t have any family in the country who they could rely on for support, Tawil said, and trying to manage their children’s education can take a huge toll.
“When parents get follow-ups from the school, often a lot of the follow-ups are in English,” Tawil said. “They’ll [ask], ‘Why hasn’t your child been showing up for class?’” And often, the mothers don’t even know that their children are missing school in the first place.
Morales and NYIC’s Ortiz said coordinating between disabled children, parents and teachers can also present more roadblocks.
“Finding support for any student with a disability was difficult during the pandemic, but if you put on top of that language barriers, it’s been really difficult and a lot of families felt that their children are not progressing,” Ortiz said.
The pandemic revealed the key role that basic communication plays in the education system and the dynamic between parents, students and teachers, Ortiz added. NYIC is pushing for academic recovery programs that would focus specifically on this issue — on top of the resources and trainings that New York’s Department of Education is already providing, such as tech support for iPads, access to multilingual digital books and support for children in special education classes. While extensive, these resources can be verbose and long, which can be daunting for families with primarily non-English-speaking members, Ortiz said.
What’s more, like many other districts around the country, New York City public schools fall gravely short in providing a representative number of teachers of color. Morales, who speaks Spanish in a school with predominantly Hispanic students, said there aren’t enough teachers who speak Spanish, despite Spanish being the second-most-spoken language in New York.
The city’s Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment.
Haque said that for mothers like her, it would improve their children’s education significantly if they had access to a Bengali translator. That she had to help manage schoolwork only added to her children’s stress and load of work, as well as her own, she said.
When asked what she would do if she could manage some free time, she laughed — an idea so foreign that it made her pause for a bit.
“I wish I could go see my friends a bit,” she said. “I can’t do any of that now. But I also have these wishes you know? That I could just go see my friends and have a chat — even if it’s for just five minutes.”
The interviews of Bao and Haque were translated from Spanish and Bengali, respectively. Josselyn Atahualpa facilitated the translation with Bao.