'Where do I click?': Many Hispanic families work to overcome remote learning challenges

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SILER CITY — Evelin Karina Barrera, 35, remembers the first three months of remote learning as one giant stress headache.

She has three children attending Virginia Cross Elementary. Her oldest, Joseph, is a 5th grader, and her two twins, Aldo and Gabriela, are both in 3rd grade. When she’s not working part-time in a shop, she’s been supervising her three kids’ education — and that’s a bit difficult when she speaks little English.

“First, I have to translate things (in my children’s schoolwork) to be able to understand it and then explain to them in Spanish and then let them put it in English,” she said. “It has been a little hard for me, but that’s the only way I can help them.”

But the language barrier isn’t the only challenge for Hispanic parents like Karina Barrera in Siler City; many have also struggled to overcome stress, little technological know-how and finding the right balance between their work and their children’s education.

At first, Karina Barrera had her children start out with paper packets.

“I really don’t know anything about technology,” she said, adding, “For me, (paper packets) were the best option, since it was better to do schoolwork and all that they had to do on paper.”

But that brought her more work and frustration than she’d expected. She had to sit down with her children, especially her twins, to translate everything in the packets into Spanish so that she could explain to them what they needed to know and do — and even that was a bit complicated since her twins speak little Spanish and write even less.

So, after her children completed about a packet and a half, she had them switch to online learning: Her 5th grader used the family’s personal computer while her twins learned on two provided by the school district.

“I didn’t know if this (situation) was going to change and it was more practical for them because obviously they were going to learn more on the computer. There are more strategic forms for them to learn,” she said, adding, “They weren’t learning anything (on paper), and it was more frustrating for me because I had to be there watching them do it.”

The language barrier and technology illiteracy are two of biggest challenges facing Hispanic families in Siler City, said Jazmin Mendoza Sosa, a Communities in Schools (CIS) student support specialist at Virginia Cross Elementary School.

Mendoza Sosa serves nearly 50 Virginia Cross students and their families, including Karina Barrera’s, and typically completes around 10 “porch visits” a day, helping students with classes, troubleshooting technological problems and occasionally tutoring those who need help.

Before COVID-19, she said some Hispanic families she serves didn’t own personal computers or have Wi-Fi, since neither were essential as they are now to their children’s education. That’s why the shift to remote learning has overwhelmed many of her families, she said.

“I have spent like an hour on FaceTime where I have parents (on) the camera be like, ‘OK, where do I click?’ and I have to be like, ‘Click here on your left or your right,’ or even spell out what word they need to find on the screen,” Mendoza Sosa said. “Just accessing a password or an email can take up to an hour, which usually on normal standards would take less than two minutes.”

Inexperience with computers leads to other challenges. Though many parents created email accounts to access social media, she said many don’t use it as their primary means of communication.

“It is hard when you have teachers saying, ‘I’m emailing you information about virtual learning,’ when parents are not really acclimated to using that email,” she said. “So that causes problems because if there’s no phone call, then they’re like pretty much, ‘I don’t know what’s happening.’”

The language barrier doesn’t help either.

“Computers are only in English. Instructions are only in English,” Mendoza Sosa said. “So even if they were to be able to put (in) a password, they are not able to really tell like what it is. I have heard parents say, ‘I’m doing Google Translate to translate instructions in the computer so I can help my kid.’”

‘My chair’s always spinning’

Beyond technological problems, Mendoza Sosa said she’s seen many Hispanic parents struggling to keep up with their children’s class schedules and keep them engaged. Others are struggling to answer schoolwork questions that teachers would normally address.

Some parents can’t read or write in English or Spanish, Mendoza Sosa added, yet despite that, many still do what they can to support their children. During a home visit a few months ago, Mendoza Sosa remembered sitting at a table tutoring two students using a whiteboard while their mother sat in front of them, watching them work and erasing the whiteboard every so often.

“And I know erasing the whiteboard might not seem (like) a lot to people,” she said. “But that’s a lot for a mother who doesn’t know how to read and write … to stay there and say, ‘I can’t help my kids, but I’m not gonna just let Ms. Jazmin sit with my kids. I’m gonna be there and see what she’s doing to mimic some of the stuff.’”

For Siler City mother Jessica Bacho, one of remote learning’s biggest challenges is keeping track of her children’s schedules and making sure they’re logged in and engaged. She takes care of five children, including a 2-year-old infant, three Virginia Cross elementary students and a 12-year-old at Chatham Middle.

“I have a girl with ADHD, and it’s hard for her to stay logged on, and she doesn’t like it,” she said. “Sometimes, she doesn’t want to log on. And then they all have nearly the same schedules and I have to be supervising one kid after the other, after the other and see that they’re paying attention.”

Though she said she doesn’t know much about using computers and speaks little English, she helps her children as best as she can.

“I can’t speak it well, but yes, I can understand it,” she said. “So that helps me to be able to help my children and when I have doubts, I ask my oldest daughter.”

Jessica Hernández Guerrero, 29, faces similar challenges in a different setting: She brings her daughter, Hailey, with her every day to Warrior Steel Erection Corporation in Siler City, where she works as an accountant.

Even though she lives an hour away, working from home was never a great option since a large part of her job involves administrative work. She and her family live in Biscoe, where Hailey attends Green Ridge Elementary School as a 2nd grader.

Supervising Hailey’s learning has proven difficult for Hernández Guerrero, despite sitting a few feet away. She has to balance Hailey’s work with her own — and sometimes the scale ends up shifting one way or the other.

“Whenever she has homework, I just go and help her a little bit (and) just make sure that she’s doing her work, then come back to my job and just be like from one side to the other,” she said. “My chair’s always spinning.”

So oftentimes is Hailey’s.

“I have to fight with her, argue with her, because she doesn’t really pay attention,” Hernández Guerrero said. “So I have to be like, ‘Hey, Hailey, listen to your teacher. Hey, Hailey, take notes,’ because she doesn’t feel like she’s in school. She’s just sitting there watching her and playing around.’”

That makes it harder for Hernández Guerrero to ensure Hailey turns in her assignments on time — especially when she’s busy at her own job.

“It gets me mad because I’m like, ‘This is not how you’re supposed to be doing it. You’re not learning anything,’” she said. “It’s not her fault, but I mean it’s just not what we wanted.”

‘It will never compare’

Hernández Guerrero wishes Hailey could go back to in-person learning — and yet, at the same time she doesn’t.

“I don’t feel like she’s really learning,” she said. “I mean I teach her like the best way that I can. But I feel like it’s not the same.”

She’s worried that younger kids might not listen to their teachers about following health guidelines. But it’s also a bit more complicated than that: If Montgomery County’s school board decides to allow students Hailey’s age to return, she said she’d have to find some way to enroll Hailey in Siler City Elementary, which she also attended when she lived in Siler City.

Before the pandemic, she used to work somewhere else and got off around 3:30 p.m. Someone would watch Hailey until she could pick her up. But now she gets off at 5 p.m. and works an hour away. Her husband works and can’t pick Hailey up either. That’s why she was relieved to hear that the Montgomery school board voted to continue remote learning.

“It is giving me more (of a) chance to figure out how to do it next year,” she said. “I was worried if they were going to accept Hailey in Chatham County Schools when she is living in another city. Hopefully I can figure something out next year.”

For Karina Barrera, the hardest part of remote learning was adapting to all of the changes, and now she said that’s mostly passed.

“It was a process, but thank God we’ve now gotten more familiar with all this because it has already made it easier,” she said, adding, “Before it was difficult for them (to do the work). Now they’ve gotten into practice and they’re doing it fast.”

But she and Bacho agree that remote education hasn’t helped their children learn — and that’s why they said they approved of the school board’s recent decision to allow some students to return to some form of in-person learning.

“(Remote learning) will never compare to anything directly in person,” Karina Barrera said. “I think that (they’ve learned) about 50% from my way of seeing things because maybe they learned but very slowly I think because it is not the same.”

“The teachers can teach them more (in school) and in more detail than a parent who sometimes might not understand it,” Bacho added.

But both said they would have preferred to see the older students return first.

“I feel like they are falling further behind in learning,” Bacho said. “My daughter in kindergarten is having no problems with her learning and is more dedicated to her homework and classes than the older children. One as a parent can help young children more than an older child as their work is more difficult.”

But whatever happens, Bacho said she’d keep trying to motivate her children to study and achieve a higher quality of life that education offers.

“In our countries (in Latin America) with this pandemic, children can’t do homework because their schools don’t give them a computer and they don’t give them materials because it’s not as easy as it is here in the United States,” she said. “So (my children) need to value what they have because (the schools) provide them with many things that can’t be done in other countries of the world.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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