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Remote Learning Out of Reach for Many Essential Workers' Families in NYC

For low-paid essential workers in New York City, especially undocumented immigrants and those facing language barriers, there are many challenges to coordinating childcare and remote learning

by Ambika Samarthya-Howard

Many families in New York City have faced challenges getting the supposedly-available iPads for children's remote learning. Photo: Andres Urena
Many families in New York City have faced challenges getting the supposedly-available iPads for children's remote learning. Photo: Andres Urena

Over one million children in New York City (NYC) were told to stay home for the rest of the school year when it was announced in April that 1,800 schools across the city’s five boroughs were shutting down because of Covid-19. New York City’s public schools provide poor and homeless children with their only access to food and medical care, and closing them was a dire decision that signaled the enormity of the pandemic to people across the US.

While some parents in New York have felt overwhelmed with the pressures of homeschooling, and parents working from home have faced the added burden of balancing work with keeping children engaged, many essential workers who have to go to their jobs simply cannot meet these added childcare demands.

Often from low-income and immigrant groups, many essential workers were often dealing before the pandemic with income and housing instability, disabilities, and limited English proficiency.  “In their pre-COVID life they were already trying to multitask everything,” says Amy Leipziger, Senior Staff Attorney with the Queens Education Law Unit of Legal Services NYC. “One of the challenges I found initially is when this first started and the transition to remote learning was happening, I wasn’t hearing from a lot of my clients. I was trying to figure out what was going on and it took me reaching out to all of them and checking in to find out things were hitting the fan.”

Since the state lock-down began, social workers have been dealing with crisis management for people who are not able to get any income, whose immigrant status is at risk, or those trying to file for unemployment. For many, education was put on the back burner and parents did not have the capacity to set up and facilitate remote learning for their children.

Instead, with schools closed, many essential workers have had to make hard choices that undoubtedly affect their economic situations. “It’s very much a class and race issue, which are inexorably tied in New York City,” says Nelson Mar, Senior Staff Attorney with the Bronx Education Law Unit of Legal Services NYC. Mar relays the example of a West African family where both parents drove a car service pre-pandemic, but one had to quit to stay at home with the children after schools closed.

At the end of April, Legal Services offered a new service to help people fill out their public benefits applications over the phone, and they had over 150 requests for help the first week alone. Many requests came from newly unemployed people who have not received their unemployment benefits, or are undocumented and ineligible for financial relief.

“At seven in the morning I see the line for Target around the block,” says Leipziger, “and it’s not uncommon for there to be kids in that line with their parents. Which makes sense; if you don’t have any options and you have to go to the grocery store, put on a mask, you are going with your kids.” Most families have no other options but to bring their children with them to work or for errands.

The city opened over 100 enrichment centers where students whose parents are essential workers can spend weekdays during school hours. The students aren’t fully taught on site, but it enables them to participate in the remote learning being offered by their regular schools. Even with limiting the number of children per room, many families were unclear of the precautions in place and felt the risk was too high to send their kids to these centers.

When the city gave out iPads for students to access distance learning, many families were not able to take advantage of these resources because of their limited digital and language literacy. “The language access survey to help you get your devices (iPads) in the beginning wasn't translated,” says Leipziger, “and it wasn’t widely known that you were supposed to fill it out to get a device.” There are many massive gaps like this in the system, and many parents aren’t proficient enough in understanding how to navigate remote learning or in English fluency to help guide their children through remote learning. Others don’t have a reliable internet service provider.

There is also an additional roadblock for undocumented immigrants, who may not qualify for the government’s stimulus checks, and may not be in a position to advocate for their situations. Leipziger pointed out, “What was always the invisible essential workers, in some ways has a second tier of more invisible essential workers, [undocumented immigrant workers,] but we can’t tip off what we are doing and where because of all of the bureaucratic and likely legal pitfalls that they are now facing. That’s creating an additional roadblock for a lot of them to access resources that would otherwise be available to them, which is even more problematic.” For limited English speakers or undocumented immigrants who can’t get public benefits, the situation furthers an already existing gap of what they can do and what they qualify for.

Legal Services NYC is pushing the city and state for make-up instructions available for families with disabilities and in situations where remote learning cannot address a child’s needs. “I work with a family with three children, each with a disability. On top of the trauma and turmoil of not being in school, there’s now learning that needs to be done,” Mar says.

Local and community groups, such as the Chinese American Planning Council, are providing guidance to parents in a range of languages throughout New York. New York Legal Services is currently creating a worksheet that can then be translated and distributed via these community partnerships for people to understand their rights and get accurate information out.

Families will continue to struggle with hard decisions around childcare and remote learning, but the burden of remote learning on families with limited resources and language proficiency does not fall justly in New York, or perhaps anywhere in the United States.

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