In January, the COVID-19 pandemic was reaching its apex in the US and quarantine had most people stuck at home. But travel restrictions didn’t stop 18-year-old Geovanni Diaz from logging hundreds of hours in transit. He had to go to work.
Diaz is a high school student in Oakland, Calif. He arrived in 2019, from Guatemala, and like thousands of recent immigrant kids in the U.S., he’s worked while attending school in order to pay rent and support himself and his mother. He’s no stranger to a long commute, either. It often took an hour or longer to get to the hospital where he worked as a janitor this spring. Though he worked night shifts, the job might not have been possible at all if he also had to factor in a commute to school.
At the onset of the pandemic, distance learning provided a unique opportunity for working students: Without having to spend time getting to campus, and with the ability to log in to Zoom from anywhere, time on the job could extend to virtually any point of the day. And once the economic recession set in, that opportunity often became a necessity, especially for immigrant students. Now, as schools reopen and resume pre-pandemic schedules, districts are facing obstacles in bringing these learners back to class—and some are trying new strategies in the process.
“Some students are saying ‘Well if I can’t put food on the table for my family, why is education the top priority for me?’” says Rose Francois, senior director of program at Enroot, a nonprofit supporting immigrant youth in Massachusetts. “I think right now some schools are thinking we are going to go right back to normal but I don’t actually think students are.”
Immigrant students working jobs while going to school isn’t a new phenomenon. But with the pandemic, students are taking on jobs in greater numbers or going full-time in jobs they already had, says Avary Carhill-Poza, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Boston who has been studying these students throughout the pandemic.
“This year, with no cameras on, students have told us that they are attending class with their cameras off while they clean houses for money, while they fix cars for money, while they take care of their brothers and sisters,” she says.
Part of the explanation has to do with how these communities experienced the pandemic. The economic fallout hit Black and brown families more heavily and immigrants disproportionately suffered from service industry shutdowns and layoffs. Due to language barriers and less access to legal resources, they were also more vulnerable to evictions—even in cities that instituted moratoriums. Carhill-Poza noted that while some students she follows used to spend the money they earned on themselves, the majority are now contributing to rent or family support.
Facing a New Reality
In the early days of the pandemic, school districts and community leaders provided laptops, internet hardware, and money to keep students engaged. Enroot launched an Emergency Immigrant Cash Assistance fund that distributed more than $170,000 for families in Cambridge and Somerville, Mass. In Oakland, schools across the district organized fundraisers and distributed food and medical resources to support immigrant newcomers, especially those without documentation who didn’t qualify for federal aid.
But as the months passed, school leaders began thinking beyond emergency interventions and confronting a new reality: Having a job, and sometimes working during typical school hours, would be essential for many immigrant students.
“That’s the priority, period,” says Emma Batten-Bowman, assistant principal of Rudsdale Newcomer High School, an Oakland continuation school designed for older working immigrant students.
In Massachusetts, Enroot offers after-school mentoring and tutoring to immigrant students free of charge. Last year, they realigned their curriculum to meet the needs of students who had new questions about financial literacy, job training and finding alternative pathways to college that might include work, but didn’t sacrifice a degree.
“Instead of trying to fit students into ‘This is what the programming needs to look at,’ I think it’s for us to mold ourselves around them as much as possible,” says Francois. “We did that during the academic school year and I think we will continue to do that.”
At Rudsdale Newcomer High, school starts relatively late—9:30 am—and offers shorter hours generally, with faster credit accrual, no homework and credit for work experience. Batten-Bowman says she’s also regularly in touch with many of her students’ employers.
“I’ve talked to many managers and said ‘Hey this student is trying to graduate, is there any way they can have the evening shift?'”
The need here is high. Of more than 1,800 unaccompanied minor students who have enrolled in in the district in the past 8 years, about 750 have dropped out, says Nate Dunstan, an administrator providing newcomer and refugee services for Oakland Unified School District.
In many ways, the school was better prepared than most to adapt to an influx of working students. But faculty and staff have still learned quite a few lessons, Batten-Bowman says. Teachers are relaxing some deadlines and trying to strengthen lines of communication with students to avoid anyone falling through the cracks.
Dunstan has also helped older working students in the district more broadly reach immigration attorneys and apply for work permits. He says he’s hoping to hire another staff member to reach out to immigrant students who have dropped out for work.
In Alexandria, Va., the district is taking its first steps to try and provide a similar kind of flexibility for its students. This spring, it pioneered a new night school program designed specifically for English Language Learners who work during the day—one of the first of its kind in the state.
The program, called Alternative Pathways to Achievement, was developed by two teachers, Kellie Woodson and Jacqueline Rice, as a project toward their Master’s degrees in Educational Leadership. About one in four Hispanic students in the district drop out, they say, and Hispanic boys in particular are more likely to leave school early. When the pandemic began, that disparity became even more noticeable.
“It was striking seeing students who had really great attendance completely drop in their attendance…in a virtual environment that you would imagine would be more accessible,” says Woodson.
Now, twice a week, teachers volunteer on Zoom to teach hour-long classes from 7 to 9 p.m. targeted specifically to English learners. Although Woodson and Rice began the planning for the program in 2019, COVID-19 pushed the district to implement the program as quickly as possible.
As for Diaz in Oakland, he is interviewing for a new job, this time loading FedEx boxes at the airport. His shifts would last from 6 p.m. until 2:30 a.m., but the commute is only 15 minutes. And he’s looking forward to in-person summer classes.
“I’m really happy because I understand better in in-person classes,” he says in Spanish. “And I think this will give me time to study.”
One day, he’d like to open his own construction business. Finding a new work/study balance post-pandemic is one of the first steps toward that goal, and he’s optimistic.
“Getting good grades, and having credits for college, it’s what I’m going to do,” he says. “I’m going to try.”