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For non-English speaking families, the pandemic amplifies educational barriers

Carrboro High School sophomores Fabiola Perdomo and Sofia Rangel sit in the Carrboro High football stadium. Perdomo and Rangel, like many young people from non-English speaking families, have had to guide their families through participating in school transitions and other difficulties that stem from the pandemic.

Editor's note: Some of the interviews in this article were translated to English from Spanish.

A month after the pandemic began, Beatriz Vazquez’s 8-year-old daughter Anna stopped turning her video camera on during her online classes. 

Her teacher skipped her turn to speak in class after she couldn’t figure out how to unmute herself during class. Soon, her grades, participation in class and overall confidence began to dwindle. 

The family was forced to grow accustomed to technology after remote classes in Orange County Schools began last year. It left Vazquez scrambling to learn how to send an email to Anna’s teachers asking for someone to help her daughter or even getting used to class-related web applications like ClassDojo or Canva. 

There were barely any resources in Spanish offered online that could help her learn these tools.

“You feel frustrated and stressed,” Vazquez said. 

She is one of many non-English speakers across the Triangle that has struggled to adapt to online learning when it began last March. 

First-generation and immigrant families have historically faced challenges in getting adjusted to the U.S. school system due to difficulties accessing technological resources and language barriers, among other things. The COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified those issues. 

“When you make things remote, and families that don't have computers can't read in the languages that the resources or instructions are coming to them from the public school system, it just goes to show how they’re left in the dark,” Adam Clark, office director of non-profit immigrant advocacy organization World Relief Durham, said.

Scarcity of resources for English learners 

The degree to which translation and interpretation services are offered to English learners in Triangle communities greatly depends on infrastructure and available resources across individual counties. 

Pablo Friedmann, director of the Durham Public Schools Multilingual Resource Center, said specific translation and interpretation needs among families vary, but many often need help with configuring internet services or interpreting school forms. Some will simply have general questions about online learning or the switch to daily in-person classes. 

For Spanish speakers, several countries employ bilingual translators to interpret documents, such as school forms, letters sent out to families and even field trip permission forms, and also hire interpreters to assist with oral translations. 

There are three full-time translators and sevens interpreters assigned for Spanish speakers at the Multilingual Resource Center, Friedmann said. 

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has a team of six translators and interpreters that speak Spanish, Karen, Burmese, Chin, Thai and Mandarin. The district also has a team of service providers that interpret and translate in other languages like Arabic, Rohingya, Portugese, Korean, etc., according to Helen Atkins, director of English Learner and Dual Language Programming at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. 

Sandra Blefko was the only English as a Second Language representative working at a district level at the start of the pandemic. Last August, the district hired an additional five family liaisons to take on translating and interpreting services in Spanish. 

Blefko, family outreach coordinator at Orange County Schools, said there wasn’t information available in Spanish or other languages when the pandemic hit to help non-English speaking families transition. 

“Our families were afraid, and it was hard for them to find resources,” Blefko said. “It was hard for them to change from something that was normal for them.” 

Even more problems arise when allocating resources for non-English languages outside of Spanish, such as Karen or Burmese languages. All three counties outsource their translation and interpretation services when they cannot directly offer those services themselves. 

Paw Paw Wei, a Karen refugee and volunteer coordinator for Refugee Community Partnership, said this creates problems for refugees that speak languages other than Spanish. 

"It can be even harder for them to understand what is going on," Wei said.

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Switch to in-person instruction

Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill on March 11 that requires schools provide an in-person learning option for students. 

All Triangle counties quickly made plans to offer in-person instruction, with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools beginning in-person learning this week. Orange County Schools started hybrid in-person instruction for elementary schools in January, and brought back the rest of the students in March

Although some non-English speaking families have transitioned to in-person learning, many other families chose to stay remote for the entirety of the school year. Clark said that among the roughly 130 families that World Relief Durham works with, many families with older children have opted to remain remote, while younger children have preferred in-person instruction. 

“It took many of them a long time to get them set up into a rhythm of remote learning,” he said, adding that many immigrant families had to learn digital literacy and how to operate a computer for classes. “Just to be able to make the switch and then to switch back for them is just even more challenging.” 

Fabiola Perdomo, a sophomore at Carrboro High School, opted to stay remote because she and her family have already grown used to online instruction.

Although Perdomo speaks English, her mom only speaks Spanish. So, when news of online instruction last year came out, Perdomo endured the process of explaining and guiding her mother through her new schedule and way of receiving her classes due to limited resources offered by the district in Spanish. 

It wasn’t until September of last year that Perdomo noticed her mom had a better grasp of online learning and her own work schedule. 

“Now that she knows my schedule and everything I do, I don’t want to change it for her and mess it up again,” Perdomo said. 

Sofia Rangel, part of the Black and Brown Student Coalition at Carrboro High School, said one of the challenges of remote instruction was helping her dad, who is from Mexico, understand the process. Although her school gives weekly calls in Spanish to families, there are certain topics that he will ask Rangel for further clarification on.

Although Rangel speaks Spanish, she was born in the U.S. and doesn't have the same fluency as a native speaker, like her dad. So clarifying specific topics in Spanish can be challenging.

“Simple things become really difficult to try and explain,” Rangel said. 

Wei said immigrant families have mixed views about returning to in-person instruction that depend on their individual circumstances. Some prefer keeping their kids at home due to fears of COVID-19 exposure, while others might want their children back at school to not worry about plans for childcare. 

“They just want to be part of that conversation,” Wei said. 

Vazquez, who serves as a community volunteer for Latinx nonprofit organization El Centro Hispano, said it is important for non-English speaking parents and students to have support and assistance from other families, teachers and other school district members. 

Over the course of the pandemic, the mom helped create a WhatsApp group chat with around 70 Latina moms when she had questions about online and in-person instruction. 

“It has really helped us feel at home and not as nervous about online classes,” she said.

With all of this year's challenges, many of these students are patiently waiting to hopefully return to the classroom when the pandemic is over. 

"I would prefer to wait until then to go back to classes in person," Rangel said.


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