It’s no secret that the pandemic has made everyone’s life harder. But remote learning presented a set of compounding challenges for refugee parents of school-aged children this year.

San Da Win, a Karen refugee and mother to a kindergartener and preschooler, says that her older child’s teacher came to the house with an iPad in the spring. The teacher tried to explain, in English and sign language, how to use it for remote learning, and gave her an instruction sheet—also in English.

“The next day, when she’s supposed to help her kids get into class, she just doesn’t know,” says Rosy Moo, coordinator at Refugee Community Partnership, translating for Win. “When the teacher came, there were no interpreters; there was no nothing.”

Win is one of several parents who came to the Refugee Community Partnership (or RCP) during the first months of the pandemic with this story; public schools moving online meant that these parents were tasked with supervising their child’s education. In some cases, their children ended up missing school altogether.

That’s when RCP connected with the town of Chapel Hill. Sarah Viñas, the assistant director of the town’s Office of Housing and Community, said the office’s employees had been hearing the similar feedback during check-ins with low-income families as the town built up its COVID-19 response.

“One of the things that we heard time and again from the families that participated in those check-ins was the need for childcare and the challenges that working parents—and all parents—are facing with managing online schooling and the virtual learning environment,” Viñas says.

Using $74,000 of federal CARES Act funding, the town and RCP partnered to create Neighborhood Support Circles. Now a provider comes for four hours a day, five days a week to help the children with schoolwork and homework, translate school documents, and help parents create a plan for the year.

There are currently 12 providers who work with a couple dozen families, normally splitting an eight-hour workday between two families or small learning pods, depending on the number of children in a family. Most of the time, they speak the family’s native language. All 12 providers are paid for their work.

“I think some of the really awesome benefits of this program is that all of the providers come from the same communities of the families that they’re working with,” says Meagan Clawar, RCP’s program manager. “There’s a shared language, or a shared culture. There’s a lot of benefits to that setup, and then the providers are also paid. So this is income we’re able to provide to young community members who are looking for a job.”

Of the 59,000 people who live in Chapel Hill, around 10,000 are immigrants. Refugees make up 1,121 of those immigrants, fleeing Myanmar (formerly Burma), Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, El Salvador, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Russia, and Syria. Almost 32,000 refugees have moved to North Carolina since 2002, according to the Omaha World-Herald; in 2018, the state had the seventh-highest number of refugee resettlements in the country.

While the town of Chapel Hill reports that 24 percent of immigrants living here speak limited English, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools only has four interpreters on-staff: one for Chinese, one for both Karen and Burmese, and two for Spanish. Refugee Community Partnership has critiqued the system in the past: In an August 12 Facebook post, the group shared that they were disappointed at how little attention the school system gave to language accessibility, saying, “When you’re ready, we can help.”

Children with special needs face additional barriers. Normally, children with disabilities would have teaching assistants, along with teachers, to give them specialized, attentive care. Parents aren’t trained specifically to do that.

Many refugee parents were also working before the pandemic; Win says that taking care of her children—one who has special needs—means that she’s unable to work. Even getting groceries is an overwhelming task.

Currently, the program is only based in Chapel Hill. The partnership is only able to commit to the 12 current providers, and they don’t know if there will be enough funding in the future to keep the program up and running.

“We’re kind of just forging ahead and hoping that things will fall into place,” says RCP’s Clawar.

“It’s hard, because a lot of our funding came from COVID-specific funds. We and the town of Chapel Hill will have to hear when that next round of funding will come, if it will come.”

Still, they know the project is worth it— both for the families and the providers.

“This is one of the best things that I do, or the best thing that happened to me in 2020,” says Moo. “It just makes you feel so good to know that you’re helping these families navigate through this virtual learning.” 

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