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Supporting Immigrant and Refugee Students: Considerations for School Leaders in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

With the ending of the school year and the uncertainty about the reopening in the fall, now is the time to develop plans to address the needs of immigrant and refugee students and their families with focused and sensitive attention. Below are three guiding principles for school and district leaders to consider to ensure that immigrant and refugee students and their families receive support and equitable access to educational opportunities during this unprecedented time.  

Put First Things First

It is important that we consider the immediate physiological, social and emotional needs of immigrant students and families so that we can meet them where they are to provide appropriate support. This means that school communities, from the teacher to office staff to the superintendent and everyone in between, need to have appropriate protocols and procedures in place to:

  • Provide all staff with a foundation in social-emotional wellbeing, instructional practices and the impact that the current crisis is having on immigrant students and families.
  • Train all staff (teachers, classified personnel, administrators, district office personnel) in the use of protocols like this one from Anaheim Union High School District to identify needs and notice signs of distress to help match students and families with appropriate support.  
  • Allow for checking-in with students about their feelings and needs as a part of synchronous and one-on-one sessions.  For older students, make this approach a part of their writing assignments, projects and language development sessions such as this example from from Tulare County Office of Education.
  • Identify local resources in your city or county to help families who are in need of food, shelter, medical or mental health, or cash assistance and include which resources are available regardless of immigration status by region such as this list from Legal Aid at Work or this one from the California Immigrant Resilience Fund.
  • Fight fear with facts using multilingual fact sheets and hotlines bilingually staffed informing parents about accessibility of health care, legal protections, and public charge such as these from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in English and Spanish or this one created by Protecting Immigrant Families. 

Consider Your Students & Families

Consider students’ experiences prior to immigrating to the US as well current conditions where families live, work and gather in your community to tailor your response.  The following are some common themes that can impact immigrant and refugee students:

  • Unlike other students in California who may be experiencing separation anxiety for the first time as a result of school closures, immigrant and refugee students may have already experienced interrupted schooling, family separations, and this experience may trigger new episodes of anxiety but may also make them more resilient during this pandemic. 
  • Undocumented families may already have had self-imposed limitations on travel, to avoid the risk of being stopped when traveling outside their locale so current stay-at-home orders and restrictions on travel may raise even more fears.
  • Many have experienced trauma as they have had to leave their homes and loved ones to immigrate to the United States fleeing from violence, war, or extreme poverty in their home countries. Any experiences involving food insecurity, isolation, or mask-wearing could bring back traumatic memories.   
  • The parents/guardians of immigrant students often work in agriculture, food service, or healthcare facilities as ‘essential workers’, so children may be left at home under the care of older siblings or unsupervised as parents are working throughout the pandemic.  Parents working outside of the home may not be in a position to support the distance learning sessions and assignments. 
  • Students and families have reported increases in incidents of racism in their communities because of their ethnicity or home origin.

In light of these additional impacts, consider systems of support within the community and school district to meet the needs of your students and families: 

  • To meet dietary restrictions of some immigrant populations, team up with community leaders and local organizations to identify local sources for school supplied meals and supplemental food sources for families, such as PandemicEBT cards.
  • Post important information or link to a resource page, like this one from Glendale Unified School District, in a prominent location at the top of your websites for families to access (in multiple languages). Ensure that the website design is phone friendly as many parents access the internet through their phones.
  • If using online registration to enroll students for the new school year, continue to offer an in-person option. Ensure that both options are immigrant and refugee-friendly (following AB 699 guidelines).
  • Develop additional supports for parents to facilitate their children’s engagement in synchronous and asynchronous distance learning with directions provided in the family’s home language as this one available in multiple languages which explains how to use Google Classroom.
  • Share information about support networks available for undocumented youth such as Wellness Gatherings from Immigrants Rising.

Communicate with Persistence: Build on Systems Already in Place

Teachers, schools and school districts which have the most success connecting with immigrant students and families have utilized structures and relationships that were already in place before the crisis.  

  • Elicit support of school site staff to make personal calls to parents/guardians, utilizing emergency numbers available in existing databases or on emergency cards with persistence until all students and families are connected. 
  • Use existing communication methods and platforms to push out information to students and families in multiple languages. When internet connectivity is not available, sending home printed information by mail or with meal pickups is an option. 
  • Maintain bilingual staff to answer school phone lines with friendly voices of staff who the families know and trust to give them direction and support.
  • Include and identify important correspondence (in home languages) or other materials in meal pickups. 
  • Utilize teams of existing bilingual site or district personnel to translate all communications in home languages of the families and assist with personal phone calls, or staff hotlines. 
  • Utilize teams of existing mental health professionals (counselors, therapists, psychologists) to assist with outreach to students currently on their caseloads or newly identified students in need of support.

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