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Distance learning presents new challenges to emerging bilingual students

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Emerging bilingual students — those whose first language is not English — have seen new challenges with schools being closed and distance learning in place.

First and foremost is the issue of technology.

“Supporting our emergent bilingual families through distance learning has truly been a collaborative effort among district staff and administrators,” said Kelly Adamich-Gasau, who is a biliteracy specialist at Strawberry Park Elementary School. “Many families were in need of laptops to access Google Classroom, and some were also in need of WiFi. Our entire emergent bilingual team kept extremely busy in the first few weeks calling families to assess who needed what to connect digitally.”

Leading the charge was B Torres, a district interpreter and community liaison who works with the school district to help students and their families whose first language is not English.

But once all students had access to technology and WiFi, the next issue that came up, Torres pointed out, is that most computer programs and operating systems are in English.

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“We work with families in which the parents might not have to use a computer for their job and don’t know their way around the technology, and therefore, can’t easily help their first-grader,” Torres said. “When everything is in English, and the parent isn’t fluent in that language, they sometimes don’t know how to access the system or write the password — we help them navigate that.”

Through video chat, Torres is able to walk a parent through the process of signing onto Google Classroom, uploading homework or communicating with teachers. She also created a YouTube channel with step-by-step guides to access a child’s schoolwork and Google Classroom.

“It’s especially important for families with younger children, so that the parents know how they can best assist their child,” Torres said.

And while the beginning was slow and tedious, Torres has been impressed with the outcome.

“For some people, this might be the first time that they’ve ever used a computer,” she said. “We have to be very compassionate and empathetic, and I’ve seen so many parents and students really rising to this challenge.”

Torres, who mainly helps students in sixth through 12th grades, enlisted the help of Integrated Community, which assigned a liaison to both Soda Creek and Strawberry Park elementary schools, as well as the district’s preschool.

“Supporting the schools is the most important thing for our children right now,” said Integrated Community Executive Director Nelly Navarro. “It is critical that we have our staff, volunteers and tutors supporting families during this time.”

For many families, that includes help with technology, checking in individually to make sure each family has what they need and providing tutors for help with homework — all virtually.

The nonprofit is utilizing its Facebook page to suggest activities that parents and children can do together while at home, such as painting rocks and making playdough. They are also doing a virtual story time in Spanish.

“We are just trying to connect with all of our families right now,” Navarro said. “If we see that someone needs help, then we provide extra resources.”

With distance learning, a typical day for students might include a live class meeting, assignments done independently or a one-on-one with a teacher.

“As a district, we are trying to balance high academic expectations with real life,” Torres said. “Older students might be working right now and might be able to help out their families. The district has made it clear that the most important thing is to take care of yourself.”

Within the emerging bilingual community, Torres said she is seeing fear over unemployment and the ability to pay for necessities, such as food, bills and rent.

“Many of the students who I work with have parents who are in the service industry and are not working right now,” Torres said. “These are problems right now that are applicable to the community that I work with and to our community as a whole.”

Torres and Integrated Community are working hard to identify families that need extra help with services like translation and interpretation, so they can better understand what resources are available to them.

Overall, Adamich-Gasau said the situation has served to strengthen the family-school partnership.

“I personally feel as though I am getting to know parents even better while also building a trusting relationship,” she said. “We have amazing families in our district, and I feel privileged to serve students and parents in whatever capacity is needed.”

Sophie Dingle is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.


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