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Undocumented Students Face Big Challenges With Remote Learning

Isabel Seliger for NPR

Berta Romero, is a counselor at Mary Harris Mother Jones elementary school in Prince George's County, a suburb of Washington, D.C. It's a position that was created before the pandemic, to help undocumented children adjust to school.

She hears awful stories from children about their journey to the U.S.: A second-grader's story about how her mother covered her eyes so the girl wouldn't see people drowning in the river. A little boy's description of how the truck that brought him to the U.S. was so crowded he couldn't breathe. His father had to push people aside and hold him up to get some air.

Some children tell Romero about seeing women raped or stories about people who couldn't keep up with other migrants on the journey and were left behind.

Children who are undocumented are among the most vulnerable in the country. Many have experienced considerable trauma, in their home countries and in the U.S. Romero likens these experiences to "carrying a big backpack with boulders in it."

A big part of her job is helping teachers identify and understand the root of behaviors like anger and frustration, and how to handle them.

But the pandemic has made that much harder to do.

Kerri Bogart, who teaches at the same school, says upheaval brought by the coronavirus marked a "gigantic shift" and and made helping children far more challenging. "Everyone feels like a first-year teacher in this environment because we're all learning new techniques, new technologies, new platforms."

Bogart says when she saw children in person, she could tell immediately when a child was upset. "They will just sit and cry because they're missing their mom or they miss their family back in El Salvador. Sometimes it can just be random outbursts of tears: 'Is mommy going to be at the bus stop? I'm worried that she's not going to be there.' "

One of her kindergartners would get upset and crawl under the table, and Bogart she could kneel down and comfort him. Now, she says, many students don't even turn their cameras on.

"If all we see is the black screen, we really have no way to see how they're doing and to judge how they're feeling."

With remote learning, these educators say, when children get upset they mayjust walk away from the computer. That's why Bogart always volunteers to distribute supplies and technology to their homes.

"Because you can at least see the child and say, 'OK, he looks good, he's happy to see me,' " she explains. "So I know I'm doing something positive for this child."

Prince George's County has been supporting its educators by helping them recognize the signs of trauma in the classroom. Before the pandemic closed schools, they brought in Margarita Alegria, chief of the Disparities Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard. She talked with educators about the "compounded loss" undocumented children face.

"They lost their cultural milieu," Alegria says. "They lost their familiar language, their customs, their habits. They lost their social networks. And many of them have lost their social status," she says.

She adds that says trauma can also manifest as headaches, stomach aches, insomnia, concentration and learning problems: "So the teachers have to be very aware that concentration could be not that the kids are ADHD, but actually that the kids are really trying to deal with the trauma in this way."

School was typically a respite from the hardships these children faced. Alegria says, not anymore.

"They have high levels of stress and anxiety," she says. "Children that are fairly young, taking care of younger children because their parents have to work as essential workers. We also hear that children are more isolated and feel disconnected." These children also feel pressure to help support their families.

Beth Hood, a social worker at High Point High School, says she worries about the students who are no longer engaged in their classes: "The silence, the absence, the lack of connection." Hood worries if that continues, these children may not continue with their education. "And I just worry that we're going to lose them, that they won't come back."

Hood says because of the pandemic, she can no longer take a student aside in class or share a laugh with them in a hallway. Her time now is spent tracking down students, doing technical support or connecting kids with food pantries.

It feels like everyone has boulders in their backpacks.

Copyright 2021 WAMU 88.5