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Language Barriers, Cramped Apartments: Immigrant Families Struggle With Schooling During A Pandemic

Capital Area New Mainers Project
Staff from the Capital Area New Mainers Project in Augusta have helped tutor immigrants and refugees during the pandemic.,

Many students have struggled to keep up during the coronavirus pandemic, after schools first closed a little more than a year ago and then most of them re-opened for at least some in-person learning. 

It’s been particularly challenging for immigrant and refugee students and their families. 

Wednesdays are the most hectic day of the week for the Al Hoshan family, who are originally from Syria and are now trying to build a new life in Maine after moving from Arizona about a year-and-a-half ago. 

It’s when all the kids are learning at home. Most are connecting to remote classes on an electronic device, each tucked into various corners of their two-bedroom house in Augusta. 

Seventh grader Odai plays math games in the living room, surrounded by his mom and siblings.

Tenth grader Shatha takes me on a tour, pointing out her brothers and sisters. One's in the kitchen. Two are in a bedroom. Another's in the attic. 

Before settling into this home, the Al Hoshans spent most of 2020 in a tiny, cramped apartment with just a few rooms. Oldest daughter Nada and mother Fadia say there was barely enough room for the kids to hear their teachers through Zoom.

"They used to always fight. Especially the youngest," Nada says.

"It was, 'I can't hear the teacher. I can't hear the teacher!' Oh my god, it was difficult," Fadia says.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
Tenth grader Shatha Al Hoshan participates in remote learning in her family's living room in Augusta.

"All of us in the same room — everybody with open Zooms," Nada says. "And they'd all be yelling at each other, 'Put on headphones! Lower your volume!' It was a hard time.'"

While they have more room now, tenth grader Shatha says with so many kids in Zoom classes at once, her calls often lag or shut down.

“And your teacher thinks you'd just left the Zoom," she says.  

The constant technological interruptions mean they sometimes miss out on instruction.

"Like, we go up to my mom, and be like, what's wrong with the WiFi? We're in Zooms. And she's like, 'What should I do?" Shatha says.

The challenges aren't unique to the Al Hoshans. Sarah Allak of Augusta says the switch to remote learning made it especially hard for her eighth grade daughter. While she wants to help, English isn't her first language. 

"She needs a lot of focusing and help,” she says about her daughter, talking through an interpreter. 

“She used to get really high grades when she used to go to school and did her work at school. But now, when everything turned out to be at home, everything became more difficult. Most of her grades went down. And this mom had such a hard time to handle that and help her daughter.”

In recent years, a local organization, the Capital Area New Mainers Project, has offered tutoring for new Mainers in the Augusta area. 

Credit Capital Area New Mainers Project
Staff from the Capital Area New Mainers Project in Augusta have helped distribute food and tutor during the coronavirus pandemic.

But Noor Alnaseri, the group's program assistant, says many of those tutors have been unavailable during the pandemic, which has drastically cut services. And Alnaseri says with families juggling remote learning and other new responsibilities, several parents have had to drop out of their own English language and citizenship preparation classes.

"And some of them just stopped taking the classes, because they find out that using technology to learn, it's so hard and are required a lot of time. And focusing on it while they have a lot of responsibilities at home — some of them have kids studying. Some of them have, like, young children, they need support for their own classes,” she says.

Across Maine, school officials say they've spent long nights over the past year to ensure that new Mainers receive resources. Districts have purchased WiFi devices and tablets for thousands of students. 

In Augusta, administrators say they've brought back some young English language learners four days per week to ensure they receive enough in-person instruction. And Assistant Superintendent Katy Grondin says her district is already looking towards summer school to offer additional services to help many students catch up.

“After school, this summer, offering tutoring — obviously ELL is absolutely part of that conversation. About how are they going to be able to support their students to fill in gaps?" Grondin says.

In Lewiston, ELL Director Hilary Barber says schools have collaborated with other community organizations to provide childcare, tutoring and basic needs.

"So we try to be flexible," Barber says. "We try to create — we work with the family to create a plan as best we can. You know, a lot of it is making that personal connection with, with families, and that happens at the school level. And reaching out to the parent and just saying, 'I understand this is hard. I'm here to help you, what can we do?'"

Back in the Al Hoshan house in Augusta, the family is still contending with technology issues as they log onto their virtual classes each day. But oldest daughter Nada, who's in college, says she's seeing the advantages of the new learning model.

"The class is recorded. If I don't understand anything, or I miss information, I can go back. But an in-person class, I can't. It is what it is — you listen, you listen, you miss it,” she says.

Plus, Nada says, at home she can help out her siblings and assist them with their homework. So, even after a difficult year, she’s considering sticking with online learning after the pandemic ends.


For more stories in Deep Dive: Coronavirus, visit mainepublic.org/coronavirus.