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Remote Learning Comes With Language Barriers For 128,000 NC Students

Catawba County Schools' how-to video on Google Classroom translated into Hmong.

Being forced to home-school during the pandemic is tough for most families, but imagine trying to do it in a second language. That’s the reality for more than 128,000 North Carolina students and their families.

Jacoba Gonzalez, a Spanish-speaking Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parent, has three children in one K-8 school. And she says the remote learning experience has been different for each of them.

Her oldest, who’s 13, has a teacher who speaks Spanish, so Gonzalez can stay in touch. The youngest, who’s 8, has lots of video calls with his teacher and is keeping up. But Gonzalez said in a Zoom call, with Iggy Austin of the Charlotte Bilingual Preschool translating, that her 10-year-old is struggling with math.

"They are measuring triangles and he says he doesn’t understand very well," Gonzalez said. "Typically it’s not hard for him to pick up on stuff that he’s learning, but he says the teachers really are not explaining all this stuff, and all this stuff is new, so he doesn’t really know how to do it."

That son’s teacher doesn’t speak Spanish. Gonzalez says she uses Google Translate to convert all her kids’ lessons into English so she can help, but the math remains a stumbling point. Gonzalez asked her son to speak up during a Zoom class and ask for help, but that didn’t work, either. She says the teacher told him it wasn't a math class so there was nothing the teacher could do.

English Learner Population Growing

North Carolina has just over 128,000 students who were classified as English learners this year, 11,000 more than the year before. More than 24,000 of them are in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the largest population by far.

Gonzalez’s children are all in touch with their teachers. They have Wi-Fi and a Chromebook – one Chromebook, for three students. That puts them ahead of tens of thousands of North Carolina students, who have either lost contact altogether or lack the ability to connect online.

But that doesn’t mean remote learning works as well as in-person classes.

Susana Jerez, family programs director at the Bilingual Preschool, says she’s heard from several families who have to stretch one Chromebook for several kids – as well as a parent who may need it to connect with someone who can help with language barriers.

So she says you get situations like "their child is having a Zoom meeting, and then their other child has a Zoom meeting at the same time, and then they cannot attend, so they’re using phones and so on."

CMS has bilingual staff who are assigned to work with families – but those staffing levels are based on a regular school situation, not a sudden switch that puts so much responsibility for the child’s education on parents.

Not Just In Cities

And this isn’t just a big-city challenge. Look for COVID-19 information on the Catawba County Schools website and you’ll see links for “latest news in English,” “noticias en español” and what looks to an English-speaker like a string of random letters: "HMOOB TSHAJ XOVXWM."


"That is just a phrase saying 'Hmong information here,'" says Dana Greene, Catawba County’s director of programs for English learners. "H-M-O-O-B means Hmong"

Green says a majority of the Catawba district’s 1,300 EL students are Spanish speakers. The county also has a significant population of Hmong, a Southeast Asian ethnic group.

Greene says they were attracted to Catawba County by jobs in the furniture and poultry industry – and by the landscape.

"We do have the rolling mountains, we’re right here in the foothills. It’s very similar to where they lived back in Laos," she says.

The district employs Spanish and Hmong translators. They’re now working – remotely, of course – to help teachers and families connect.

"They are continually getting emails and phone calls from teachers about students who they haven’t heard from, they haven’t logged in to their Canvas classes, haven’t logged into Google Meets," Greene says, "and our ladies are making individual phone calls to those families to check on those students."

The district has done how-to videos on remote learning technology and is starting to translate them into Spanish and Hmong (click here for a Google Classroom instruction video in Hmong).

Online translation services can work in a pinch for parents or schools, but Greene says they’re no substitute for people who really speak both languages.

"We actually did try to use Google Translate when we had something very quickly, our PR lady tried to see what it would do on Google Translate and it basically said the opposite of what we wanted," Green recalls, laughing. "So we didn’t put that out. "

Months of unknowns lie ahead. Who’s eligible for summer jump-start help, and what will that look like? When schools reopen on Aug. 17, will there be some kind of creative scheduling to allow for safe distances? Will remote learning remain an option for students at risk of catching or spreading the virus?

Being able to communicate with families will be more important than ever.

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