This story was reported with support from the William and Flora Hewitt Foundation.
As New York City plans to reopen its public schools on Sept. 13, worries about how children will re-adjust to in-person learning has raised concerns among many Haitian-American parents.
A lack of socialization opportunities tops the list for many parents. Other concerns include inconsistent virtual learning that may cause children to regress, inadequate technology access, language barriers and a lack of proper supervision or child care when parents must work. Educators said much more needs to be done to bring the children up to speed.
The pandemic also laid bare existing problems in the city’s education system, including the need for Creole translation help, that directly impacted Haitian-American families.
For Blaise Gordon, a special education teacher and parent of a six-year-old with autism, the biggest barrier over the last academic year was making it to the classes he taught. He hopes the upcoming year will not be a repeat of the last 18 months, when New York City schools switched to virtual, then hybrid learning to combat the spread of COVID-19.
“In the beginning, it was hard to find a babysitter,” said Gordon, a Bedford-Stuyvesant resident. “My wife and I both had to go to work and sometimes I would have to leave [work] early.”
Sometimes, his son Johnny would sit staring at his computer, waiting for help, while Gordon rushed off to teach his students. When he returned home, Gordon would find Johnny had lost interest in his classes and away from the computer, choosing other activities instead.
Soon enough, Gordon noticed that Johnny was regressing in subjects such as math, where he was unable to comprehend and keep up with the assigned work.
Regressing is perhaps the most concerning for Haitian parents. They fear their children will be significantly behind when in-person learning resumes and that it will be difficult for students to catch up.
“They already had challenges thrown at them with the language barrier and adjusting to a new culture,” said Olisha Jean-Baptiste, an IT engineer and member of the Haitian-American Children’s Group parents cooperative. “I would not be surprised if the graduation rate among Haitian students dropped tremendously.”
Francesca Altes, an ESL teacher at Queens Collegiate in Jamaica Hills, said she understood keenly the toll virtual learning has taken on these children.
“My concern is, when we get back in September, if students are still going to expect an amount of leniency where they think the teacher will pass them anyway,” Altes said. “We have to set realistic expectations for the students, but we need to have those expectations set.”
With in-person school, students had a standard routine of waking up early, getting on the bus, going to class and engaging with the presented material. Virtual learning turned this schedule upside down, with many students like Gordon’s Johnny not attending class at all.
Problems with accessing and understanding the technology needed for the kids to attend classes, in addition to the realization that children like Johnny had started regressing, caused the city to reevaluate how they will approach education for students in New York City.
Haitian parents have struggled with various aspects of technology — from the logistics of obtaining virtual devices to using the tools appropriately once received. Apps like Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams and Zoom also proved difficult to navigate in terms of turning cameras on and understanding how assignments were set up in the online platforms.
“This technology was thrown to them with no guidance and they just had to figure it out,” Jean-Baptiste said. “Most of them had never really been exposed to or used a computer before and they were in no-man’s-land.”
Jean-Baptiste said crash courses on technology led by Creole-speaking technicians are needed for Haitian parents so they can better assist their children.
Educators said many Haitian households had issues connecting to WiFi. For those who were able to connect, they found they were not aware of what was happening with their students because they would not turn their cameras on.
“It was a nightmare because their systems would not be working or kicking them out, the volume would be down, or they couldn’t hear you,” said Altes. “It’s like they became numbers without faces during this whole online virtual experience.”
Even for those who were able to log on, having parents supervise their children’s learning proved difficult for Altes, as she found that many of them accepted nothing short of perfection.
In one instance, Altes watched as a father yelled at his daughter in the middle of class because she didn’t know the answer to a question. She had to explain to him that in the American education system, kids should feel comfortable expressing themselves how they see fit, whether that be answering a question immediately or taking time to think about it before responding.
Altes also experienced frustration when children started submitting blank assignments in Google Classroom. She would contact the parents and tell them their children were not turning in their work, but the parents, unable to understand the technology, would see that the assignment was simply listed as submitted and insist it had been completed.
The challenges created by COVID continue to stress both parents and educators alike. In order to catch them back up in their education, they are mobilizing to provide support to families who struggled with virtual learning.
Archangelo Joseph, a former assistant principal at Public School 189 in Brownsville whose student population includes many Haitians, said he will create videos on his own in Creole in subjects like math for parents.
Lack of interaction and language concerns
The lack of face-to-face interaction is also a drawback to student success, parents say.
At K811 Connie Lekas School where Gordon teaches in Brooklyn, it was clear the children missed in-person interactions, he said. The lack of it also hindered children’s academic and social progress.
“The children have lost a lot because they need hands-on, face-to-face instruction,” said Joseph, who has written about Haitian students in New York for his education doctorate. “They want human interaction with their peers and they also need emotional input interaction with the teachers too.”
Another problem that already existed before the pandemic, but was increasingly exposed after the transition to virtual learning, is the scarcity of school materials in Creole. Experts said one reason is that Creole has not been a written language until recently. They stressed that being immersed in a dual-language Creole-English program will help Haitian students learn English better while maintaining a connection to their native language and culture.
Michel Degraff, director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative — which promotes the use of Creole language for those studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) — said more Creole publishers are needed, particularly in New York City given its large Haitian population.
“You want to make sure that the kids have the resources and the methods to be able to keep that language alive in their own heads,” Degraff said.
New measures for the new school year
Altes also said she will focus on addressing the emotional impact of COVID on her students. She plans to launch a series of programs to connect with students and their parents, including a book club, having students volunteer at food drives for academic credit, assisting parents with enrolling in ESL and GED classes and holding more frequent check-ins with students.
The city is also mobilizing as well, education officials said. They are offering over-the-phone and online translation services this upcoming academic year, as well as live workshops for Creole speakers.
“Communications around remote learning and what’s happening in our schools are more important than ever,” said Sarah Casanovas, a New York City Department of Education spokesperson. “Whether they’re learning in-person or remote, we are committed to providing a high-quality education to our English Language Learners, including those who speak Haitian Creole, and have critical supports to meet them where they are.”
Last school year, the city provided 500,000 iPads with high-speed Wi-Fi, but took them back at the end of the academic year in June. It is not clear if the city will re-issue these devices to students. An audit from earlier this year by Comptroller Scott Stringer revealed that more than 16,000 students did not receive the iPads their families requested.
Educators and parents hope September will show signs of growth for their students and for teachers as well.
Parents like Gordon said teachers need to be considerate of how children like Johnny regressed as a result of virtual learning and take this into consideration when assigning work.
“Teachers should give them time to adjust because mentally, they are not prepared for focusing in an academic setting,” Gordon said.