SCRANTON, Pa. | Aporine Shabani escaped violence in Congo to find a better life for her children in Scranton.
As coronavirus cases surge in her new city, the refugee wants to help her sons learn virtually, but she can’t read the lessons.
“I’m really worried for what my children are missing,” she said through a Swahili translator last week in her West Scranton apartment. “How can I explain to my children when I don’t know English?”
As virtual learning continues in much of northeast Pennsylvania, including the Scranton School District, families struggle with technology issues and child care and worry about children falling behind.
For the city’s refugee community and other families not fluent in English, the challenges are far greater.
“It is heartbreaking,” said Sonya Sarner, refugee immigration services program director for Catholic Social Services in Scranton. “I don’t know how to help them.”
The number of English learners — or those who speak a different language and are unable to communicate fluently in English — continues to grow in the Scranton School District. As of last week:
__ 9.3% of students, or 859, require English Learners (EL) services.
__ 25%, or 2,369 students, speak two or more languages and live in a home where the primary language is not English.
__ Students speak 52 languages other than English and come from 62 different countries.
The pandemic forced the financially strapped district to find new ways to communicate with families. Schools set up tables outside to show families how to turn on their laptops. Teachers and principals knock on doors to check on students. Staff continues to develop new ways to convey information.
“Obviously it’s not ideal,” said Maggie Cosgrove, EL program manager for the school district. “But, teachers are doing everything they can do to reach these students and learn their stories.”
As the sun sets in South Scranton, the bright light from a classroom illuminates the sidewalk on Cedar Avenue. Small flags hang from the walls inside, next to posters on English grammar rules.
Parents finish a page in their English workbooks, while their children receive help with virtual lessons. The pandemic initially forced all English classes offered by the United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania online, but families needed in-person support.
In Scranton, 10.6% of residents, or 8,121, were born in a country other than the U.S., according to the 2018 U.S. Census American Community Survey. That number has tripled since the year 2000, according to UNC. Last year, the organization served 421 students from 56 countries, speaking 18 languages through its Community Education Department, which offers English as a Second Language (ESL), adult literacy, citizenship and other classes.
The pandemic and the school district’s virtual learning model made the organization expand its offerings, with instructors now helping parents use computers, participate in Zoom meetings and navigate learning platforms. Many refugee families have little experience with technology. Sixteen families now attend sessions offered in the morning, afternoon or evening.
Suk Maya Rai, who came to South Scranton from a refugee camp in Nepal in 2013, worked on that day’s English lessons as her children received help, too.
“I’d like to learn better English and help my kids with their homework,” she said.
Her 6-year-old son, Aarik Gurung, struggles to learn how to read sitting in front of a computer. Her 8-year-old daughter, Ansuniya Gurung, worked on number place values with instructor Audrey Golosky.
Many of the parents work in factories or warehouses and fear bringing the virus home to their families. They juggle childcare, school work and English lessons.
“Parents are overwhelmed,” Golosky said. “We don’t want children to fall further behind.”
When non-English speaking students usually begin school, they become fully immersed in the English language. The students hear their teachers and classmates speak English and see English words in books and on the chalkboard. English language teachers provide specialized instruction, and soon the children start to learn the new language.
With virtual instruction, that full immersion doesn’t happen. If a child participates in a live session or interactive lesson, that may be the only English the child sees or hears all day.
When someone refers a student for EL services, Cosgrove conducts virtual testing. She helps the parents set up a Zoom meeting, where she tests students’ ability to read and speak English. So far this year, the district has added 86 students to its EL program.
Those students receive instruction from both their classroom teachers and EL teachers, who focus on interactive lessons to engage students.
“We’d prefer to be with our students, but teachers have done amazing work to connect with their families,” Cosgrove said.
A district website for families can be translated into dozens of languages. A new telephone translating service helps the district with 350 languages. The district also uses translators: eight for Spanish, one for Nepali and one for Swahili, and created tutorial videos in those languages.
Cosgrove knows that when students eventually return to the classroom, they likely will need remedial support.
“We will adapt,” Cosgrove said. “This is new to everyone, and everyone has been creative.”
In Shabani’s West Scranton apartment, brightly colored tapestry hangs on the walls, and the lone Chromebook for her two sons sits charging on the coffee table. Francois Muzaliwa, 9, and Luka Janvier, 6, take turns listening to the day’s lessons.
Congolese refugees began arriving to Scranton about four years ago, after fleeing violence and living in refugee camps. Robert Kazinga, a refugee who hopes to find a place to hold worship services for the Union of Jesus Christ Church he founded, helps translate for families. He estimates about 20 Congolese families now live in Scranton, some brought here through a contract with the U.S. State Department. Others moved here after living in another U.S. city.
The Congolese are the latest refugee group to call Scranton home. The Bhutanese-Nepali refugee population, which advocates believe has decreased since reaching nearly 1,500 people five years ago, have opened businesses, bought homes and now help other refugees new to the city.
Since 2004, until the program ended last year because of low arrivals of refugees, Catholic Social Services helped 1,879 refugees relocate to Scranton, Sarner said.
The district has also seen a recent growth in students from India. This follows more than 100 students moving to Scranton from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island territory in 2017.
Several community organizations seek to help those new to Scranton, including Catholic Social Services, which attempts to connect families with resources.
Dealing with the pandemic, especially virtual learning, has become the refugees’ greatest struggle in the U.S., Sarner said. Some refugees lost their jobs because of the pandemic, and families often suffer from food insecurity, unsure of where to turn for help. Even though the school district offers free breakfasts and lunches for children, the food is not typically what Africans would eat, Kazinga said.
A shortage of laptops for Scranton students has also created challenges. With the district’s remaining order of 8,300 laptops delayed until December, siblings must continue to share one Chromebook. Sarner said some families have five or six children and one laptop to use.
Despite the challenges now, Sarner knows the families will have the strength to persevere.
“They are happy they are able to work. They have freedom,” Sarner said. “If you ask them, you will see they’re happy, even though they are our most neglected community.”
Shabani, grateful for the chance to live in Scranton, wants to see her children grow and thrive.
“This is really hard,” she said. “The best thing for them would be to go to school.”
Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/