By Brenda Álvarez
Earlier this month, the National Education Association (NEA) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) partnered to host a virtual town hall to uplift the experiences of Latino students and educators impacted by coronavirus-related school closures nationwide, as well as share immigration updates from the National Immigration Law Center and mental health tips from the Hope Center for Wellness. When the pandemic forced families into isolation, it’s partnerships like these that make them more relevant to the communities they serve.
“So many [LULAC] councils have stepped up to the plate,” said Sindy Benavides, executive director of LULAC, the largest and oldest Hispanic organization in the U.S, adding that the “heart of LULAC has always been its members.”
For example, a LULAC member and an educator partnered with her local council to get laptops, which they didn’t already have, into the hands of her students so they could access their classroom and online learning.
Lack of technology coupled with lack of internet services has plagued communities of color for decades.
“We, [for years], have been talking about the technology gap between kids that have so much and kids that have so little,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, “and school boards, legislators, people who are very powerful politicians decide which kids get and which kids don’t get.”
She also underscored how some legislators think of technology as “something like video games,” that it’s only meant to for entertainment. “We’ve been trying to tell them that there are some applications for colleges or for a job you can’t apply for if you don’t apply online. [Technology] is not a luxury, it’s indoor plumbing, and it’s what our kids need.”
The Stakes are High
In a recent survey of its members, one of the questions NEA asked educators was if they had the tools needed to serve their students. It’s important to note that when it comes to education, the measurement of poverty comes from how many students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
“No one is saying it’s fabulous,” says Eskelsen García. “It’s complicated.”
But what educators did say was that they’re experiencing more levels of success with schools that have less than 20 percent of students who receive free or reduced meals. As the level of students on lunch plans increased to 50 percent or higher, educators reported more problems in ensuring continuity of learning.
Not having the technology or access to broadband is serious, says Eskelsen García, and “it means our kids are going to fall further behind—and it’s going to be by immigration, class, ethnicity, race,” and other social and economic statuses.
“Elections are around the corner and your vote definitely matters—it matters more than ever during this election.”
Sindy Benavides, LULAC
NEA, along with more than 50 national education and related organizations, have called on the U.S. House of Representatives to include funding for the Emergency Connectivity Fund, administrated through the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program, for schools and libraries to help close the digital divide by supporting distance and remote learning for students without home internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With an estimated 9 to 12 million students and some of their teachers currently lacking home internet access and unable to participate in teaching and learning, the E-Rate program is the best vehicle to disseminate funds quickly to schools and libraries based on the program’s successful equity-based 22-year history—with priority to those with the greatest need.
LULAC council members from different parts of the country have also tapped into educator networks to organize food drives, as well as provide Latino families with accurate information around ongoing issues like the Census, immigration and elections—and in Spanish. And alongside these efforts have been NEA members.
Health Access, Immigration, and DACA
The hour-long town hall was moderated by Maria Peña, a journalist of 30 years now at Telemundo. Peña led panelists through a series of challenges faced by the Latino community.
Jackie Vimo, policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, reinforced the resources that are available to educators, students and families, including:
The Families First Act provides additional funding to pay for coronavirus testing for anyone who is uninsured. The funding will pay for testing at community health centers, outpatient clinics, and doctors’ offices.
Immigrants can continue to access services at community health centers, regardless of their immigration status, and at a reduced cost or free of charge depending on their income. However, people should call first to find out the availability of COVID-19 screening and testing. Health centers may do patient assessments over the phone or using telehealth.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recently announced that testing, treatment and preventive care (including a vaccine if one becomes available) for COVID-19 will not be considered in the public charge test—meaning these services will have no immigration consequences.
The other issue Vimo discussed centered on deportation. While U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have been known to break from their own policies and conduct raids in places that are considered “sensitive,” including schools, churches, and hospitals, Vimo reassured town-hall participants that this won’t be the case.
“[ICE] has committed themselves to not being at these sensitive locations…and we feel confident that these are safe places for immigrants to be accessing care at such a crucial time,” says Vimo. “No one should be denying themselves with their family members health care during the COVID-19 pandemic: there’s no public charge test, no immigration consequences, no real threat of ice conducting activities of health centers.”
Additionally, those with an active Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, which includes 15,000 educators who are Dreamers, and Temporary Protective Status have a right to a stimulus check and unemployment insurance under the CARES Act, which provides direct economic assistance for workers and families.
Fear, among other emotions, is a familiar feeling in immigrant communities, and the coronavirus pandemic has made it worse. With one in five people in the United States expected to face a mental health challenge, it’s important to validate and normalize the feelings of anxiety, stress, fear, uncertainty, and more brought on by COVID-19, says Cheryl Aguilar, founding director and lead therapist at the Hope Center for Wellness.
To help manage these emotions, Aguilar offers a few useful tips.
Fear, which leads to anxiety, grows out of not knowing. One way to calm fear is to get as much information as possible to get as many questions answered as possible. The caveat: get information from trusted sources and limit the amount of information that is consumed.
“If we spend all day watching [and reading] the news…that can send a signal to our brain that…were in a place of chaos. We want to be able to designate times throughout the day in which [we] can just plug in, seek out the information we need, but also set boundaries to be able to manage what we’re experiencing,” explains Aguilar.
Other common feelings are depression and feelings of grief and loss. Many educators and students, for example, went from spring break to complete isolation in a matter of days. Not seeing friends and other family and not being able to go outside can lead toward a downward spiral of emotions.
Help curb these feelings, especially those that trigger the nervous system by way of a rapidly beating heart and a rush of energy, by using deep breathing techniques. The center has great resources on how to ground hard-to-manage emotions.
Act Now and Remember in November
With Education Secretary Betsy DeVos cutting undocumented college students out of access to emergency federal aid to cover expenses like food, housing and childcare was “an intentional attack on our immigrant community,” says LULAC’s Sindy Benavides. “She did not have to take that action, and yet, she did.”
She urged viewers to call their members of Congress, specifically those who live in Kentucky. “We really need to get to Senator Mitch McConnell,” Benavides says. “He is really blocking a lot of the progress that needs to happen in Congress.”
Benavides adds, “Elections are around the corner and your vote definitely matters—it matters more than ever during this election. I’m sure you hear this every single day, in every single presidential election year. But amid everything that is happening, it couldn’t be more important.”
“I live for the day when we’re not an act of charity,” says NEA President Eskelsen García of the education profession, “but we’re a right…a right for a good, safe, decent public school no matter where [students] live.”
LULAC is offering temporary relief to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more at LULAC COVID-19 Relief.
Brenda Álvarez is a Reporter with the National Education Association.
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