Helping Undocumented Immigrant Families Stay Connected through COVID-19

BDEC member Nicole Fall of Baltimore Clayworks, spoke with “Marielle” (a pseudonym used on her request) about the impact of COVID-19 and lack of digital connectivity on undocumented immigrants. Marielle works with approximately 200 Latinx families in Southeast Baltimore, helping their children with connectivity for virtual schooling.

The piece below highlights the frustrations that teachers, parents, and administrators go through in their concerted efforts to educate children. If the following reads as repetitive, frustrating, confusing and exhausting, realize it is an accurate reflection of the lived experience of these stories.

Above all else one must admire the tenacity of parents and students in working to overcome the challenges of less-than-adequate connectivity this school year. Note; this is not a new problem, though it is one that has been brought into stark light during this pandemic year.

Marielle:  It’s been very, very challenging for families, for the Spanish-speaking, immigrant, families that I work with. Not only just in the context of COVID, though they really are just the most destitute, within the context of COVID, because of health and economics, but on top of it now, this other layer of technology. So backing up; undocumented people, during COVID, did not get any stimulus check. They got no support from the government. They’re already not eligible for pretty much any social service. So they’re not getting unemployment when they are losing their jobs. They didn’t get the sort of extra cushion of unemployment, the special unemployment, because they don’t get unemployment anyway. They are not eligible for any, ANY, of these supports. So that already right there is huge.

I would say more than 50% of the families were hit with job losses; one or two job losses per family. So some homes had all income disappear, right?  And maybe their only source of income and their only experience in this country was like house cleaning, construction, restaurant work, and their jobs disappeared.

So many of these homes didn’t have a computer to start out with and a hundred percent of the parents that I work with, are not accustomed to dealing with computers. Pre0COVID; zero of my communication with families was virtual – ZERO. I never email any of the parents; when I talk to them it’s always in person or on the phone and almost always in person, you know?

Everything was just cut off. Then they had to try to support their children, learning online without knowing how to operate a computer, without having the finances to buy a computer, and then not having the finances to get proper internet. And now with Comcast’s Internet Essentials plan ( for low income people), the nine 95 plan; so many of our students have really intermittent, connectivity.  For example, the interference is so great that when they turn their mic on the teacher can’t hear them very well. It’s hard to make out what the student is saying. Sometimes they have to turn off the microphone all together and only use the Chat. Little kids don’t know how to type so then they can’t even participate in class. And the other thing too is that most of our families have multiple kids within one household working on this really bad internet connection and they try spacing the kids out so they are not distracting each other…

Sometimes school staff will try to help them troubleshoot. “Like maybe if you sit closer to the router with the ether cord” or whatever. But if you have three or four kids, you can’t have them huddled around a router, they’re going to be trying to space them out. You know, you have kids working in kitchens, you have kids sitting on their beds, and all these things. I just had a family last night. Like I was telling you about, they have three kids in the house working on the computer and they can’t connect well enough to really participate. The connection drops out throughout the day so they’re dealing with that frustration. We have a lot of kids that are home alone working, without parent supervision.

I have kids that call me and I’ve done a lot of video calls where I’ll say, “Show me your computer.”  And so I’m on the video call with them. There’s a third grade girl that for the first month of school, she called me every single morning because every day she forgot how to do what we’d done the day before. Right.  Just the most basic things that we think are so basic when we’re operating a computer, someone that’s not been trained, doesn’t know how to do.

Throughout the day the students have to be connecting and disconnecting because they have one class with one zoom link. Then they have to go into another zoom link and be on time for that next class. None of us were prepared for this. So teachers kind of were backtracking when the school year started, we realized every student needs one place where each link is in one place, instead of having each class have their own link in their own Google classroom because kids and parents were spending all this time;  “Where’s the link? I don’t know!”  You know?  And so then teachers were spending all this time trying to create documents for students (about how to use the computer and link into their classrooms).

This one mother, she couldn’t get internet because of some previous tenant that had some account and she couldn’t get it in the same residence. Maybe the previous tenant hadn’t closed out their account or had an outstanding balance or something (You all [BDEC] have talked about this). And she couldn’t figure out with Comcast how to fix that. She paid some fee to get internet by the day. She got internet for a day to get on blind, to learn how to get her kid onto the class and how to retrieve a bunch of material. And then what she did was she copied multiple assignments by hand (she did not have a printer). She even drew the pictures. Her child was a first grader. Her child then filled out the worksheets his mother had hand copied and drawn.

Then she took a picture of the work and texted it to me. And I texted it to the teacher. So she went through all of that. Then I said if we’re still facing these challenges and you really want to show the teacher that he’s doing the work, why don’t you do a little phone video, send it to me and then I’ll send it to the teacher. So then we had this little video of this adorable little boy doing the reading assignment. So the mom was going to great lengths, trying to help her kid.

A few weeks into the school year, because of security breaches BCPS made changes to logging on. So then again, we had to start over with all these families that didn’t know how to get in that had been successfully getting it before. With some of our harder cases, we went against city district rules and went to their front porches and said, “Okay, let me see your computer”.

It’s very hard to train someone about a computer from a phone. Then we set up some white tables outside the front of the school and had the IT guy and the bilingual secretary, go out with masks and  train in-person, some of these families. But then even with, even with all of that, some of those families would go back to their houses and then still not know how to solve, uh, you know, just there’s no troubleshooting knowledge.

It’s all the technical knowledge, but then it’s also the fact that the service they have is so unreliable. It is just so multilayered how difficult this is for families.

As told to Nicole Fall, Community Arts Manager, Baltimore Clayworks. The speaker’s comments have been selected and edited for clarity where appropriate.

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