Immigrant children struggle with COVID-induced schooling modifications

Our clinic is a place rich in diversity and culture. Many of our patients are recent immigrants, coming from over 50 different countries. While they bring a zest for opportunities living within the United States, they often face many barriers in seizing them. Most notably, the language barrier is very present and one that has been exacerbated during the COVID pandemic.

COVID has changed many things, and one most visible to us as Pediatricians is the closure of schools. For a period of time, school districts within central Ohio adopted a hybrid model.  However, with rising numbers, some have decided to stay fully online.

This means that the children are now again isolated from many resources that would have been available to them. While the schools have done a herculean task in developing home instruction, there are just some things that cannot be done via zoom. Notably, for non-native English speakers or those who struggle with English, they can easily hide from the Zoom cameras to not show this. In real life, teachers are trained to look for this and to help quickly.

Without this help, the task falls on the parents to augment their teaching, and for many, this is just not possible. Parents strive to do all that they can to promote their child’s flourishing. As you can imagine, it can be frustrating for a parent who is not fluent or confident in their English proficiency to navigate resources within their child’s school or to even teach topics discussed in class. While parents may not be able to teach lessons learned through school, we have tried to encourage parents to still teach their children in their own ways.

We had earlier written about the use of maps in every one of our exam rooms to help our families feel welcome. Now the maps are serving another positive purpose as well. One example highlights this: A mother who immigrated to Ohio from West Africa several years ago came in with her elementary school-aged son. When asked where they came from, mom quickly replied and then added that Emmanuel, her son’s name, is commonly used in her country. She then proceeded to tell us that the name meant “God is with us” (if interested, our names mean “God is my strength” and “Helper of mankind” respectively), and why she chose it, eliciting a masked smile from her son. With little prompting, she then discussed her country and even showed us pictures of the city she grew up in. Her son sat there amazed by mom’s passion and the joy she had in sharing this with us. Now she was the teacher and a very capable one at that, and we were the students. Emmanuel took notice, entranced by mom’s teaching.

Many of our immigrant children’s struggles have due to COVID-induced schooling modifications are real and not going away any time soon. These need to be accounted for as schools regroup and prepare for longer online times than they anticipated. As pediatricians, we can help with this by either reaching out for an individual patient (our social workers have been great with this) or with broader legislative and financial discussions. But we can also, for several brief moments, empower our parents to feel better about themselves, to let them realize that they can teach their children more effectively than they realize, and to not lose hope.

As this mom was leaving the room, we thanked her for the mini-lecture about her country, to which she replied, “No, thank you,” smiling so broadly that even the mask could not hide it.

Gabriella Gonzales is a pediatric resident. Alexander Rakowsky is a pediatrician.

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