In this commentary, the authors consider how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted immigrant education and professional communities in schools, discussing the implications of these shifts for school leaders in the United States.
After providing an overview of relevant issues, the authors explore four specific areas for leaders to reflect on in their work.
The pandemic presents so many challenges to immigrant communities and educators. The reshaping of professional community in schools can help ameliorate these issues.
Our commentary contributes some initial insights to the evolving equity issues emerging in the midst of pandemic.
Lowenhaupt, R. and Hopkins, M. (2020), "Considerations for school leaders serving US immigrant communities in the global pandemic", Journal of Professional Capital and Community, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/JPCC-05-2020-0023Download as .RIS
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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting school closures, immigrant communities in the United States are facing additional challenges during an already difficult time. Researchers have documented how anti-immigrant policies and discourses negatively impact students and the educators who serve them. At the same time, schools offer crucial access to resources, services and support for immigrant families. With their closure, further immigration restrictions, and a host of other concerns, schools are scrambling to identify strategies to bolster these communities.
In this commentary, we consider how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected immigrant education and professional communities in schools, discussing the implications of these shifts for school leaders in the United States. For the purposes of this discussion, we use the term immigrant student broadly to describe those children and youth who are part of immigrant communities. Although many scholars refer to “children of immigrants” to differentiate those born in the US and those born outside the country, we refer to both foreign-born students and children of immigrants for the purposes of this essay. These students represent a heterogeneous group with a range of experiences and identities.
A vast body of scholarship from a range of disciplines has revealed how immigrant students experience mobility, nationhood and integration in different ways. Navigating difference is a common theme for these students as they make their way through school. Some immigrant students have experienced trauma and disrupted schooling on their way to the United States. Many come from mixed-status homes in which some members of the family have documentation while others do not. Some have special status as refugees, asylum-seekers or migrant students, which affords access to specialized social services. Some may maintain strong connections to their home countries, whereas others have experienced a complete rupture. Although not all students we refer to as immigrants are learning English, there is substantial overlap between immigrant students and students currently and formerly designated as English Learners. Finally, many immigrant students are ethnically and racially distinct from their non-immigrant peers, adding another layer of complexity to their experiences and identity development. As an anchor institution in the lives of these students and their families, schools play a crucial role by providing services, access to academic and language learning, and opportunities for social integration.
Leadership and professional community in immigrant-serving schools
In our prior studies of leadership and policy in the education of immigrant students, four core tenets have emerged that social justice-oriented school leaders tend to elevate in their work with immigrant students and communities. First, they find ways to foster a sense of belonging by acknowledging and welcoming diverse communities through symbols, rhetoric and respectful interactions. This welcome goes hand in hand with efforts to acknowledge and minimize barriers to participation that students and families may face when it comes to engaging in school. Affording equitable access to learning opportunities is also crucial and often complex, as language differences and prior educational experiences can be viewed as deficits, rather than assets on which to build. In addition to ensuring academic rigor and support for all students, leaders also seek to offer opportunities for social integration so that immigrant students can learn with and from one another and their non-immigrant peers.
These four tenets – fostering sense of belonging, minimizing barriers to participation, providing equitable access to rigorous learning opportunities and ensuring opportunities for social integration – often serve as the foundation for school leaders' work as they develop a professional community with immigrant students' needs and assets at the fore. Although conceptualizations of this professional community tend to focus primarily on teacher collaboration, our work has shown that the professional community for immigrant students includes a range of stakeholders who span school, home, and the broader community.
As shown in Figure 1, school leaders work to facilitate connections with and interactions between these different stakeholders. For example, leaders can facilitate connections among teachers and other staff to support immigrant students' learning and well-being. This work requires establishing a collaborative school culture with processes in place to support joint work and the sharing of expertise between English language specialists and teachers of content, as well as between teachers, guidance counselors and other support staff. Additionally, school leaders are responsible for ensuring that immigrant families have access to both educational and other resources for basic needs like food and health-care. Partnering with community-based organizations is a strategy many leaders use to facilitate resource-sharing, often through community liaisons who serve as brokers between home and school. Language services are also important to ensure strong connections with immigrant families and are often provided by community liaisons as well as bilingual teachers, paraprofessionals and front office staff. Leaders who foster a professional community for immigrant students do so by establishing and maintaining structures for communication across these diverse stakeholders.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic
The context of the global COVID-19 pandemic presents significant challenges to school leaders as they work to maintain connections to the various stakeholders described earlier. These challenges relate to the effects that school closures and the shift to distance and online learning have had on immigrant students' educational access and opportunity. The so-called “digital divide” is just one of many social inequities facing immigrant students as they are likely to face greater disparities in access to computers and high-speed Internet at home. For those immigrant students and families who speak languages other than English at home, their participation in distance learning relies on having access to resources in their home language and contact with school staff who speak their language and can provide assistance as needed. Even if they are able to attend school virtually, those who are undocumented or have family members who are undocumented may fear participation in any online platforms where photos or videos might be recorded or posted given worries about electronic monitoring by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Navigating these heightened barriers, leaders are tasked with finding new and safe ways to communicate with immigrant students and families, while supporting teachers collaborating with immigrant families to facilitate students' access to and use of instructional resources. The shift to distance learning has fundamentally changed families' roles in educating their children, and leaders must ensure that immigrant families have the support they need, and do so in ways that value families' lived experiences and knowledge.
Beyond teaching and learning, there are other very real challenges many immigrant students and their families face as a result of the pandemic in terms of employment, housing and food. Some families may have temporarily or permanently lost their jobs or have limited access to public services, while others remain employed in jobs that cannot be done from home, thus risking exposing themselves and their families to the virus. Further, the broader context of job loss and resource scarcity has only exaggerated anti-immigrant sentiment across the country. These issues can take a serious toll on the health and emotional well-being of immigrant students and their families. Many supports that may have been in place previously are no longer available during the pandemic. For example, most after school programs, where staff may offer crucial socioemotional support to immigrant students, are not providing services nor do they interact with students during school closures. Similarly, guidance counselors and other staff (e.g. nurses and office staff) have fewer, if any, opportunities to interact informally with students to ensure their well-being. School leaders must take these broader needs into account and explore how addressing them may necessitate an expansion of their partnerships with organizations beyond school.
Considering these challenges, serving immigrant students and families amidst the COVID-19 pandemic requires school leaders to redefine and reconsider their approaches to developing a professional community. Explicitly identifying the many stakeholders that compose the professional community for immigrant students (see Figure 1) and taking stock of how this community has shifted as a result of school closures can help leaders to identify where new or revised initiatives are needed to foster connectedness and community during this time of social distancing. In the subsequent paragraphs, we offer four considerations for school leaders as they rethink their and other stakeholders' roles in the pandemic to facilitate greater access, opportunity and well-being for their immigrant students and families.
Considerations for school leadership
In response to the substantial challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic for all communities, and for immigrant communities in particular, school leaders are being called on to adapt their work to the new set of issues that emerge in this context. We suggest that as they rapidly reimagine what schooling looks like, they should consider four key approaches as central to their response both in the short and long term.
Convey and promote asset-based framing
As schools pivot to an online learning environment, the ways in which various stakeholders frame the circumstances of immigrant communities shape how they are supported. Just as they always play a key role in working on asset-based framing of immigrant communities, leaders must proactively seek ways to ensure the positive construction of students and their families during this time. Efforts to frame welcoming messages and build on the strengths of immigrant communities must continue with even more urgency in the online context. As new forms of communication arise in this virtual environment, leaders need to leverage opportunities to highlight the positive value of working with such communities and check in with educators to remind them to do the same. As they articulate a vision for educating these students, leaders can remind their staff of the importance of identifying and naming the positive contributions these families make to the community. They can also emphasize and model efforts to incorporate family experiences and insights into their work by reaching out directly and seeking input from those families. Situating learning in the home has the potential to make these assets more apparent to teachers as they are brought more directly into the lives of their students through technology. Encouraging teachers to identify and build on those assets, leaders can help promote positive framing. With school closed and in lieu of everyday, in person interactions, leaders need to innovate ways to communicate this asset-based framing across stakeholders.
Shift engagement strategies with families
Addressing the current crisis requires schools to rethink the roles of families, who have been thrust into the driver's seat of their children's education. Although efforts to deepen family engagement under normal circumstances focus on two-way communication to connect home and school, the primary site of learning has historically been the classroom. Many teachers tend to inform families about students' progress and reach out for help only when a student is not succeeding. Family engagement beyond this often occurs in informal, “curbside conversations” and formal efforts to bring families into school through cultural and learning events, such as English classes, which help build trusting relationships between home and school. However, school closures have re-centered learning in the home, where families have become co-teachers in the effort. While this is widely recognized, the dilemmas arising from this shift continue to emerge. For example, where is the burden of responsibility for accountability when the teacher serves as an online guide, and the parents facilitate students' engagement with school?
We argue for the need to collectively reframe what it means to partner with families now, as both school personnel and families renegotiate their roles. For immigrant communities, the barriers are particularly pronounced as language issues can hinder interaction through phone or online, and teachers are not accustomed to ensuring that materials, resources and assignments are provided in the home language. Furthermore, curbside conversations can no longer be used to foster trusting relationships, and many families are confronting unprecedented challenges in their daily circumstances that make it difficult to find time and energy to invest. Teachers need to keep in mind the various day-to-day realities of families when it comes to expectations for engagement and ensure that, at a minimum, materials and resources are provided in the home language. While there is no easy answer to these dilemmas, establishing two-way communication is crucial for addressing them.
Develop explicit supports for school-staff collaboration
Fostering two-way communication is not just important between home and school; coordination among school staff is also critical, particularly in the current context. Collaboration between generalist and specialist teachers can ensure immigrant students equitable access to language and content instruction, and support their integration into schools and classrooms. Such collaboration can occur through formal structures like co-teaching that require collective lesson planning and coordinated instructional delivery; it can also occur more informally as teachers share ideas about how to support their students' linguistic and academic development. Teaching at a distance and in an online environment, however, presents challenges to this kind of collaboration, which often relies on leaders' allocation of in-person meeting time for teachers or on more informal communication as teachers see each other at school. Leaders need to develop formalized structures for generalist and specialist teachers to coordinate their teaching schedules and instructional foci, and the kinds of protocols that can be used to facilitate this work in the midst of social distancing. Whether this coordination occurs online or via phone, time should be set aside to support teachers' ongoing and regular communication, with resources allocated to ensure they are able to meaningfully coordinate and support one another. Beyond instruction, leaders should consider creating routines for teachers and counselors to interact and develop new approaches for addressing immigrant students' socioemotional needs and general well-being during distance learning, as well as for the time when schools reopen.
Strategically bolster inter-agency networks
Our work with district and school leaders has revealed the importance of district-community partnerships in fostering integration and meaningful access for immigrant students and their families. Community-based organizations provide immigrant families with a wide range of resources, including basic needs assistance such as housing and food, legal services and advocacy, and language support including translation services and adult ESL classes. The availability of these resources, however, is only as good as the networks that are in place to connect families to them. Even in places where these relationships are already robust, the current stay-at-home orders limit direct contact with families as well as the availability of certain resources.
Given that districts and schools are often the hub for these relationships, leaders must consider how to bolster them in new and creative ways. In addition to maintaining open lines of communication with community agencies, some districts and schools employ community liaisons who are responsible for creating and sustaining district-community relations in their work with immigrant families. In the context of COVID-19, the work of these boundary spanners should be elevated to ensure that families' needs are being met, especially for those who may not be able to communicate their needs in an online environment. More resources should be allocated to support their work, and to identify effective means of communication and no-contact resource provision. Many districts already have the infrastructure in place to provide families with free meals and to distribute laptop computers, a major and noteworthy undertaking in the early response to school closure. Community liaisons could build upon this infrastructure to identify immigrant families' needs and support their access to resources in collaboration with staff from schools and community organizations.
There is no doubt that as the current crisis unfolds, immigrant communities will continue to face ongoing and increasing challenges. To help navigate these challenges in the midst of substantial upheaval, school leaders can rethink the roles, responsibilities and connections of various stakeholders. We argue that the current context requires new definitions of professional community in education, particularly when it comes to serving immigrant students. Typically, we have thought of professional community in education to incorporate primarily educators – administrators, teachers and other school-based staff working with students. However, families and community organizations are also essential supports, particularly in the current context. Although informal interactions can provide support when schools are open, leaders need to think strategically about shifting those interactions through purposeful outreach and communication across stakeholders during school closures. As we all grapple with the implications of the pandemic for education, school leaders play a central role in reimagining an expanded professional community that can be leveraged to support immigrant students in crisis.
We want to thank our many collaborators and mentors who have helped us reflect on these issues throughout our careers. In particular, we want to acknowledge current collaborators Patricia Gándara, Ariana Mangual Figueroa, Dafney Blanca Dabach, Ilana Umansky and Roberto Gonzales for their insights and contributions to our shared commitments to immigrant students and their communities. We also thank the W.T. Grant and Spencer Foundations for supporting our work and providing guidance in various ways.