At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Brockton experienced one of the highest incidence rates of COVID-19 in the state of Massachusetts. Students, families, and staff immediately began experiencing the illness, economic insecurity, trauma, and loss that COVID-19 would soon bring to the rest of the country.
One way in which Brockton Public Schools (BPS) was unique in its COVID-19 response, however, was that it already had a strong multilingual support network for families in place before the pandemic, and so the district was able to respond to the changing situation just as quickly as it unfolded.
Learn more about how staff members partnering with immigrant families responded to the impacts of COVID-19 in the following article and videos.
ELL Family Advocates
As part of the multilingual family outreach team in BPS, a team of part-time ELL family advocates works with the district community outreach director to assist families with social services. These team members also collaborate with the district's bilingual community liaisons, teachers, coaches, paraprofessionals, nurses, adjustment counselors, and administrators. Kellie Jones, director of the BPS Bilingual Education Department, explains, "A number of years ago, we started to employ part-time ELL parent advocates. Their job was to assist families with anything outside of the school system, such as housing, social services, food insecurity or health. There was someone that they could turn to in the school system to help support them with anything they needed."
She continues, "Those employees all had district cell phones and those cell phone numbers were widely publicized. When the pandemic happened, we spread the word on our website, local radio, cable access, and other channels that if families needed support, they could call staff who spoke their languages. Our staff members were available to support families right away for things that they needed."
The first, most urgent issue to deal with was food insecurity. After schools closed on Friday, March 13, 2020, staff sprang into action over the weekend to ensure that meals were available to families early the following week. What eventually evolved from those early efforts was a sustained, multi-pronged approach that included "grab and go" meal sites in families’ neighborhoods, home food deliveries, gift cards for grocery stores, and collaboration with local organizations who could manage food donations.
The district’s Bilingual Department was an integral part of the outreach that made this support possible. Multilingual staff members were in constant contact with families to let them know about the resources and support available from the district and in the community. District staff also made sure that information about help with meals was frequently included in formal and informal communication with families, some of whom didn’t know about the support or were reluctant to accept help. "We had families who were entirely quarantined due to COVID and had no access to food. So they were able to arrange food delivery and they were able to help them understand what this pandemic means," says Ms. Jones.
This was where trusting relationships and established connections within the community were invaluable as everyone navigated the early challenges and stresses of the pandemic. For example, Community Facilitator Manuela Santos shares the story of a mother who couldn’t register online for food assistance. After Manuela went to her house and stood outside while the mother tried logging on to a laptop while standing near a window, Manuela realized that the mother was entering her son’s birthday with the day first and month second, as is common in many other countries. Instead of 8/7, she was entering 7/8. Once Manuela realized the issue, the mother was able to enter the date and access benefits that would give her access to funds for groceries.
Helping ELL families with food insecurity during COVID-19
Barbara Alicea, a bilingual family advocate, talks about food insecurity during COVID-19 — and the lengths her families have gone to show their appreciation for her hard work.
Manuela Santos: How a cultural difference impacted an immigrant family's access to school meal funds
Community Facilitator Manuela Santos shares the story of a mother who couldn't access grocery funds on a debit card provided to families during COVID-19 due to a cultural difference.
School counselor Claudia Gallagher recalls an emotional conversation with a single mom during COVID
School counselor Claudia Gallagher in Brockton, MA recalls an important conversation with a single mom that made it possible for her to provide food for her family and get child care.
Addressing Other Basic Needs
In addition, the Bilingual Department staff were instrumental in:
- providing families with clothes from a "clothing pantry" and distributing donations of winter coats for children and families
- helping families navigate unemployment services remotely
- helping families find housing after displacement due to job loss or a catastrophic event such as a fire
- providing support with immigration paperwork and services
- helping families with small daily tasks, such as getting quarters for laundry machines, taking important paperwork to the post office, and answering questions about basic services in the city
Health services and information
In addition, the Bilingual Department collaborated closely with the district’s health department, which includes many bilingual nurses as well as nurses who have extensive experience in working with interpreters. Together, the different teams put systems in place for answering families’ health and COVID-19 questions, contact tracing, running flu vaccine clinics, and running COVID-19 vaccine clinics. You can learn more about this robust health response in Multilingual Health Services and Support in Brockton, MA.
The district support also included extensive wraparound supports for mental health. Bilingual counselors collaborated closely with family advocates and community facilitators to ensure families could find mental support where needed. Due to the staff’s close relationships with families, they were also able to identify key issues, stressors, and concerns throughout the pandemic in collaboration with the larger counseling team in the district. See more in Supporting Mental Health During COVID-19 on Brockton, MA.
An Example to Learn From
The work in Brockton, MA shows what is possible when a district supports and sustains multilingual partnerships with its families. "These support staff members have really been the key to being hungry or being full, being warm or being cold, being connected or being unconnected, being housed or being in a shelter," says Ms. Jones. "And they have really worked together to try to help as many families as they could during this time. I'm so proud of the way the system utilized existing resources and added to what we needed to try to keep families and the community afloat during this really, really hard time."