Like most school districts around the country, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the schools in Brockton, MA had to pivot rapidly to distance learning with little preparation, infrastructure, or training for doing so. Bilingual Education Director Kellie Jones notes, “When the pandemic hit back in March, we were not a one-to-one district. We did not have an infrastructure in place for remote tech learning of students.”
This was an especially critical area to address due to the high number of multilingual families in the district. Learn how multilingual staff members provided families with extensive support and training on how to access devices and Internet connections, check students' progress and schoolwork, and reach out to schools through the new tools available.
Expanding Digital Access
The first step was to connect families with devices, which the district achieved with the support of grants for laptops. The district also worked on getting families Internet access, which presented many challenges. "Working with an outside company that only has applications in Spanish and requires you to put in your social security number or declare that you don’t have a social security number, those things were barriers," says Ms. Jones.
So the district tried a few approaches. "We embarked on a Wi-Fi program where students could purchase Comcast Internet essentials and have that paid for by the district. We also purchased about 3,000 MiFi devices so that students could have a device to get kind of wireless Internet access that did not require any kind of Internet presence. So we purchased the MiFi devices, they would got through a system at their school to be referred, and then they would get the device. By October most of our families all had computers and all had Wi-Fi devices in order to access remote learning."
Yet providing the devices and Internet access wasn’t enough to ensure that families could support their children’s participation in virtual classes. Families needed a lot of tech support — in their language — and some training on how to use the technology. "We realized is that we needed to have resources deployed to support with technical support and instructional support with those devices," says Jones.
In order to provide that support and training, the district took a few steps that involved partnering with the district’s bilingual staff, including paraprofessionals, community facilitators, and family advocates. First, the district trained bilingual paraprofessionals on how to provide technical support and provided them with a cell phone that families could call for technical support. This was, as many of the staff members, a big learning curve in which they now had to be answering a wide range of technical questions about devices, platforms, and procedures that were new to everyone. Some of the paraprofessionals also took it upon themselves to meet up with families or go to their houses to help them, as Carla Fernandes, a paraprofessional in the district who speaks Cape Verdean Creole and Portuguese, describes below. Word spread quickly among the community about how to get help, as you will hear from Ms. Fernandes!
Carla Fernandes: How I provided tech support to multilingual families during COVID-19
Carla Fernandes, a multilingual paraprofessional in Brockton Public Schools (MA), speaks Cape Verdean Creole and Portuguese. In this interview clip, she describes how she helped families navigate new technology during COVID-19 and how the word spread that she could provide important support.
In-Person Tech Support
The district also realized that some families really needed more formal opportunities for in-person, one-on-one help in their home language. So the district also planned a series of outside hands-on tech events with multilingual staff members.
These events were planned, when possible, at grab-and-go food pick-up sites in families’ neighborhoods so that families could come, get food, get tech support in their language, and then be referred for a MiFi device or anything else that they might need. The first event was held at a school that is really centrally located and the event had a great response. Later in the month, events were held at three separate sites to serve more people.
Barbara Lora, an ESOL coach, notes that the community helped spread the word about these events. "Neighbors told neighbors and flyers went out, and all of a sudden we had parents that were coming in not just with their own kids, but with multiple children and their neighbors from their community networks," she says. "We had multilingual family outreach staff, multilingual tech staff, and interpreters available to answer families' questions."
She also remembers a special moment at one of the events. "Our director, Kellie Jones, was there and Soraya Calixte Presume was there, our family engagement specialist," she recalls. "I was speaking Spanish, and I heard Soraya speaking Spanish and Haitian Creole. And there was English and there was somebody translating in Cape Verdean Creole.
"And I think at the most human level, we could all identify with our families, whether as a child who struggled academically or who didn’t have parents to always support them, or as an immigrant, or as a child of an immigrant, or as a mom. It was beautiful. Different races, different languages being spoken and we were all there helping. And at some point we hugged and there were tears because we thought, 'This is what we signed up for. It’s not perfect and we’re still working, but we’re doing the work and it’s good work.'"
Changing questions over time
The Brockton team notes that questions around technology evolved over time. At first, the staff focused on the basics — logging in, connecting to the internet, keeping the device charged. As time went on, however, there were other questions. “We moved on to, how do you navigate all the learning systems that are in, that we’re using? And how do you go from teacher to teacher, or program to program from Zoom to Schoology. And I think having the staff who were able to communicate in the families’ native language was a really important point of access for those families.”
This was echoed by Community Facilitator Connie Jonet-Branco, who speaks Cape Verdean Creole and Portuguese and notes, "Technology has been one of the biggest difficulties we’ve encountered only because a lot of the parents and the teachers are newcomers... so for me that has been one of the hurdles in being able to help them over the phone especially. 'ALT,' 'control,' 'delete' these are the words but sometimes we don’t have it in our language because we use English for these words."
In addition, the multilingual staff collaborated closely with their colleagues to support families. For example, Ms. Lora shares the story of a teacher who was concerned about one of her student's reluctance to participate in Zoom classes. Ms. Lora talked with her colleague about the importance of empowering families to support their education, especially if they have a different cultural perspective on their role in that education, and on establishing trust and respect among families. She noticed that the teacher was taking notes during their conversation, and in a later team meeting with the student, his family, and other support staff, the teacher first highlighted some of the student's strengths in class. She showed the father how he could track how many minutes of independent work the son had done daily.
Ms. Lora recalls, "All of a sudden, the father's eyes widened a bit and he sat forward on his couch to see the laptop a bit more clearly....By the end of the meeting, the father's demeanor had changed. He had a smile on his face and thanked the teacher for the information shared. The teacher had empowered the father by offering him a clear and easy way to contribute to his son's academic success, without having to worry about language or technology barriers, and this was all he needed. I then received weekly updates regarding this student and evidence of progress was immediate. The day after the teacher-parent meeting, the student reached his expected minutes of independent work online, and the trend continued. His on-screen attendance and participation increased, and he even started attending my after-school class this week for the first time (and he kept his screen on and participated the whole class time)."
An additional important piece of the puzzle was the tech support provided by the district staff, which included bilingual staff members such as Sandino DosSantos, a former Brockton student who speaks English, Cape Verdean Creole and Portuguese. Mr. DosSantos was instrumental in providing multilingual support in logging in to platforms, helping students with their accounts, addressing error messages, helping with password resets, and internet issues. Mr. DosSantos also worked as an intermediary, providing translation and tech support at the same time: "Sometimes I would be in a three-way call and I’m speaking to someone and I’m speaking to someone over in this side, someone else on this side."
Sandino DosSantos: Providing multilingual tech support for families in our district IT department
Sandino DosSantos, a data accountability specialist for Brockton Public Schools and a former BPS student, talks about the kinds of tech support he provided for multilingual families in Cape Verdean Creole and Portuguese.
Accessing Key Services
It's important to note that technology access and support was important not just for instruction and family communication — accessing basic services and supports sometimes required technical access, an online log-in, or an Internet connection. This was the case for a family who was having trouble accessing the meal funds on a debit card provided by a state. As Community Facilitator Manuela Santos explains below, that technical difficulty was preventing the family from accessing hundreds of dollars on the debit card for groceries.
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.
These efforts to provide multilingual hands-on technical support succeeded in large part due to collaboration across the district, which in turn empowered families. Community Facilitator Silvia Vasquez notes, "The community facilitators, the advocates, the teachers, and the administration all came together to help our families during this struggle with remote learning. A lot of my families...don’t know how to read or write. So they depend a lot on us to help them and make them feel comfortable that their student is actually doing what they’re doing supposed to do and that they’re doing what they’re supposed to do as parents."