How Schools Can Support Immigrant Students and Families

Why Immigrant Families May Have Unique Needs Before, During, and After Natural Disasters

Two women helping people with paperwork at a folding table.

Learn about the unique challenges that your families may face when confronting a natural disaster and how schools can help support families before, during, and after such an event.

The families you serve may have unique needs and challenges leading up to, during, or in the wake of a natural disaster. These may be related to:

  • communication
  • preparation and evacuation for a pending disaster
  • challenges in the aftermath of the disaster like securing relief, having to relocate, or post-traumatic stress
  • fears and concerns related to COVID-19
  • challenges navigating extreme weather, including winter weather.

Different populations may have different situations, including immigrant, refugee, ELL, or displaced newcomer families, as well as families with special needs.

Challenges for Undocumented Immigrants

Undocumented immigrant families can also be particularly vulnerable during or after natural disasters due to a number of factors, including:

  • reluctance to evacuate due to a fear of coming into contact with law enforcement, including rescue personnel, along evacuation routes, in shelters, and at food banks
  • fear of signing up for aid due to paperwork
  • limited access to information and resources
  • complications resulting from lost or inaccessible documents.

See examples of these concerns in the related news headlines below.

How Schools Can Help

Emergency Contact Information

Here are some tips for keeping ELL and immigrant families' emergency contact information up-to-date.

While these tips are not comprehensive, they offer a starting point for including immigrant families in emergency planning and response.

General planning

Review your school emergency plans and consider the following:

  • Do parents have access to this information in their language?
  • Are there measures in place to communicate with families in their language in event of an emergency?
  • Do they know where they can get emergency information in their own language?
  • Are you aware of sources of news and emergency information in their language that you can share?
  • Do families know what they can do to prepare for an emergency in terms of gathering supplies, creating evacuation plans, and addressing children's medical or special needs?

Preparing for an emergency

If a natural disaster is expected and recommendations have been issued by local officials, coordinate communication with those officials, school and district leaders, and parent liaisons. Consider the following:

  • Do families have accurate information about what they are supposed to do and how to prepare?
  • Do they have concerns about preparation/evacuation plans that the school or local officials can help address?
  • Has the school reminded families to update their emergency contact information?

For example, The New York Times reports that following the experiences of Spanish-speaking families during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, a church pastor in South Carolina "contacted state officials to make sure that all relevant state emergency management documents were translated into Spanish and distributed them in print and on social media."

Following an emergency (local)

  • Connect with local officials and community organizations to find out where families are located, whether they can be contacted, and what their needs are.
  • Determine the best means of communication to share information about school openings/closings, public safety, and available resources and aid that they may need.
  • Identify and address barriers to getting that aid that may be impacting families in vulnerable situations.

Following an emergency that relocates families to your district

Conduct a needs assessment of families who are arriving, as well as resources that currently exist to meet those needs. Look for lessons from past experiences with these events – both in your own district and in others. Consider the following:

  • What are the particular issues and challenges that families are facing?
  • What role can schools play in addressing those needs?
  • What departments in our district need to be involved in this response?
  • Who are existing or potential partners in the community that can help us?

Emergency Preparedness

Note: Families may be reluctant to visit federal websites. If you see valuable information, consider printing it and sharing it with families.

Responding After a Natural Disaster

How Kids Can Help

Related News Stories

Hurricane Florence

Hurricane Harvey 

Hurricane Irma

California Wildfires


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