Immigrant families face complex challenges with Minnesota’s distance learning

Language barriers and a lack of internet access could cause inequities to widen during the COVID-19 pandemic

A man points to a book that a young child is reading.
From left, Mohamed Nor Qeys, 29, of Minneapolis reads a children's book with his son Safwan Nor, 6, as a part of distance learning for the Minneapolis Public Schools district. Although Qeys is able to log on, he worries about others in the Somali community where many parents may not have access to computers or even basic computer skills.
Courtesy of Mohamed Nor Qeys

Distance learning for Minneapolis Public Schools and many other districts across the state launched a week ago, but not every family has been able to even log on.

Many immigrant and refugee families are still navigating distance learning while also trying to find the right support needed to succeed online. Some have limited English proficiency, no formal education or internet access, and even lack the understanding of how to work on a computer.

This situation overwhelms some immigrant community members in the state, including Mohamed Nor Qeys, 29, who moved to the United States from Somalia in 2017 and has taken up a job as an informational technology specialist. He’s the father of two sons — a kindergartener and third grader— attending the Minneapolis Public Schools district.

These days, Qeys is staying at home to help his children understand educational materials assigned to them for distance learning. His wife speaks no English, so the responsibility falls entirely on him. He helps Abdiaziz Nor, 9, working on math through computer programs, and then reads to Safwan Nor, who just turned 6 on Friday.

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Qeys is grateful to spend time with his sons, but he worries that if he loses his job, he may no longer be able to bring home income to support his family.

“I am one of the luckiest people to have enough education to help his kids through this scary time, but I have to also feed them, which is giving me another stress,” Qeys said. “(The community) is facing a hard time to not know what to do. They never had education back home in Somalia, and now they are here not getting that equal opportunity.”

Qeys’ neighbors have told him they don’t know how to help their children use certain apps or send emails because they never were taught how to use this kind of technology. Troubleshooting became a problem with an added language barrier, he said.

A shortage of devices

Qeys said he attempted to call the district three times about solutions to help his neighbors and friends. Some of his neighbors and friends told him that because they didn’t have internet access, the district said they’d provide paper copies for them to use.

A man talks with a child at a computer.
Mohamed Nor Qeys helps his son Abdiaziz Nor, 9, with a math problem while distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Courtesy of Mohamed Nor Qeys

A spokesperson with Minneapolis Public Schools confirmed there have been high call volumes about a lack of access to technology. Julie Schultz Brown, executive director of communications and marketing, said Friday some families still haven’t been able to access their materials.

District officials soon realized there simply weren’t enough devices to go around and now hope to get most families online by Friday.

No student who’s had trouble accessing their hot spot or computer will be penalized, she said, adding that the district is using these first two weeks to figure things out.

Schultz Brown also noted that some families have had problems connecting because their addresses or phone numbers have changed, hampering district plans to deliver devices to their homes.

Nonetheless, the district hears the frustration among students and parents, she said. To that end, it’s been trying new ways to engage with families and has posted videos on school websites in various languages.

“We’ve been trying to do it that way — we can’t meet with people,” she said. “But, our engagement staff are in touch with key influencers and cultural communities.”

Normally, the district has interpreters helping teachers and staff engage directly with their families. Distance learning complicated things, said Muhidin Warfa, the executive director of the district’s multilingual department.

“It’s a little bit harder because a lot of families have so many things going on with five, six, seven kids and so they’re juggling to arrange space at home for those children,” Warfa said. “Some of them with special needs children are not able to have that structure that they are used to from their school environment.”

Warfa knows of families who have expressed feeling overwhelmed, and tries to help carry the burden by having staff directly reach out to them to see what they need.

Gov. Tim Walz ordered Minnesota public and charter schools to close in mid-March to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and distance learning officially began March 30. But in many districts such as St. Paul and Minneapolis, that coincided with spring break, so remote instruction didn’t begin until last week.

Other districts across the state say they’re also hustling to help disadvantaged families navigate these unfamiliar times and stem the potential for widening inequality.

Sam Ouk, equity and multilingual program coordinator with Faribault Public Schools, said a lot of immigrant families are having trouble logging on.

‘A civil rights issue’

What makes distance learning during the COVID-19 more challenging for families with limited English skills isn’t just internet issues, but also dealing with emotional trauma lingering from their times of hardship in refugee camps, he said.

“The possibility of education for the child was what kept them alive,” Ouk said. “And now, now seeing their children out of school has become really disturbing to some. The uncertainty and loss of control is bringing them back to familiar time while being in refugee camps.”

Ouk wrote letters to the Minnesota Department of Education to address the gap that many families are experiencing with accessing Wi-Fi.

Local organizations like the Faribault Diversity Coalition secured up to 50 hot spots to share with children who don’t have Wi-Fi to complete school assignments, but that doesn’t fix everything.

“I do feel that access to the internet is a civil rights issue,” Ouk said.

Ouk said that some districts have to drop off physical copies for families to go and pick up and drop off for their child’s assignments if they have no internet, but that in itself exposed an inequity.

“Teachers can print paper versions of everything, but doing this more resembles the days of segregation where a country promotes separate but equal,” he said. “And we all know that those practices back then weren’t equal.”

Some community members are leaning on one another as they share their worries regarding distance learning. They’re trying to help one another translate homework and have sought interpreters when contacting administration about issues with online access.

Many immigrant and refugee families aren’t able to take time off from work, and some are afraid to lose their jobs if they have to stay home during the pandemic. For now, it’s unclear as to when their concerns would get addressed fully, but Qeys, the Minneapolis father at home with his boys, is hoping sooner than later.

“There is inequality for getting resources from the district,” Qeys said. “I am worried because I may lose my job. Also some families are worried since they don’t know how long this will take.”