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A Note from the General Manager about Excursions

Pandemic Leaves Undocumented Students More Vulnerable

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we just heard, immigration is, of course, a major policy issue. But at its core, it's about people, including children. And children who are undocumented are among the most vulnerable. Many have experienced considerable trauma in their home countries and in the U.S. Tens of thousands of children with these experiences have settled in Prince George's County, Md., which is just outside Washington, D.C. Educators there have been trying to support them once they enroll in public schools, but the pandemic has made it much harder. Kavitha Cardoza of member station WAMU has this report. And here, we want to tell you that this piece describes some disturbing scenes.

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: Berta Romero is a counselor for English learners at Mary Harris "Mother" Jones Elementary school. It's a new position that was created before the pandemic to help undocumented children. The stories she hears are awful.

BERTA ROMERO: I had a case where she said that mom had to cover her eyes because she saw that people drowning in the river, dying.

CARDOZA: Did you say drowning in the river?

ROMERO: Mmm hmm. Yeah.

CARDOZA: And so the mom...

ROMERO: Mom had to cover her eyes.

CARDOZA: How old was she?

ROMERO: She's a second grader.

CARDOZA: One mother told her how MS-13 gang members were molesting her daughter on the way to school.

ROMERO: And I have another kid. He came with his dad. They came on the truck, and there was a lot of people in the truck. And he couldn't even breathe. And dad was helping him to take some air, you know, like, pushing the other people to bring him up and be able to breathe.

CARDOZA: Children talk about seeing women raped or people who couldn't keep up with other migrants on the journey and were left behind.

ROMERO: Having those flashbacks all the time and living with that is not easy.

CARDOZA: Romero says the weight of these experiences is like carrying a big backpack with boulders in it. She helps teachers identify and understand the root of behaviors like anger and frustration and how to handle them. But that's much harder to do with online learning.

KERRI BOGART: It was a gigantic shift.

CARDOZA: Kerri Bogart teaches at the same school.

BOGART: I would say 100% more challenging than it was last year. Everyone feels like a first-year teacher in this environment because we're all learning new techniques, new technologies, new platforms.

CARDOZA: Bogart says before, she knew immediately when a child was upset.

BOGART: Some of the kids are just silent criers. They will just sit and cry because they're missing their mom or they miss their family back in El Salvador. Sometimes it can just be random outbursts of tears. Is mommy going to be at the bus stop? I'm worried that she's not going to be there.

CARDOZA: When one of her kindergartners would get upset and crawl under the table, she could kneel down and comfort him. Now, many students don't even have their cameras on.

BOGART: If all we see is the black screen, we really have no way to see how they're doing and to judge how they're feeling.

CARDOZA: Now when children get upset, they just walk away from the computer. That's why Bogart always volunteers to distribute supplies and technology to their homes.

BOGART: Because you can at least see the child and say, OK, he looks good. He's happy to see me. So I know I'm doing something positive for this child.

CARDOZA: Prince George's County has been supporting its educators by helping them recognize the signs of trauma in the classroom. They brought in an expert from Harvard University to help.

MARGARITA ALEGRIA: One of the things that you see is what we call compounded loss.

CARDOZA: Margarita Alegria is chief of the Disparities Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard.

ALEGRIA: They lost their cultural milieu. They lost their familiar language, their customs, their habits. They lost their social networks, and many of them have lost their social status.

CARDOZA: Trauma can also manifest as headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, concentration and learning problems. Alegria says school was typically a respite from the hardships these children faced. Not anymore.

ALEGRIA: They have high levels of stress and anxiety, children that are fairly young, taking care of younger children because their parents have to work as essential workers. We also hear that children are more isolated and feel disconnected.

CARDOZA: Beth Hood, a social worker at High Point High School, says that isolation is combined with the pressure to support their families.

BETH HOOD: The silence, the absence, the lack of connection, that their hopes and dreams have completely been stymied. And I just worry that we're going to lose them, that they won't come back.

CARDOZA: Hood says because of the pandemic, she can no longer take a student aside in class or share a laugh with them in the hallway. Her time now is spent tracking down students, doing tech support or connecting kids with food pantries. It feels like everyone has boulders in their backpacks. For NPR News, I'm Kavitha Cardoza.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "HOPOPPONO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.