Immigrant Students and Educators Reflect on the Pandemic’s Impact on Their Education and Lives

In early March, a few days before the COVID 19 pandemic closed down schools across Boston, Head of School at the Margarita Muñiz Academy in Jamaica Plain Dania Vazquez gathered her key staff, administrators, nurses, the school secretary and custodians because she wanted to have a conversation about what the school would do if a staff member or student brought COVID into the building.

They were discussing what the protocol would be when at some point a staff member asked, “Why are you so worried about thi? This is not going to happen.”

“You know what, 10 days later we had to go on lock down,” said Vazquez. “I remember rushing the kids into the building and out of the building, giving them computers and books and paper and materials, and then gathering the teachers and saying, ‘Listen, take the most important stuff. Take some books or whatever you need. But I think we’ll be back after April vacation.’”

Vazquez’s story was part of a virtual speaking series,  “Suitcase Stories: Reflections from the School Year”, to celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month and the end of the 2020-2021 school year. The event, sponsored by City of Boston Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement (MOIA) and the International Institute of New England (IINE) gave immigrant students and educators the opportunity to share their experiences with remote learning and reflect on the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on their educational journey.

Like many at the time during the early days of the pandemic Vazquez and her staff fully expected to be back in school in a couple of weeks.

“Little did we know what we were heading into,” she said. “There was uncertainty and I even felt really scared. As time went on we had to figure out how to do remote learning.”

Vazquez likened the quick switch to remote learning as building a plane while at the same time flying.

“At the beginning of May I decided to go in (to the school building) because I felt like I needed to be there,” she said. “It was just so quiet. A couple of days after I went upstairs to check on the classrooms and I remember walking through and it was like the Twilight Zone. We literally ran out of the building (when the pandemic struck). There were still open books on tables and there was stuff everywhere. It was like we were coming back in a few days but we hadn’t. It was just so quiet, and cold and dark.”

Growing up a Latina in Washington Heights, New York knew the struggles of living paycheck to paycheck.

“But you know what, this pandemic blew  whatever I experienced as a young person out of the water,” she said. “My Latino community, my black and brown students, were experiencing something that was set at warp speed.”

Vazquez discussed parents losing their jobs, trying to navigate how to get SNAP benefits and the stress kids experience as families that were once stable were torn up by the pandemic.

“I had a mom call me to say that she lost her job, she had Coronavirus, and she didn’t know what to do because her son, my student, was in his room freaking out,” she said. “And that was heartbreaking. We had to struggle to figure out together what to do with another mother who called to say that she was in her final term of pregnancy and didn’t have food.”

There were also calls from students depressed that they would not have a graduation or see their friends for the rest of the year.

“But my staff were all heroes,” said Vazquez. “They were not just teaching–they were delivering Chromebooks, figuring out how to get food to families, figuring out housing vouchers for families losing their homes. I mean, we were doing everything to hold our community together.”

With the pandemic slowing, Vazquez said she wrote a poem for her students called, “Getting Out of Zoombieland.”

The poem reads, “The mothership is waking up/we’re coming back at least some/Zoombieland still has grip/Maybe a little less with each day passing/With each one walking through the doors as connecting smiles onto the mass/Sounds in the hallways/The sun shining through colored windows/We are all waking up a little more/we have to do this together/Pulling each other up and out/It’s a slow crawl out of Zoombieland.”

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