Educators and medical professionals work to provide help to Haitian special needs students

The coronavirus pandemic has upended lives in Haitian communities across the globe. Its emotional, economic and health toll was felt by millions. Now, one year after the March 2020 shutdowns in the U.S. and Haiti, The Haitian Times will produce a series of stories on how the community has weathered these unprecedented times.

Students arrive at P.S. 134 Henrietta Szold Elementary School, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

At Winfield Scott School No. 2 in Elizabeth, N.J., phones have been ringing off the hook.

“We have ESL and bilingual staff members on the phone from two o’clock to three o’clock with parents and their children who need language assistance,” said Samuel Etienne, principal of the school. “The teachers will go above-and-beyond by staying on the phone until 4, sometimes 5 p.m., and will even call them on weekends.” 

Haitian parents with disabled children are struggling with a bevy of issues when it comes to ensuring their kids can learn virtually at home. Internet and technology access still remains an issue nearly a year into the pandemic, as do parents who are essential workers struggling to confirm if their children are logging into their classes and engaging. Educators and experts have consistently reiterated that the language barrier with both Haitian students and parents remains probably the biggest issue.

Although these issues continue to persist, teachers, doctors, and education departments are addressing them with a variety of solutions. Helplines have been established for kids with disabilities to receive additional support, schools call households to let them know interpretation is available in order for their child to understand the materials, and social workers will monitor and call families if they notice children are not logging into their classes.

Access to proper devices, including iPads and laptops, remains a consistent problem across many Haitian families with special needs children. Educators have established technology departments parents can contact for help with the proper devices and ensuring connectivity.

“A big problem that we’re noticing is the technology infrastructure because kids and parents have connectivity issues,” said Samuel Etienne. “We should provide training for the parents on how to support their child as it relates to any form of technology, not just in the time of COVID.”

Etienne has also noticed that Haitian parents are forming small networks where they get together and discussing how to support their children with virtual learning. 

The language barrier experienced by students, parents, and grandparents remains the chief concern that Haitian educators and health professionals are working to address.

“A lot of Haitian parents were not educated in English and may not have the knowledge of where to get the translation support to better help their children,” said Laur-Edine Pierre, a Licensed Master Social Worker at Advocates for Children of New York. “I’m working to support families to make sure the communication is there and advocate for the needed support.” 

Many Haitian parents are also essential workers, which creates added difficulties when it comes to making sure their children are logging on and engaging in class. They might have to leave their children with grandparents who don’t speak English or know how to access Zoom. 

“Haitian parents are not used to having to teach their kids and they usually leave it all to the teacher,” said Nancy St. L├ęger, a Special Ed teacher at Miami-Dade County Public Schools. “If the parents are essential workers, the children are not logging on when they’re supposed to, but I find that they’ll listen to the teacher more than the parents.”

She said that Miami-Dade County Public Schools have introduced a system where social workers will frequently check in with parents if they notice their child has missed class multiple times.

For those parents who can afford to be home and supervise their children, they have the added burden of providing services to the kids that several people would provide when the children would attend school in-person.

“Parents are usually very good at supporting their children’s behavioral needs, but they’re being asked to play the role of parent, teacher, service provider, and school cafeteria worker,” said Maggie Moroff, Senior Special Education Policy Coordinator at Advocates for Children of New York. “If you have a disability, that means you need more support, and when they can’t play all of these roles, the kids are the ones who are suffering.” 

Moroff said that in addition to a helpline that Advocates for Children of New York has established for parents to call, they are also working with the Department of Education (DOE) to develop plans to assess the students and address their ongoing needs. Educators are also happy that the DOE has started translating their information into different languages and hopes that they will soon issue additional resources in Creole.  

Haitian medical professionals are also actively striving to help kids with disabilities by checking in with them and helping connect their parents to support groups. They are optimistic that virtual education for disabled students will improve and said it is paramount that the parents also reach out when they are really struggling with helping their children learn, particularly when it comes to language access. 

“With parents whose primary language is not English, we encourage them to really raise their hand and wave that flag if necessary,” said Sophia Bichotte-Ligonde, a pediatrician at AdvantageCare Physicians in Valley Stream, N.Y. “If the families need help themselves, whether it’s maybe just taking some courses in English or partnering with another family that is doing well, the possibilities are endless.” 

In Flatbush, Brooklyn, educator Rita Joseph said the overall impact of COVID-19 is that schooling needs to be different.

“I’ve never lived through anything like this in my life and it is a new world,” said Joseph, who teaches English as a New Language (ENL) to special needs students. “The digital divide has made it harder for students and education has to be reimagined.” 

This article was originally published in The Haitian Times