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The hallways of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones Elementary School look different now.
Instead of the latest batch of artwork from students, their walls are plastered with reminders to socially distance and wear a mask. The red-brick building is quieter, too. It’s no longer filled with the chatter of the about 1,000 kindergarten through fifth graders who attended the school before the pandemic.
“It does have a barren look to it,” remarked Allegra Brown, a second grade English as a second language teacher at the elementary school, which is located in Adelphi, about two miles away from Xfinity Center at the University of Maryland.
The coronavirus has also changed the way Brown’s classroom looks. Even though Prince George’s County Public Schools started bringing some students back for in-person learning on Thursday, Brown will continue to only see her kids over Zoom. They have their cameras on for class most of the time, though some turn them off or hide their faces with an emoji when they have to answer a question.
Though Brown’s students tend to grow happier and more engaged throughout the day, she said, online learning is disheartening for some of them. During a class last month, while Brown’s students were reading a story about a girl who lost her cat, a little boy spoke up.
“I don’t want to be online,” he said. “I want to go to school, but my mom said no.”
“I know,” Brown said. “But it’s your parents’ decision. You’ll still see people on Zoom!”
Even before the pandemic, English language learners typically faced more barriers to receiving an education than their native English-speaking classmates. These students are more likely to lack access to reliable internet and technology, and their parents often do not speak English. The coronavirus — and the bout of online learning it triggered — only exacerbated challenges for these students, especially considering that they tend to learn best in small group, face-to-face settings.
For these reasons, among others, Maryland officials encouraged county school systems to prioritize bringing English language learners back to a physical classroom in their reopening plans. But that wasn’t a possibility in Prince George’s County, where in 2020 there were more than 29,000 English language learners — almost a third of the state’s total.
In some county schools, most of the student body are English language learners, said Melissa Kanney, instructional supervisor for the Prince George’s ESOL program. At Mother Jones, for instance, 77.8 percent of students are English language learners. For schools like this, bringing only English language learners back to an in-person learning setting would mean bringing almost the entire student body back, Kanney said.
Despite the obstacles facing these students, however, Kanney said county and school assessments have shown that they’re still making progress. And recently, the parents and legal guardians of certain students — including English language learners — could choose whether they’d like their children to return for two days of in-person learning a week. All students in the county’s public school system will be eligible to return on April 15.
Sitting in a classroom by herself and wearing a mask, Brown logged onto Zoom on Thursday. Some of her students watched class from their homes, as they’ve been doing since school went online last year. But for the first time in over a year, some of Brown’s students listened to her from a classroom inside Mother Jones — it was just a different one from where she was.
Things are slowly getting back to normal for Brown and her students. They’re just not there quite yet.
It brought Brown and her colleagues a lot of joy to be back at Mother Jones last week, preparing for the students’ return. The atmosphere was full of nostalgia, the morale was high. Teachers felt like they were back on the job again, Brown said.
The communities in Adelphi are predominantly Black and Latino. But the overwhelming majority of elementary students at Mother Jones in 2020 identified as Hispanic — exactly 1,000 students, according to the Maryland Department of Education.
There is also a large immigrant community surrounding the elementary school. About 53.5 percent of Adelphi residents were born outside of the United States, according to census data, about 40 percentage points higher than the national average.
Right now, Brown teaches a total of 60 students — about 24 of whom chose hybrid learning.
“There are a lot of things that we are battling against, but I think we are doing well and trying to do well with making sure all of our teachers are equipped with knowing how to support the students in their day-to-day lessons,” Brown said.
But the current learning environment is not ideal. There may be distractions at home, Brown said, such as multiple siblings in one space that keep fighting for the television. Her students didn’t just have to adapt to digital learning — they had to do so in a language that they are not yet fluent in.
It took Brown at least two and a half months to get her kids used to logging in. There were lots of little things she had to teach them, from using the “@” symbol for email addresses to navigating all the online classroom spaces.
Additionally, because her students complete exercises online, they had to learn how to type. On average, if it would take a student 10 minutes to complete a handwritten assignment, it would likely take them 15 to 17 minutes to complete the same assignment on a computer, Brown said.
Trying to get the children to mimic the mouth forms necessary to make the correct sounds in English is also hard to do through a screen, Brown said, especially now that she has to wear a mask while teaching from inside her classroom at Mother Jones. Still, she has found other ways to help her students, such as clapping the rhythm of syllables and recording videos of herself.
“It just takes a lot longer in a digital classroom than in a standard brick-and-mortar building,” she said.
In her classes, Brown also noticed that students are not getting the opportunity to talk with each other on Zoom as they would be able to in an in-person learning environment. In this sort of setting, students can pick up on social cues and ways to agree and disagree. They can form friendships.
But with the start of hybrid learning, some of the students will now have more opportunities to interact with their classmates, Brown said, even if they have to remain socially distanced.
Since the start of remote learning, Brown has had to hop from one Zoom call to another, coordinating schedules with multiple teachers. She has 30 minutes with each of her classes, which means that if somebody is late, it’s a disruption to her whole schedule, she said.
When she returned to the building last week, her body felt the jolt of suddenly no longer working at home. The day seemed to start earlier and end later than it had throughout the pandemic, Brown said.
But despite an exhausting, heartbreaking year, Brown’s classroom has not been devoid of joy.
She sees her students evolving. It warms her heart when she sees students sending each other videos complimenting each other’s English pronunciation when she didn’t even ask them to.
In these moments, Brown realizes that her students are going to be OK.
“They do look for those opportunities to be social or to exhibit the kindness or consideration of others,” she said. “There have been a lot of difficulties, but also a lot of joyous moments, when I take a step back to see what the students are doing.”
Her kids are still eager to learn. She uses a wheel to pick who is going to speak next, and one day, one of her students began chanting his own name and was exasperated when his classmate got to speak instead. Virtual learning has also proven beneficial for students who may usually be too shy to speak up during class.
In class, Brown uses bright, colorful slides. She uses motions to describe the meaning behind the English words she uses. When she says “spot,” she shields her eyes with her hand as if she is looking for something. She asks students to read words out loud: new, says, and, some has.
“You got it, high-five buddy,” Brown said during a class last month when one of her kids gave the correct answer. She raised her palm up high so the student could see it on their screen.
Flor Ramirez used to wake up at 4 a.m. to arrive on time at a restaurant in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a cook. Her mother-in-law was in charge of waking her son, getting him ready and taking him to the bus stop. If it was too cold or too hot, she’d be the one to drive him, too. Then, she’d pick him up from school and make sure he was doing his homework.
Ramirez is originally from Guatemala, where she worked as an elementary school teacher, and her first language is Spanish. She has lived in the United States for 10 years now. Because she has mostly been exposed to Spanish-speaking environments, she isn’t fluent in English yet.
Before the pandemic, Ramirez would sometimes work 12 hours straight. But when the coronavirus hit, her days changed drastically. March 17, 2021, marked one year since she last went to work.
Now, Ramirez is the one to wake her son, Aaron, up for school. He’s a second-grader at Mother Jones, and one of Brown’s students.
Lately, Ramirez has felt a little like one of Brown’s students, too. She sits by him during his ESOL classes in case he needs help. She also even took an ESOL class at Prince George’s Community College for two months so that she could better help him.
Evylyn Quiñones, the principal of Mother Jones, says other parents have taken similar steps to help their children who are English language learners.
“It’s been an eye opener for everybody because now they feel more connected,” Quiñones said. “We see our parents reaching out and getting very engaged in what we’re doing. Sometimes they’re just standing right there next to the kid, just to see how everything is going and making sure that the kid is doing what they’re supposed to do.”
At the beginning, it was difficult and frustrating to adapt to online school, Ramirez said. Sometimes, she and Aaron would have trouble logging in to class or their internet connection would fail. Then, they’d have to move to the living room. It could get crowded, she said, as her apartment is small and she and Aaron live with three other people.
But little by little, Aaron and his mother got more used to the online systems. It seemed to Ramirez that Aaron learned more in the online environment than he did while he was taking in-person classes. He even got to be the student of the month in December, she said.
But things got tough when Ramirez and her brother-in-law tested positive for COVID-19 in the same month and had to isolate. Then, the apartment seemed even smaller.
She and her brother-in-law stayed in their rooms, whereas her husband, son and mother-in-law stayed in the living room. Initially, Aaron didn’t understand what was going on. Ramirez had to explain to him what the disease even was.
It was hard for her son, Ramirez said. He couldn’t hug his mother. Instead, he would leave her notes under the door.
“It was something I’ll never forget,” she said in Spanish. “It marked my heart very much.”
When it came time for Ramirez to decide whether to send Aaron back to school, she chose not to. At that point, her mother-in-law — who is over 65 — hadn’t even gotten her first dose of the vaccine yet. They can’t risk getting her sick, she said.
Instead, they will wait until next year. It will be good for Aaron to return to school to learn, meet and play with friends and interact with his teachers. He wants to continue learning, Ramirez said, absorbing knowledge like a sponge.
But when Aaron does return, it will almost feel like she will stop going to school, she said. She was learning, too. But now, she is taking culinary classes at Prince George’s Community College. Her classes, which are in English, have helped her with her vocabulary.
“Just like everyone, our world changed too. But we got to the point where we realized that when life goes on, we have to go on too,” Ramirez said in Spanish. “Day by day, we have to adapt.”