With no end in sight to the COVID pandemic that continues to rage through the commonwealth, data shows that communities of color are being impacted at a disproportionate rate compared to white communities. Latino communities in Massachusetts have been hit particularly hard.
According to information presented in a webinar organized by the Latino educational advocacy group PEAS (In Pursuit of Equity, Accountability and Success) on April 27, half of the cities in Massachusetts with the highest rate of infection are also the cities with higher Latino populations, including Chelsea, Lawrence, and Holyoke.
The webinar, “Voices From The Field: Latinx Students In Massachusetts During COVID-19,” included a panel of educators, social workers, journalists, and students who shared their unique experiences living and working in the time of COVID.
“Latinos are being impacted by the virus in Massachusetts and we were very hard hit,” said Mary Jo Marión, assistant vice president for urban affairs at Worcester State in her opening remarks to the audience. “It has affected all parts of life, from health, to economics, to education. There are very few of us on this call who have not had to deal with this in some way, shape, or form. Not only are we grappling with this in our work lives, but we are also dealing with it as individuals.”
The webinar aimed to explore the COVID crisis from an education standpoint and centered around the knowledge that the ripple effect initiated by this pandemic is having a disproportionately negative impact on Latino/Latinx homes and communities across Massachusetts. The ensuing discussions revealed a patchwork of experiences, highlighting the disparity in experiences and policies across the state. But some common challenges and concerns emerged, particularly the cultural and social conflicts presented by quarantining, social distancing, and remote learning and work.
Dr. Lorna Rivera, associate professor and director of the Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at UMass Boston, pointed out that among Latino families, household size is generally larger, with 50 percent of Latinos living in households of four or more. Not only does this limit the ability to practice social distancing, it also presents challenges in terms of access to internet and technology, with many families having no access or having to share with siblings and other family members.
Worcester high school student and Latino Education Institute participant Michelle Salazar described the challenge of helping her family access technology and resources while trying to complete her own work. “Because we are in a time of need, I have to share those skills with my younger siblings, as well as teaching my parents,” she said.
Evelyn Reyes, a Boston high school student, expressed the challenges of locating and disseminating online learning materials and community resources, saying “there is a general sense of confusion about how to access online materials and how to stay motivated, all while being responsible for multiple people.” She also pointed out that while her school district is distributing free meals to students and families, not everyone can access them due to work schedules, lack of transportation, and other barriers.
In the realm of higher education, many of the same challenges are being faced by both traditional and nontraditional students, and with the added stress of an uncertain economic future, some institutions are facing the stark reality that they may not have access to the resources needed to support underserved populations.
“Our challenge is adjusting the work we are doing and pushing for equitable education with less resources,” said Melissa Alves, director of career services and advising at Fitchburg State University. “We really have to consider the gaps in access and equity now that we are remote. . . for example, what on-campus resources are students missing?”
Alves raised the point that the closing of college campuses is impacting Latino students who literally call campus home. For many students, their college campus is the only place where they can access beds, meals, medical care, and mental health support.
The immediate impact on academic and career success is already being seen, according to Alves, who said that for many of the Latino college students she’s encountered, their immediate concern is how to focus on college and academics when survival is their priority. “Higher ed must be mindful and intentional in addressing the gaps that have widened due to the pandemic,” she said.
To illustrate this issue, webinar participant Hilda Ramirez, executive director of the LEI, shared a story about a local high school student and LEI participant who called to tell Ramirez that she was accepted to Harvard University and Yale University, but is not sure she can attend either in the fall due to a relative recently testing positive for COVID.
Additional concerns and challenges raised in the webinar included the emotional toll on students who have lost loved ones or have sick family members, the risk of losing contact with struggling students, academic disengagement, loss of cultural traditions, domestic violence, accessibility for English language learners, and the health and safety of undocumented community members.
While COVID is difficult to control, one webinar participant, Lawrence School Committee member Joshua Alba, asked an important question that will likely dominate the conversation as school districts and communities continue to deal with the immediate and long-lasting effects of COVID: What policy actions can be taken to better protect and serve Latino students in Massachusetts? And while there were certainly more questions than answers to this question, one consensus did emerge: Work to elect leaders who reflect and understand the diverse student population in Massachusetts.