By Anibal Santiago
In Chelsea, the spread of the coronavirus, the poverty level of families and language barrier has made a bad situation worse for students and teachers. Teachers are the frontline soldiers of the education system and hold the weight of student success. Chelsea runs two-and-a-half miles wide and houses over 40,000 people; at least those accounted for on the 2010 Census. For such a small city, the residents experienced a big impact.
An average class size at Chelsea High School is 30 to 32 students per teacher, with a ratio of 11.5 students to 1 teacher. Some teachers are lucky to be paired with a co-teacher or assistant in order to provide a sufficient amount of support in the classroom.
The majority of city residents are Hispanic compared to the majority teacher and staff ethnicity whom are white.
The uneven representation between staff and students hinders the success rate of communication during major disasters, like the pandemic.
“The world stopped, and we were scrambling,” said Erin O’Leary, a Special Education Co-Teacher at Chelsea High School.
Chelsea quickly became the hot spot of the virus, beating out cities double the size with aggressively increasing rates of both confirmed cases and deaths. As of July 26, 2020, the city is at 3,027 confirmed cases and 152 deaths due to Covid-19. Many factors played a role into why this city was the most vulnerable to experience a pandemic like this one.
The teachers pointed out the obvious concerns with the city’s layout of housing structures, and how it highlights the incapability to confront and fairly face a deadly health crisis. With 100-unit buildings, three-family houses, and four sets of project-housing scattered everywhere, residents are automatically stacked so closely; which eliminates the social distance guidelines that the nation’s health officials implemented, in order to slow down the spread. “I have taught for nine years so far so I have commuted through this city for a while now, I have a first-hand experience with the layout and how stacked it is,” said O’Leary.
Housing has a direct correlation with financial status; most of Chelsea residents are considered to be living under the poverty-line. The household average income is $53,280, with 18.8 percent of people living under the poverty line, as of 2018.
As COVID-19 spread through the small city, right behind the virus was fear.
On March 12, the Chelsea Superintendent of Schools Almi Abeyta finalized the decision to shut down the schools. Faculty and students finished the school day and viewed the announcement as a temporary closing. They did not expect for it to be a permanent decision for the remainder of the school year.
“It was framed like it was going to close for a ‘cleaning day’,” said Nina Lary, an English Teacher at Chelsea High School.
The teachers emphasized how the Chelsea High School students balance a lot more than just homework and sports unlike neighboring districts. Many of them recently arrived here from Central American countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, etc. Sometimes with five or fewer years in the U.S., these high school students immediately have to seek work to financially assist their household, sometimes even before establishing new friends to hang out with after school.
“We knew what our kids were going through, but we also knew they cared about their education,” said Lary.
The school officials have implemented a program to help integrate the new students into the American society, called Bridge.
“This program supports newcomers, primarily from Central America. Usually students are in this program for about three years and have to pass an exam called ‘Access’, along with teacher recommendation, in order to transition into a native speaking class. This exam for ESL students exists in about 36 other states as well,” said Jasleen Anand, an ELL Bridge teacher.
Unlike other schools in different districts, this program’s initiative focuses on teaching the students English, much more in depth than just a small class in a school of ESL. Many districts group ESL students together for their entire school experience, which in turn further segregates them, and hinders their potential. Chelsea embraces their community’s strengths and helps students retain their culture and traditions while assimilating with the traditions of this country.
As illness pierced through households, jobs were loss, and deaths were accumulating; students were left to figure out what school was going to look like under those circumstances.
“Lots of students became primary care-givers to younger siblings and others were the primary financial support,” said Giulia Basile, an English Teacher at Chelsea High School.
Due to the economic status of the families in Chelsea, the city had to supply 3,500 laptops for students to continue their education. Along with the laptops, WIFI hotspots were provided for those students who did not have internet access at home. Teachers were confused as to how much material to build for their students.
“Were we to gather one week? Two weeks of material? How long?” said Basile.
The chaos of the pandemic blurred the vision of all parties involved but teachers wanted to save the mission of their jobs with their students, at whatever cost. Teachers were working different schedules in order to match those of students. Students were then off-schedule, waking up later in the morning, being more active in the online platform in the evening; some not active at all.
Academic teachers spent most of their time getting their students the proper equipment, funding and emotional support they needed, that their curriculum was unwillingly placed on the back burner.
The language barrier between faculty and the parents, hindered a smoother, more successful recovery during the pandemic. Parent contact information was either outdated, or not documented on file. “Most families didn’t get a phone call home from teachers,” said Anand.
Those contacts that were available either came with the language barrier or a dial-tone due to service cuts. Teachers expressed how the parents who were out of the loop with their student’s education pre-COVID-19, only got further lost during the crisis. Once students were connected with the proper equipment and services, teachers quickly assessed their mental health, and situation at home. “I was always checking in on them and didn’t put too much pressure on them to complete the assignments right away,” said O’Leary.
Teachers quickly realized that their students were the only source of contact, leaving teenagers to hold themselves accountable for their education. Students were suggested to participate at least 30 to 40 minutes of schoolwork per class, but asynchronously. A study conducted by CHS teachers gathered that eight percent of students were engaging with their classes.
“Although the data collected was inflated, it was as if ‘School was canceled and learning is optional’,” said Anand.
Students quickly understood that assignments were not obligatory, and grades were not going to be negatively impacted. “There is no disservice to raising grades but is wrong if you lower them during a pandemic like this,” said Basile.
Teachers expressed that there was no incentive for personal motivation from the students, which in turn impacted the goals of the teachers. “When the grading rubric was announced and received by students, I saw engagement take an enormous dip,” said Anand.