One of them was sophomore Danni Hidalgo, who moved to the United States from El Salvador a few years ago and lived in a cramped D.C. apartment with her family, where she and two siblings all did virtual learning during the pandemic. Her mother, a construction worker, lost income during the pandemic, and when people in their apartment building started to fall ill with the coronavirus, she decided this year to move the family to North Carolina, where they knew some people and could have more space.
“We left Cardozo with pain in our hearts, because it had been such a great place of support for us,” said Silvia Cisneros, Danni’s mother. “We needed to protect our health. We wanted to be more isolated.”
During a pandemic that has hit immigrant communities disproportionately hard, the number of students enrolled in D.C. public schools whose first language is not English has dropped more than any other student group.
Some families leave the city, others the country. A parent of three, Teresa Garcia said she knows four immigrant families with children in public schools in her Northwest Washington neighborhood who returned to Mexico and El Salvador during the pandemic because they felt they had no job prospects and little support here.
The restaurants, hotels and commercial cleaning industries that employed many of them have laid off huge numbers of their workers in the past year. Some are undocumented and so have not been eligible for federal stimulus checks, although they have been able to receive smaller amounts of local aid. Others live in informal housing arrangements where they pay cash and do not have leases, leaving them unprotected by the city’s eviction moratorium, according to interviews with students, educators and community organizers.
“If their jobs are in the informal economy, and their housing arrangements are informal — and with an additional technology access barrier — their kids’ school enrollment is the first thing to go,” said Megan Macaraeg, organizing director of Beloved Community Incubator, a community group that has provided aid to immigrant families that have left the city during the pandemic. “They are focused on survival.”
The District public school system is anticipating 900 fewer English-language learners than it had projected before the pandemic, or more than 8 percent of that population. Charter schools forecast a much smaller decline, with most new immigrants enrolling in a neighborhood public school.
This expected decline is leading to staffing cuts. The school system’s initial school budgets eliminated more than 50 staffers serving English-language learners, though schools have been able to restore some of those positions as they work through their budgets.
Parents and educators say that these students will need the most support when classrooms reopen and that it doesn’t make sense to cut staff numbers even if enrollment is declining. And they say they fear that as industries reopen and immigration numbers rise, their schools could experience an influx of students midyear. The school system’s budgeting does plan for midyear enrollees, but this year there is more uncertainty than ever around enrollment numbers.
“If you are going to cut these teachers, then where are we going to get them when we really need them,” said Vanessa Rubio, president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Brightwood Education Campus, which has a student body that is more than 70 percent English-language learners.
Educators and community organizers say they have been trying to track down disconnected immigrant families. Some turned off their phones when they lost their jobs or moved addresses. Many are undocumented and do not want to be found. Some teens and older students took jobs to help their families, and schools are hoping they return. The school system is also looking to federal immigration policies and trends to try to predict how many students will enroll midyear.
Although migration into the country slowed during the pandemic, advocates fear that many children who did arrive never enrolled in virtual school.
In the summer before the pandemic, the school system’s Welcome Center — which assesses students’ language skills when they first enroll in a school — screened 1,654 students whose first language is not English. For this academic year, it has screened 700 students.
It’s possible that at the youngest grades, students enrolled and were never assessed and designated as English-language learners. The school system overall, for example, has experienced a 12 percent decline in 3-year-olds enrolled in the system. That is a 45 percent decline for English-language learners of that age.
“We are closely watching Southwest border migration numbers and lifting of international travel restrictions to inform our [English-language learner] enrollment trends in the coming months,” the school system said in a statement.
Before the pandemic hit, Roosevelt High in Northwest Washington was having a great year. The school has a recently renovated building and a new principal, and after years of shrinking enrollment, the rosters at the school had grown by 200 students since 2017 — a record high enrollment of more than 750 students driven largely by teenagers who recently arrived in the country from Central America. The school system projected that enrollment at Roosevelt would once again grow in the upcoming academic year.
But after many of the mostly Honduran and Salvadoran immigrant Roosevelt parents lost their jobs in the spring, and immigration slowed during the pandemic, Roosevelt fell short of its enrollment projections.
In all, the population of English-language learners at Roosevelt dropped 22 percent from what school officials expected it would have been without the pandemic. Principal Justin Ralston said the school is trying to reach disengaged students and is working to ensure that newly arrived families know that they can enroll their children at the school.
“How do we make sure that students understand the long-term benefits of going back to school when so many kids have been forced to go to informal and formal work situations to support themselves and their families,” Ralston said.
Rubio said that Brightwood was originally slated to lose four staff members for its students who do not speak English as a first language. The school successfully advocated to keep those staff members but had to make cuts elsewhere.
She said she and other parents feared that they would have a swell of migrant students next year that the school would not be able to accommodate. She expects some families who left to return and said she knows a few parents who say that they have nieces and nephews in immigration detention centers whom they plan to enroll at Brightwood when they are released.
In interviews, immigrant students at Cardozo Education Campus said this has been a difficult year, navigating virtual school in a language they do not speak fluently. They said they have seen other families receive more government assistance, while their families have been locked out of it.
Teresa Garcia, who lost her job cleaning office buildings last spring, said that keeping her three boys in school is a priority but that it hasn’t been easy. She speaks little English and had never used a computer before virtual school began; she understands why so many families have had to pull their children out of school.
In the 13 years since she arrived from Mexico, this is the first time she has needed help paying her bills. She tries to pay a little in rent each month because she fears what will happen to her family once the rent moratorium expires. She relies on community organizations for food, and every day, she has to decide whether to keep her youngest child, who is 5 years old, in virtual school or take him with her to pick up meals at a food drive.
“My experience has been really difficult. I didn’t know how to use a computer before this,” Garcia said. “It’s really easy to say come to class and say do your homework. It is hard to just get breakfast and food on the table.”