MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The coronavirus pandemic and efforts to control it have been tough for many parents to navigate. We're going to talk more about that in just a few minutes. But it's posed unique challenges for undocumented parents, many of whom have essential jobs, like domestic work that they cannot do from home. So a group in Michigan raised money to form a learning pod for their children. Michelle Jokisch Polo of member station WKAR visited the pod and found it bustling with activity.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: No.
MICHELLE JOKISCH POLO, BYLINE: A fourth grade boy lodges a protest when the girls in his learning pod request the Top 40 song "Dance Monkey" during a break for socially distanced dancing.
It's a typical afternoon for the children at the Ann Arbor Community Learning Center. It's a learning hub for children in grades K through 12. And they're meeting in a local church that is not holding services due to the pandemic. When they're not dancing or on a break, the students are doing virtual classwork on computers they got from their schools. And they're getting help from a full-time licensed teacher and two part-time bilingual assistants. One of the parents is named Betty. She's from Mexico. And because she's undocumented, she asks for her and her family to be identified by their first names.
When the pandemic first began, Betty says she was worried that she would lose her job as a domestic worker if she had to stay home and help her children navigate virtual schooling.
BETTY: (Speaking Spanish).
JOKISCH POLO: "Either we stay home with them, or we go out to work so that we can pay our rent, utilities and in addition, the Internet, which, by the way, they need for schooling," she says. Betty has two children, a son in fifth grade and a daughter in ninth grade. Even if Betty could leave her job, she says she doesn't have the English proficiency to help her daughter with her schoolwork.
BETTY: (Speaking Spanish).
JOKISCH POLO: "I know that I'd be able to help my son, who's in fifth grade, but not my daughter," she says. That daughter, Joana, studies with seven other middle and high school students in another part of the church, where the congregation usually meets for Sunday services. She says the setup is way better than it used to be studying in her family's mobile home.
JOANA: It was pretty stressful and overwhelming. Plus, I kind of enjoyed going to school and seeing people and communicating with others.
JOKISCH POLO: Last spring, when public schools closed, Paula Manrique Pfeffer knew it would set undocumented children back. She's a graduate education student at the University of Michigan and an activist with an immigrant-led advocacy group.
PAULA MANRIQUE PFEFFER: If you think about it, you're not only marginalized, you're not only immigrant. Your parents don't speak the language. You feel different. You look different. Your food looks different. On top of that, you're going to come back to school next year where your peers are ahead of you, and you're going to fall even further behind.
JOKISCH POLO: Manrique worked with parents of the 24 kids here and raised money to hire the staff. Now the program has been running for 10 weeks, funded entirely by donations. They hope to have enough funding to cover them until schools reopen again, whenever that is. But at least the kids' grades are up, and they get to have fun dancing together, even if they can't agree on the song.
For NPR News, I'm Michelle Jokisch Polo.
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