Supporting immigrant and refugee students amid the coronavirus pandemic

Diverse students in school corridor talking

By Lucie Cerna

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and related school closures are severely affecting immigrant and refugee students. According to UNICEF, 31 million children have been uprooted from their homes, including 12.7 million refugee children and 1.1 million children among asylum seekers. Many of these children live in difficult conditions at home, in camps or reception centres, where basic prevention measures against COVID-19 such as frequent handwashing and social distancing may be impossible to observe.

Immigrant and refugee students are also confronted by a whole range of challenges and disadvantages exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis. These challenges may aggravate gaps in academic and well-being outcomes and heighten the risk of drop-out. Nonetheless, there are many things countries and schools can do to support immigrant and refugee students. Both during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the aftermath, a holistic approach to education, which responds to the learning, social and emotional needs of immigrant and refugee students, will be critical for ensuring that immigrant and refugee children are able to complete school and also thrive in learning and in life.

Responding to learning needs

Current school closures can exacerbate already existing learning gaps of immigrant and refugee students who might have experienced interrupted schooling or education before. Estimates from the United States indicate that the learning loss from school closures in terms of reading and mathematics could be particularly severe for vulnerable student populations, such as immigrant and refugee students. While most countries and schools have resorted to online distance learning to provide continued education during the pandemic, not all immigrant and refugee students have access to a computer and the Internet. Therefore, it is important to offer alternative home learning options, including no-tech and low-tech solutions. The UNHCR has prepared advice on how these students can benefit from national virtual learning responses. For example, students in refugee camps in Greece receive weekly homework packages if unable to connect to online platforms by phone or Internet.

School closures also limit the opportunity for immigrant and refugee students to learn the host country’s language, which can reduce their learning opportunities and participation in the social life of their school, as well as diminish their sense of belonging. That is why Colorín Colorado, an educational website, provides advice to educators and families on supporting English language learners, from pre-primary to upper secondary school, throughout the pandemic.

Another challenge during the COVID-19 crisis is the higher risk of immigrant and refugee students of dropping out of school because they have fallen too far behind in their learning, have become disconnected from school, or need to take on additional household responsibilities and/or work. Teachers and schools can help these students to remain connected during school closures by providing Internet hotspots, hosting video chats, sharing videos with closed captioning, providing translated material and engaging with the students’ families or guardians. For instance, teachers are providing similar support to students in the Koutsohero Refugee Camp in Larissa, Greece.

A holistic approach to education during and after this crisis will be crucial to ensure that immigrant and refugee children are able to complete school, and thrive in learning and in life.

Besides the support of teachers, parental support for home-schooling is needed more than ever. However, parents of immigrant and refugee students may not be able to work from home (due to their over-representation among those considered essential workers) or support their children with home-schooling due to their limited education and/or lack of proficiency in the language of instruction. They might also lack sufficient information about school closures, alternative learning arrangements or other services due to their limited language skills. To reach non-native language speaking parents, the Oakland School District in the United States provides flyers to families about school meals in five different languages. In Austria, the Education Minister prepared a letter for parents in 12 languages to inform them about school closures during COVID-19.

Responding to social and emotional needs

Immigrant and refugee students might be particularly affected by limited social contact during the COVID-19 pandemic. They often lack extensive social networks in the host country and may have already struggled with their sense of belonging in the school community. Being in quarantine can exacerbate feelings of isolation, so providing opportunities for socialisation to immigrant and refugee students is crucial. That is why in Sweden an online initiative has been launched to set up virtual meetings between newcomers and Swedes.

Furthermore, refugee students are more likely than others to have specific emotional and mental conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression, due to their previous trauma and adversity. While these students might have previously developed psychological and emotional survival mechanisms, the coronavirus crisis may reignite feelings of distress and re-traumatise them. To respond to these challenges, UNICEF in Italy is offering remote counselling and psychological support for refugee and immigrant children,  their parents or guardians, over the phone or on line. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee Reference Group on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings published, My Hero is You – how kids can fight COVID-19! – a culturally and linguistically accessible book which explains how children can protect themselves, their families and friends from coronavirus and how to manage difficult emotions in a new and rapidly changing reality.

Looking beyond COVID-19 school closures, it is important to adopt whole-school and whole-community approaches – involving school leadership, teaching and support staff, parents, students and wider communities – in order to provide a holistic approach to education for immigrant and refugee students, and ensure inclusive environments for all.

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