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Read in Spanish | Leer en español.
It sounded easy enough, especially for a smart and motivated ninth-grader like Fredy Solís: Open the app and click on the invitation.
But Fredy, an immigrant from Guatemala who was then 15, felt paralyzed at the instructions his Spanish teacher texted him last March. First the password didn’t work. Then he couldn’t figure out how to turn on his audio. Before he arrived in the United States six months earlier, he had never laid hands on a computer.
Perched on a metal folding chair in the sparsely furnished bedroom he shared with his father, Fredy felt awkward and embarrassed. He worried that he would not achieve the dreams he had only recently begun to believe in: that he would learn English and graduate from high school.
Many students like him, striving for a better life, felt the same shadow fall across their hopes and plans.
Among the millions of students across the country whose educations were upended a year ago by the pandemic, new English learners like Fredy face the greatest risk. It was true before COVID, but success comes so much harder now. To understand the remarkable forces and obstacles these newcomers to America have to contend with, a Globe team closely tracked one class at Boston International Newcomers Academy — BINcA for short — for most of the past year.
The students’ stories proved surprising and heartbreaking, by turns. Sheer grit would carry some of the 11 students in Mr. Espínola’s class through the crisis, but grit was not enough. Some would falter, some would fail, and some simply disappeared.
The students who stuck it out watched with dismay, and a sense of utter powerlessness, as learning that once filled a room with vibrant conversation shrank to the confines of a gridded screen, a portal so narrow they could almost see it closing.
Fredy was determined not to be among those whose faces stopped appearing in the Zoom class on his screen. But as the weeks of remote learning turned into months, he wondered who would be next to go.
Could it be him?
Across the country, in large city schools and sprawling rural districts, students have gone missing since their schools shut down last March.
Their disappearances remain in part a mystery, unlikely to be fully understood for years. The numbers are only estimates so far. But researchers say one thing is clear: Students who are new to this country, and to English, have left school at higher rates than most others. And they are the students with the most to lose.
When the national group Bellwether Education Partners set out to estimate how many students from the most marginalized backgrounds — including English learners, homeless youth, and students with disabilities — were largely absent from school in the fall, the results stunned even some of the most pessimistic observers.
As many as 3 million. One in four.
Nationally, as many as 3 million students from marginalized backgrounds, including English learners, were largely absent from school in the fall, the Bellwether Education Partners estimated.
That includes 1.2 million English learners nationwide: more than the total number of children enrolled in school in Massachusetts. “It’s an enormous number,” said Hailly Korman, a senior associate partner at Bellwether. “Without a really intensive, carefully targeted strategy, they are going to experience the consequences of this for the rest of their lives. And the effects are likely to be intergenerational.”
Some students lacked the technical tools or knowledge to continue their classes online. Some felt overwhelmed as they struggled to master a new language without in-person support. Others have had to pick up as much paid work as possible to keep their families financially afloat. Some are homeless, with no place to log on from.
The current struggle to retain English learners is rooted in a deep history of neglect. Schools across the country, and in Massachusetts, have long failed to meet the needs of students learning English. Statewide, they are three to five times more likely to drop out of high school than their American-born peers, depending on the year.
Although experts and educators believe that many English learners will come back when schools reopen more fully — albeit with months, if not years, of learning to catch up on — they fear that untold numbers will never return.
“The biggest concern,” said Amaya Garcia, an English learner expert at New America, a think tank based in Washington D.C., “is that they leave school altogether, and we lose them.”
From the time he was 6, Fredy Solís had two jobs: attending elementary school in his village in the highlands of eastern Guatemala, and working long hours in the hot sun on his family’s struggling coffee farm.
He knew which role would ultimately take priority. After sixth grade, the nearest place he could continue his education was a two-hour drive away. His family couldn’t afford to send him there. So Fredy worked on the farm full time during the week, chopping and bundling firewood and weeding around the small, leafy coffee trees, while studying correspondence school assignments on the side. On Saturdays he traveled to the school’s “study circles,” where he tried to master a week’s worth of material in one day.
It seemed hopeless to Fredy. His duties on the farm allowed him little time for studying. But his mother wanted him to stay in school, so, for her, he did what he could.
Then one evening in the spring of 2019, the night before a big test, Fredy got a phone call that would change his life forever. It was his father, with stunning news: He planned to leave the next day for the United States, and he hoped to take the 14-year-old with him.
Fredy thought it had to be a joke. They had talked about going to the United States before, but never with great urgency.
“We have to go soon. They’re going to close the border,” his father said.
“What does Mama say?” asked Fredy. “Does she agree with this plan?”
“Yes,” came the answer. “She has given her blessing.”
The teenager had just a few hours to decide. It would mean leaving his mother and siblings behind. But his family was desperate, and Fredy, as always, wanted to help.
His father had bet big on coffee in 2010, borrowing around $12,000 to buy fertilizers and other supplies. When the price of coffee later plummeted, he could no longer make payments on his debt. In the United States, he hoped to pay it off for good. If he didn’t, the family would lose their land, and their home.
With a job in America, Fredy could contribute. Maybe he could even send home school tuition for his younger siblings. The idea inspired him: If they went to real school, they could “be someone.”
The decision was not difficult. He packed a small bag for the long trip.
In Boston, Fredy was assigned in September of 2019 to the school known as BINcA, and placed in Celoni Espínola’s class.
It was a lucky break for a kid who hadn’t had much luck.
The school where Fredy had landed was the only one of its kind in Boston, and one of few in the state. Housed alongside Boston International High School in a 19th-century brick building with tall, arched windows, on a quiet street where Dorchester blends into Mattapan, it was designed for new English learners like him, offering them extra academic help and counseling, and multilingual teachers who understand their needs. More than half the school’s teachers are immigrants or the children of immigrants: instant role models for their ambitious students.
From the start, Fredy was amazed by the support his new school offered. Soon after his arrival, BINcA staff gave him a smartphone to help him find his way around the city, and stay in touch with teachers and friends. Teachers stayed after school every day to offer tutoring.
His teachers pushed him to read far more than he ever had before, in both Spanish and English. In class with Espínola — a veteran teacher and immigrant from Spain who knew firsthand what it took to master English — Fredy read about the lives of civil rights leaders Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez, and writers like Oscar Wilde, translated into Spanish. His improved literacy made every aspect of his new life easier, from navigating Boston’s bus lines to using his new smartphone.
Yet it was in math that his emerging skills shone brightest.
In Guatemala, Fredy had learned only basic arithmetic at his village school. At BINcA, he had to find the value of X and contemplate negative numbers. For weeks he was so lost he didn’t bother doing his homework.
Lesson by lesson, asking questions as he went, Fredy pieced it together. He got one answer right, and then another. His panic ebbed. And then one day in math class, months after his arrival, “I realized I understood what the teacher was doing — and no one else did,” Fredy remembers.
Generous by nature, he began to help his classmates, who flocked to sit near the star student. “The teacher couldn’t help everyone individually, so I had to help her explain [the lesson] to everyone,” he says.
Fredy’s journey to Boston had originated in a sense of obligation to his family, not personal ambition. Yet as his first semester at BINcA drew to a close, late in 2019, he had begun to realize how far he might go.
The virus swept in with ominous quiet in 2020, a swirl of rumors and vague fears, until the day Boston schools announced a total shutdown. Fredy and his classmates heard the news at school, from a teacher who explained what was happening in Spanish. Fredy was sad to leave school, but it would be another week before he fully grasped the gravity of the situation: that he would be confined to his home, and people around him would lose their jobs.
Other young immigrants never got word about the shutdown.
On March 17, 2020, the first day Boston’s schools were closed, clusters of Spanish-speaking students waited on street corners for buses that never showed up.
“En serio?” one 10-year-old exclaimed in Spanish — “Seriously?” — when a reporter told him that morning that schools had been closed.
Forced to pivot almost overnight and invent a new online school system, the city’s bureaucratic systems strained to connect with an enormous, multilingual population of immigrants. Some families did not receive vital information; others could not read it when it came. In some cases, students in need of laptops could not be found, their addresses and phone numbers out of date.
Days into the crisis, it was clear that reaching English learners remotely would not be easy. If basic communication was already such a challenge, how would the system teach them English from a distance?
At BINcA, the initial transition was smoother, eased by the school’s robust bilingual resources. Staff members mobilized quickly to hand out laptops and Internet hotspots on the last day of school, and delivered them to students who didn’t pick them up.
Fredy’s teacher, Celoni Espínola, scrambled to find ways to keep his students learning. He sent home all of the books on his classroom shelves, and photocopied stories, so his students could practice reading at home. He created a WhatsApp group for each of his classes, aware that many students, like Fredy, struggled with technology and e-mail.
And he worried, from the earliest days of the shutdown, about what would happen to his class of newcomers, and how long they would be able to hang on.
“They are less independent [as] learners than most other students,” the teacher said. “They are particularly vulnerable.”
Among the students in Espínola’s class last winter were two girls and nine boys, including Fredy. All had come from one of three countries: Honduras, Guatemala, or the Dominican Republic. Almost all spoke Spanish as their native language; all had left behind childhood homes and loved ones to plunge into a new life in a strange new country. Their common bonds had quickly drawn them close, despite their very different origins.
They had just begun to find their bearings, and to speak and understand English, when the pandemic yanked them from their classrooms.
Among her BINcA classmates, Nohemy Mauricio, then 17, had found a surrogate family, a patchwork substitute for her siblings in distant Guatemala. The dark-haired young woman had boldly chosen, all on her own, to leave behind a life of backbreaking labor on her family’s farm. (The Globe agreed to use Nohemy’s middle name, and her mother’s maiden name, to protect her identity.) She had journeyed alone 3,000 miles to Boston, where she lived with a brother who had made the trip before her. She, too, dreamed of becoming “someone”, una persona grande, with an education and a respected profession. It was a long shot, but with her school to guide her, even an unlikely goal seemed possible.
For Isaías Rodezno Guardado, the tension between school and work loomed large. Even before the pandemic, attending BINcA required near-superhuman endurance for the dimpled young man from Honduras, 18 at the time, given his grueling work schedule as a cook in a Mexican restaurant and his four-hour daily commute across the city to school and back. Isaías (pronounced EE-sah-EE-ahs) longed for a better life, and he knew he needed English to succeed. So he had asked his school to help him transfer to a high school closer to his home in Brighton. Maybe then he could find balance — and a few more hours of sleep.
Espínola worried about them all, but especially Nohemy and Isaías, whom he knew were both in Boston without their parents. Cut off from their school by the pandemic, with minimal support at home, they were at risk of loneliness, anxiety, and depression — at risk, too, of dropping out.
Espínola also knew that the economic downturn would devastate the school’s families, who depended heavily on jobs in the hospitality industry. The mass restaurant closures during the pandemic would undoubtedly force some of his students to work longer hours.
“You could feel the fear,” he said. “I knew [they] would have to make up for that lost income.”
For Fredy that fear was evident nearly immediately. Both his father’s work hours and his school hours were slashed with the shutdown order. For the ninth grader, two hours of English a day had been cut to two hours per week. Math time plummeted to an hour weekly. “It was very little,” he says.
Fredy tried to make the most of it. Even in his crowded apartment, he sought out the quietest corners at class time, and arranged his school supplies in tidy piles: books in one neat stack, highlighters beside them.
For students like Isaías, who had struggled with in-person school, the switch to online learning was even more disorienting. He tried logging in a few times, but found he could not focus. Soon he stopped showing up at all, an early harbinger of the larger exodus to come.
Still his teacher would not give up on him.
What’s happening to you, son? Espínola wrote via Whatsapp in the spring, after Isaías had been missing from class for a month.
The truth is I don’t know if I’m going to keep studying in this situation, Isaías wrote back.
I understand, Espínola replied. But I think it would be good for you … You are much stronger than the virus.
The teacher kept searching for the words to change the boy’s mind. But when he peered into his screen each time class began, Isaías was not there.
The seeds of Isaías’ disappearance had been planted long ago.
Decades before he was born, an earlier generation of young immigrants went missing from Boston schools, without ever setting foot in classrooms. Some 10,000 school-age children, mostly Spanish-speaking, were shut out of school entirely in the mid-20th century, or warehoused in programs that taught them nothing, turned away by school officials because they did not speak English, or had sprawling gaps in their prior education.
Fifty years ago, a team of investigators set out to interview hundreds of those children and document their stories of lost learning. Their report, released in the fall of 1970, spurred reform and the nation’s first bilingual education law. But in the years since, Massachusetts has consistently struggled to reach and retain its immigrant students. Today, English learner status is more closely associated with school failure than any other factor, including poverty, race, and disability.
RELATED: Read the full 1970 report, “The Way We Go to School: The Exclusion of Children in Boston”
The problem is complex. But in Boston, chronic continuing shortages of bilingual support, and a persistent lack of school day flexibility, are among its tangled roots. No central district database identifies bilingual staff and their school assignments, to help place new students with those who speak their language. Though scores of immigrant students must work long hours to survive and support their families, there are few options for adaptable school schedules or work-credit programs.
In the case of Isaías, the demands of balancing work and school without accommodation had threatened his education from the start.
In Honduras, Isaías had studied until he was 14, but made it only as far as fourth grade, slowed down by a visual impairment and his need to pitch in on his family’s farm. He didn’t see a future for himself in his home country, without money to buy his own land. So in early 2019, when he was 17, he followed in the footsteps of three older siblings and made his way to the United States.
He quickly found a job working 50 hours a week at a Mexican restaurant, not far from the Brighton apartment where he shared a room with his sister. From 4 p.m. to midnight every weekday, Isaías chopped vegetables and meat for tacos and other dishes. But BINcA was on the opposite side of the city. Every morning, he rose at 5:30 a.m. for a two-hour trek on public transportation — a bus, an Orange line train, and another bus — that took him to his school in Dorchester by 8 a.m.
He rarely slept more than five hours at a stretch. “My mind didn’t rest,” Isaías said.
The teenager knew it didn’t have to be so hard. During his first summer in Boston, he had discovered a large, important-looking school building on a hill in his neighborhood. He asked around and confirmed that Brighton High was part of the city’s public system, and open to students like him who need extra help to learn English.
In fact, Brighton High has a large population of immigrant students, and many classes for those learning English, though it does not, like BINcA, have an intensive program for newcomers. Isaías wondered why no one had ever mentioned it as an option. If only he could enroll there, he could sleep more, study more, and make his life manageable.
None of Boston’s high schools, including BINcA, do enough to support some immigrant students who need to work, said Roger Rice, executive director of Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy, Inc., a national nonprofit that advocates for English learners’ rights. That, Rice said, is in violation of a 1994 federal court order that says the district should spend federal funding to incorporate more flexible class schedules and other alternatives for immigrant students with limited educations. (BINcA does allow some flexible schedules, head of school Tony King says.)
RELATED: Read the 1994 federal civil action.
Rice believes schools like BINcA should strongly consider paying students stipends so they aren’t forced to choose between studying and working. The idea isn’t so far-fetched: Nearly three years ago, Charlestown High School started paying some students $1,500 to attend five weeks of summer school.
But there was no such option for Isaías.
At least three times in 2019 and 2020, he or his older sister told staff at his school that he wanted to transfer to Brighton High, near his home. Then he waited, for paperwork or instructions. But the weeks and months went by, and nothing happened.
The pandemic had brought an end to his long commute. But virtual school was another obstacle, one that made learning feel even further out of reach.
Studying online, “I couldn’t understand anything,” he said.
The spring seemed to Fredy to stretch on forever. His fears about his future were increasing, as he felt himself slipping academically.
“I wanted to get good grades and to pass the year,” he says. “But it was so hard just to log in.”
Home with a father who spoke only Spanish, Fredy had few opportunities to practice English. His pronunciation suffered, like that of his classmates. He could feel himself forgetting the steps for different math tasks that had once come to him automatically.
Determined to resist his backward slide, he invented extra work for himself, watching English lessons on YouTube and copying down key phrases in a spiral-bound notebook:
That student, ese estudiante
This pencil, este lapiz
It was nothing like real class, or real conversation. But it was the best that he could do.
Fredy kept logging in, but other students lapsed into chronic absence. Half the students in Fredy’s Spanish class with Mr. Espínola had stopped logging in. Throughout the spring, only about a third of Boston high school students logged in daily, according to school district data. Rates varied widely, from 60 percent on average at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science to 17 percent at Charlestown High School. BINcA fell smack in the middle, with 41 percent of students logging in each day.
And then there were the students who logged in, but remained absent in every other way.
Before the pandemic, in the classroom she once shared with Fredy and Isaías, Nohemy Mauricio had been known for her spunk and sass. One of just two girls in the tight-knit class of English learners, the spirited teen easily held her own in a room full of boys.
But something happened when their classes moved online: Her presence, bright and bold in person, seemed to dim.
In regular school, Nohemy could stay after class, or quietly call the teacher over to her desk for help. Online, if she asked a question, everybody knew she didn’t understand. She felt exposed, and afraid of sounding stupid. So she turned her laptop camera off, and barely spoke.
“I don’t like to speak when everyone is there,” she said.
Her muted presence worried Mr. Espínola. But the teachers were new to online learning, too. In those first weeks and months, few took full advantage of the tools that might have helped Nohemy. They did not regularly send students into online “breakout rooms” for small groups, where she might have felt more comfortable talking, Nohemy said. Nor did they organize small study groups for students to check in on one another between classes.
Some students connected on their own. But Nohemy — bold enough to leave home by herself for a new country, yet still a product of her rural, conservative upbringing — was too shy to ask for her male classmates’ numbers. So she spent the spring pining for lost friends, including Fredy, who had once helped her with math.
By summer, the virus had eased its grip on the city, and the weather allowed for outdoor classes. But the state Department of Education did not recommend prioritizing English learners for summer school — either in person or online — and Boston didn’t bring any students back into its buildings during the summer, at least not officially. Other districts, including Plymouth and Foxborough, opened their doors to some students over the summer.
Celoni Espínola didn’t wait for the district to act. Prior to the pandemic, the teacher had routinely taken his students to museums, parks, and theaters, teaching them that Boston and its treasures belonged to them, too. He knew his students had spent months indoors staring at their screens. So he planned a series of socially distanced outdoor field trips as part of their summer school curriculum.
“I felt like I needed to take them outside to walk in the fresh air and sunlight,” the teacher said. “They had been in such a closed environment.… School was one of the few social venues in their lives.”
Eagerly the students awaited the first outing, a nature walk by the Neponset River in July. Finally, after four long months apart, they would be together in person again.
They met outside Ashmont station in Dorchester, a mile from their school. Nohemy felt a rush of happiness when she spotted Mr. Espínola waiting on the sidewalk. Then she saw her classmate Fredy. Beaming beneath their masks, some students hugged, though their teacher cautioned them to keep six feet apart.
Walking along the marshy shoreline, marveling at how much it resembled places she knew in Guatemala, Nohemy savored the precious sense of normalcy. “I was so grateful to get out of the house... to be taken out of my boring life to see something so beautiful,” she said.
Their summer respite would not last. After just three outings, the field trips were canceled; Espínola decided there was too much risk from students riding on the subway. Summer school went back online, and Nohemy receded again, barely saying a word when she showed up for her classes.
Before the pandemic, Fredy’s father had focused on earning a living for the family; and Fredy focused on school. That hadn’t been their original plan. But Fredy, with his baby face, couldn’t find a job. “They think I look too young,” he said. That turned out to be something of a blessing, allowing him to devote himself to school and learning.
But after the pizzeria where Fredy’s father washed dishes cut his hours from 35 to 20 in the pandemic’s early days, he wasn’t able to bring in enough money to pay off the debts he owed for the coffee farm in Guatemala. He could barely pay the $733 monthly rent for their room.
Fredy contemplated looking for a job as a dishwasher in July and August, but with endless competition from other out-of-work adults and teens, he worried he wouldn’t get anyone’s attention.
The country had just lost 20 million jobs, and Hispanic and Latino families like Fredy’s suffered more than most. Across the United States, nearly half of all Latino workers had their pay cut or lost their jobs entirely last year, according to the League of United Latin American Citizens. Statewide, more than 250,000 restaurant workers lost jobs temporarily or for good, according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.
Across the United States, nearly half of all Latino workers had their pay cut or lost their jobs entirely last year, according to the League of the United Latin American Citizens.
As the summer stretched on, and his father’s distress deepened, it was impossible for Fredy to forget the high-stakes gamble they had made in coming to Boston. Their timing, as it turned out, had been disastrous. Their family’s land and livelihood were on the line; every week that their debt grew, the risk of losing it all ratcheted higher. It made school seem, at times, like a preposterous indulgence.
For Isaías, living with his sister and her family, the economic pressure was equally intense. He had lost his old job, at the Mexican restaurant, in the spring. Without a paycheck or parents to lean on, he feared homelessness. But he also felt paralyzed by his fear of getting a job, catching el virus and bringing it home. “I was angry at myself for not having work,” he said.
In August, he finally found a new job, cooking at a Korean restaurant. He was just a few weeks in, still learning the recipes and routines, when the kitchen manager presented him with a heartrending choice.
The day shift was opening up, and it could be Isaías’ for the taking. The new schedule would mean extra hours — and more money — for the Honduran immigrant. But if he took the new shift, it would conflict with his classes when school started up again later in September.
At his workstation in the busy kitchen, inhaling clouds of chile-spiked steam, Isaías considered his dilemma. It was true that he had not logged in to his online classes in months. But he had always planned to go back to school when buildings reopened. He knew his older sister, who acted as his mother in their adopted home, would be disappointed if he stopped learning English. And he knew it would limit his future options.
But students in Boston still didn’t know — even in late August — whether school would be in person or remote. And Isaías still dreaded the thought of resuming his nightmarish commute to school in Dorchester. Because no one had helped him transfer to a school closer to his home, he would face the same old grind whenever schools reopened.
And the young man keenly remembered the terror he’d felt when he lost his old job in the spring. “I don’t have anyone else supporting me,” he said. “I have to pay bills.”
Afraid to delay, he told his boss that he would take the day shift. So when online classes resumed on Sept. 21, Isaías was still among the missing.
The close-knit BINcA class had numbered eleven before schools shut down. Six scarcely showed up for online class in the spring. Yet nine members of the class returned in September, when school started again. In some cases, however, their reemergence was fleeting. And two students didn’t return at all — both of them for reasons of economic survival.
Their teacher, Celoni Espínola, had feared even before the pandemic that Isaías might leave school. But the departure of Lilian Garcia Flores, an 18-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, stunned him.
“Lilian was one of my brightest students,” said Espínola. “When classes went online, she promised me she would come.”
Lilian had only studied through third grade in Guatemala, but developed her literacy by reading the Bible between household chores on her father’s coffee farm. Before the pandemic, her father worked while Lilian focused on school. But when he lost his job in the ensuing economic collapse, Lilian took two fast-food jobs and, with her father’s blessing, dropped out. “He knew we needed the money,” she said. Like Fredy’s family, they owed debts in Guatemala.
Schools across the city saw similar losses last fall. Nearly 100 immigrant high school students in the early stages of learning English didn’t return to school in fall 2020, double the number from the previous year, according to district figures. And the overall number of English learners across the school system dropped precipitously — and somewhat mysteriously — from about 16,000 in 2019 to 14,000 this school year. While school officials say that’s partly because of fewer immigrants coming to the city, experts and immigrant advocates believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of local students may be among the missing and disengaged this school year.
“We’re going to lose kids that we’re never going to get back,” said Miren Uriarte, a member of the Boston School Committee’s English Language Learners Task Force.
Among those students who did return to BINcA in the fall, attendance was stronger than in the spring. More than 80 percent logged in each week, double the log-in rate last spring. They did so, in some cases, against overwhelming odds. At least one of the nine returning students had become homeless since last spring, and sometimes logged in to class from shelters.
Months after Isaías dropped out, BINcA’s Tony King sounded surprised and puzzled to hear about his unmet request, predating the pandemic, to transfer to a school closer to home. In fact, it turns out that the first step of the transfer had been approved by teachers and the district’s central office. But no one reached out to let Isaías know.
“That’s a solvable problem,” King said. “We’ve done this before, so I’m not sure what happened.”
“I wish that we could have a case manager [with] a big budget, to make sure that our students’ basic needs are provided for,” the head of school said. “Because these students want to go to school.”
That extra support would almost certainly have helped the students in Celoni Espínola’s class. The teacher had stretched himself to save his students, even after the class officially ended in the summer, but the system was less flexible.
As colder weather threatened and infection rates spiked again — and as some of the remaining nine students vanished from Zoom — Espínola asked himself: Had they done enough?
In September, six months after sending students home, Boston’s school leaders finally announced that early English learners could return for two days a week of in-person classes, along with some students with disabilities and others who were homeless and in foster care.
As soon as the doors opened, Fredy, who had not found a job, was there. He peppered his teachers with questions, and delighted in eating lunch with classmates once again, sharing new English words they had learned and coaching one another on pronunciation. He longed for more. “Two days are not enough,” he said.
Nohemy, too, felt a fog lift when she learned she could go to school in person twice a week. To prepare for her first day, she washed and brushed out her waist-length black hair. For the first time in months, she had something to look forward to.
But after she found her new English class and picked out a seat in the back, the teacher made a request that devastated her:
Take out your headphones and laptops.
Nohemy thought she had misunderstood. “Why do we need our headphones and computers, Miss?” she asked in Spanish.
Because, the teacher told her, you will be learning online.
So that teachers could instruct both the students in the classroom and those still learning at home, both groups of students would have to log in to Zoom.
Nohemy felt sick to her stomach as the words sank in.
Later that morning, when she raised her hand to ask a question about something on her screen, Nohemy hoped the teacher would come over to her desk to help her. But the instructor stayed at the front of the room, looking at her own computer as she answered.
Cloistered in her brother’s small apartment for so many months, with her family far away, Nohemy had longed for personal connection. A teacher’s reassuring smile. A friend’s laughter.
But at school in the era of COVID, “they won’t even come close to you,” she said.
She did not return to school after the first day. Less than one month later, the district shut down in-person learning altogether because coronavirus cases had risen in Boston.
Nohemy’s exhaustion and despair returned. She struggled to remember basic facts and routines. “I don’t have the desire to do a lot of things, not even talk to my friends,” she said one November afternoon. “I don’t have anything to talk about.”
She thought about trying to find a therapist, but wasn’t sure how to go about it, or whether she could afford the cost.
Nohemy was fading, and she was not alone among her classmates.
Technically, these students were still present, logged in to their online classes on at least some days. But in every other meaningful way, they were absent: Zoom ghosts, with their cameras and microphones turned off.
By November, Nohemy was failing all her classes. Her teachers were concerned, but never considered that the teen might be depressed. In search of an academic solution, they tried to persuade her to return to a different track at the school, with smaller classes taught entirely in Spanish. Nohemy thought that would be shameful. She refused.
“I’m so different now. I wasn’t like this before,” she reflected. “I used to get good grades.”
Of the 11 English learners in the class followed by the Globe, two — Isaías and Lilian — logged off for good last spring. Two others, including Nohemy, were still technically enrolled this winter, but missed so many classes that they failed the first two terms. The other seven regularly attend online classes, but one fell behind in his work and received multiple incompletes for the first term. Another’s attendance declined steeply in December. Four of the students, including Fredy, are doing relatively well.
‘We’re going to lose kids that we’re never going to get back.’
Miren Uriarte, a member of the Boston School Committee’s English Language Learners Task Force
Earlier in the winter, Nohemy’s brother advised her to make a decision. “If you don’t want to study, tell your principal you’re quitting,” he said. Nohemy thought he might be right, but she hesitated. Could she have the life she wanted if she quit her education?
In February, when she had the option to attend school in person four days a week, Nohemy started going more regularly, and doing her assignments. It felt more like real school, where teachers could focus solely on the students in the room. And with a new job washing dishes in a restaurant several nights a week, the young woman felt more energized.
Inside her remained that headstrong, fearless girl who once stood in a cornfield, under a hot sun, and vowed to find her way back into a classroom. She wasn’t ready, yet, to let that dream go.
For English learners like Fredy Solís, who have faithfully showed up for online school during the last year, the losses have been more subtle, but still potentially devastating. With their schooling so fundamentally altered, and so much academic ground to make up, they, too, risk having their dreams derailed.
As the air turned cold last fall, Fredy felt hopelessness creep in. His father, Fredy Octavio, wasn’t making any progress paying off his debts, and couldn’t send money to support his wife and children. And with an old spinal injury, and no English fluency, his father’s job prospects were extremely limited. “I have to work to pay the debts he made,” the teenager said.
Fredy stepped up his search for work. One morning in mid-October, he dressed in his best shirt and pants for an interview at a fast-food restaurant in Roxbury. As the manager, an immigrant from El Salvador, led Fredy past the deep fryers into the office, the teenager’s hands shook. But her easy Spanish conversation quickly made the young man feel at home.
Before he left the restaurant, Fredy learned he had the job: 30 hours of mostly after-school work.
He felt a surge of relief, and a rush of worry.
Those precious hours after school when he had once sought help from teachers would be lost, for now. And for the foreseeable future, he would have to juggle a new job with a version of school that made learning harder.
The goal Fredy had set for himself before the pandemic, to graduate from high school by the time he was 19, seemed increasingly distant and out of reach, like those precious, heady days in Mr. Espínola’s classroom when he felt himself awaken to his own potential.
“I see how much trouble I’m having... focusing and understanding,” he wrote by text in late November. “I realize this will be a bit more difficult.”
When, in January, Boston announced a plan to let English learners back into classrooms, it was the chance he had waited for. But instead of the joy he once imagined feeling at such news, Fredy only felt anxious and conflicted.
All students would be expected to attend four days a week, with no flexibility granted. Fredy knew his late-night shifts in the fast-food restaurant would make that almost impossible. As many as five nights a week, he works past closing time, cleaning the floors and counters and debriefing with coworkers until 2 a.m. Often, he walks home by himself and doesn’t get to bed until 4 a.m.
How could he wake in time to catch his bus to school? How could he survive on just an hour or two of sleep?
Over the winter, his father’s work schedule had been reduced, again. “He barely has any hours,” said Fredy. Faced with his family’s urgent financial need, Fredy told his teachers he would exercise his option to stick with online school.
On the laptop in his room at home, where he dutifully continues logging on for online classes, Fredy catches glimpses of his school’s reopened classrooms, and the students who have made it back.
He yearns to be among them.
“I had really wanted to go back to school in person,” he says. “But now I have to say no.”
Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness. Jenna Russell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.