KNOXVILLE, Tenn — Thousands of non-English speaking students in Knox County Schools are having to weigh the tough decision of whether to return to the classroom next month or opt to learn virtually.
Karol Paz and her family moved to Knoxville from Venezuela nearly four years ago.
"Half of me is really scared because they have spent so many months indoors that they don't have a strong enough immune system," KCS parent Karol Paz said. "I'm also scared of the areas of difficulty that I can't dominate because I don't share this culture."
Paz's daughter is 7. Her son is 9.
Both children receive services from KCS to help them learn English.
"It really helps children grasp the language and to adapt to the new culture. It allows them to develop their skills without the fear of feeling judgement from other classmates," she said.
Those services nearly came to a halt in March when schools closed due to the pandemic.
Paz, who was a teacher in her home country, tried to fill the gap, but said her daughter started to regress.
"At home, I'm teaching her Spanish, and it's confusing her because of the difference in word order and the pronunciation," she said.
Centro Hispano de East Tennessee has been bombarded with similar concerns from families deciding whether to send their children back to the classroom.
The community center serves about 350 children each year and provides services for Knox County Schools, including after-school programs.
Centro Hispano recently distributed 30 Chromebooks and offered online summer classes to more than 75 students in pre-k through 8th grade to accustom them to the changes, but staff worry virtual learning with a language barrier will be difficult.
"Just providing a device is not the same as making sure a family understands and can actively participate in a virtual learning community," said Megan Barolet-Fogarty, Dir. of Youth and Family Engagement.
Centro Hispano said many of their families do not have easy access to the internet.
Those who do could miss out on important interaction with their peers if they choose to learn virtually.
"I'm very concerned about it," Barolet-Fogarty said.
Four thousand one-hundred students receive active services through Knox County Schools' English Language Learners program.
While the majority are Spanish-speaking, KCS educates students in several languages and dialects.
A customer service line for assisting families with accessing affordable internet services at home opened July 20, according to KCS.
Teachers are also calling many families directly to walk them through enrollment.
"We have a welcome center, and we will do that by appointments to maintain safety protocol, but if we have that family's name and telephone number we will call them in their target language," said Sharon Cate, KCS ELL Supervisor and Migrant Liason.
KCS is also sharing information via Facebook pages in Spanish, Kirundi, Chineses, Swahili and Arabic.
This year, the school district plans to have a dedicated ELL teacher for students who choose to learn online.
"It can be problematic, but it can also have some great benefits in the fact that you can stop and re-listen and watch and slow down and you can bring those exact same things into a classroom only with a personal component," Cate said.
All KCS students returning to school will be required to masks when social distancing is not possible, but that could present another challenge for ELL students.
"Trying to learn a new language and not being able to see someone's mouth move is ridiculously hard," Barolet-Fogarty said.
KCS said it will provide alternative options for those who need them.
"We know there are certain situations where clear face shields may be more effective for teacher communication. In cases where masks and social distancing prevent an ELL student from understanding their teachers or classmates, the Department of Student Supports will provide alternative face coverings," said Josh Flory, KCS communications specialist.
The school district is asking families to be patient as teachers and students navigate a new school year.
"I think it's going to be a learning process for everyone," Cate said.
For additional resources and questions about which option is best for your child, call Centro Hispano at (865) 522-0052.
Call (865) 594-1760 to access the KCS Welcome Center or visit 535 Chickamauga Ave.