In January, the COVID-19 pandemic was reaching its apex in the US and quarantine had most people stuck at home. But travel restrictions didn’t stop 18-year-old Geovanni Diaz from logging hundreds of hours in transit. He had to go to work.
Diaz is a high school student in Oakland, Calif. He arrived in 2019, from Guatemala, and like thousands of recent immigrant kids in the U.S., he’s worked while attending school in order to pay rent and support himself and his mother. He’s no stranger to a long commute, either. It often took an hour or longer to get to the hospital where he worked as a janitor this spring. Though he worked night shifts, the job might not have been possible at all if he also had to factor in a commute to school.
At the onset of the pandemic, distance learning provided a unique opportunity for working students: Without having to spend time getting to campus, and with the ability to log in to Zoom from anywhere, time on the job could extend to virtually any point of the day. And once the economic recession set in, that opportunity often became a necessity, especially for immigrant students. Now, as schools reopen and resume pre-pandemic schedules, districts are facing obstacles in bringing these learners back to class—and some are trying new strategies in the process.
“Some students are saying ‘Well if I can’t put food on the table for my family, why is education the top priority for me?’” says Rose Francois, senior director of program at Enroot, a nonprofit supporting immigrant youth in Massachusetts. “I think right now some schools are thinking we are going to go right back to normal but I don’t actually think students are.”
Immigrant students working jobs while going to school isn’t a new phenomenon. But with the pandemic, students are taking on jobs in greater numbers or going full-time in jobs they already had, says Avary Carhill-Poza, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Boston who has been studying these students throughout the pandemic.
“This year, with no cameras on, students have told us that they are attending class with their cameras off while they clean houses for money, while they fix cars for money, while they take care of their brothers and sisters,” she says.