As many Alberta parents stress over the risks of their children returning to the classroom, settlement agencies and community groups are helping newcomers who face additional challenges navigating back-to-school decisions.
Sucdi Barre, co-director of the Alberta Somali Community Centre, has been talking with newcomer parents who use the centre.
She says many don't want to send their children to school because of the risks of COVID-19 and the vulnerability of seniors living in their household. But home-schooling isn't an option without technology or internet service, or when parents can't work from home.
On top of that, they're trying to keep up with information about the return to school in September while continuing to learn English.
"They're basically just left out there asking people and going by hearsay since they can't really directly communicate," Barre said.
"Even the ones that I spoke with that had a good grasp of English, they didn't know that Aug. 21 was the [Edmonton Public Schools] deadline for them to choose if they want to send their children to school or not."
To help with medical issues and stresses impacted by COVID-19, the Alberta Somali Community Centre will have a social worker and a nurse making house calls for the next six months to Somali and Syrian households that request their services.
University students will volunteer to tutor students as Barre expects many young students to be playing catch-up on their studies when they return to school.
"We do not want a whole population of youth falling behind because of the pandemic," Barre said. "So we'll do our best but our resources are very strained."
Confusion over support available
Catholic Social Services works with government-assisted refugees in Edmonton and Red Deer. Some students had arrived before schools were shut down and were already adjusting. But returning to school will be a new experience.
"Returning to an in-person situation with some of the added challenges of potentially wearing masks and physical-distancing requirements will already be challenging, regardless of if children have had time in formal education settings," said Sharon Yeo, program manager at Catholic Social Services.
The organization is working on a presentation about the benefits and risks of both schooling options to present to the parents it works with. Some situations will be complex, depending on the children's needs.
"Particularly for clients that have children who have special needs, there is some confusion about what support might be available to them either in-person or online because of some of the changes that have been made to educational assistance funding and supportive funding," Yeo said.
One World One Centre, which is run by Edmonton Catholic Schools, helps newcomers enrol their children in the Catholic system. It employs people who have emigrated to Canada and speak a variety of languages with an ability to translate information.
Karen Fabris, the centre's manager, doesn't expect many new students and families this year with the closure of the country's borders. She sees that as an opportunity to focus on newcomers who are adjusting to changes and need help sifting through new information.
"There's been changes already and we know that there's more and more coming. And we know that right now we're preparing for the first quarter, which goes to November. Then in November there might be another switch," Fabris said.
"We know that the chief medical officer at any time could switch and we're down to an online learning again. So the communication has to be accurate and very quick."
The Edmonton Mennonite Centre For Newcomers is also aware of the barriers facing their families who are sending their kids back to school. It started a pilot this school year, which is bringing in three employees who will provide extra support for newcomer students across the city needing additional support with complex issues. "We'll be able to help them navigate that work with parents, work with teachers, and provide a bit more of a holistic look at the different issues that these students are facing. And some of them can be quite significant," said executive director Meghan Klein.
As organizations are helping newcomer families with the upcoming school year in different ways, they all agree that the situation has the potential to change quickly and expect they'll have to adapt just as quickly to help those families.
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