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Migrant Education Teams Face Challenges To Get Children Back Into Schools

NOEL KING, HOST:

Why are the children of migrant farm workers not enrolling in school? Normally, there are more than 250,000 kids enrolled in migrant education programs across the U.S., but many of those programs are reporting declines in enrollment. In Tampa, Kerry Sheridan from WUSF has been following one district's efforts to get those kids back.

KERRY SHERIDAN, BYLINE: Grace Rosa's job is all about building trust. She works for Hillsborough County Public Schools, and her mission is to get newly arrived farm workers, many of whom are here to pick strawberries, to sign their children up for school. Before the pandemic, Rosa says, a typical day usually involved driving parents and kids to the doctor for their first checkup.

GRACE ROSA: Pick them up at home. Take them to the clinic. Wait for them. Help them fill out paperwork because some of them don't read or write.

SHERIDAN: Paperwork for school can be complicated, and kids may need a doctor's checkup to show their immunizations are up to date. Recently, I asked her how her job had changed. She held up her cellphone.

KING: This is our main resource right now, our telephones.

SHERIDAN: When the coronavirus hit, the school district put an end to all in-person contact between school employees and families. She says working mainly by phone has made everything more difficult.

ROSA: Sometimes they're not able to tell us exactly where they live because they are right in the middle of the field.

SHERIDAN: And parents aren't always comfortable giving personal information over the phone. Enrollment in Hillsborough County's migrant education program has fallen about 12% during the pandemic. That's hundreds of students who haven't shown up for school, the district says. And Hillsborough County isn't alone. Migrant education programs in Georgia and North Carolina have reported similarly dramatic enrollment declines over the past year. Carol Mayo heads Hillsborough County's migrant education team. In Tampa, she says COVID-19 outbreaks in the migrant community have made many families fearful.

CAROL MAYO: In the summertime, there was a big breakout of COVID, parents getting infected with COVID, and so they themselves experienced the sickness. And so when school started, they were truly afraid to send their children to school.

SHERIDAN: Over the past year, the migrant education team has found ways to get children into school. But their work also goes beyond that. During the pandemic, migrant children have experienced all kinds of stress and trauma. Grace Rosa and her colleagues play an essential role in connecting those kids with services to help them cope. That got a lot easier to do once the district began allowing some in-person visits. One day in December, Grace Rosa and her colleague Ines Colon went to see a mom with four kids who called that morning to say she needed help. Here, Colon is talking about the woman's son, who, at the time, was attending a public middle school in Tampa full time and in person.

INES COLON: Can you please get a social worker to help him? Because he's a little traumatized because they just deported his dad.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

COLON: (Speaking Spanish).

SHERIDAN: We go inside. The mom is 33 and is from Mexico. She picks strawberries and chili peppers. And she's undocumented, so we're not using her name. Colon sits down next to her.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

SHERIDAN: She says her 15-year-old son is telling her he's the man of the house now. He wants to stop going to school so he can work and bring money in. She tells him, no, he must continue going to school. She says her 12-year-old son, the one in middle school, is having trouble staying on task.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

SHERIDAN: "For me, school is so important," she says. She finished up to the sixth grade herself and wants better for her children, but now she's alone. And if a COVID-19 outbreak closes her kids' schools, even for a short time, she doesn't know how she'll manage.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

SHERIDAN: Colon puts a hand on her back and rubs it gently. The mother tells Colon her husband had been beating her, and her children witnessed it. We step outside to leave.

COLON: He hit her. You know, so it's violence in the home, and so she had to call the police on him.

SHERIDAN: Rosa and Colon discuss what they can do.

COLON: I'll talk with the advocates at the schools, and the social workers are going to need to...

ROSA: They're going to need to...

COLON: Yeah. Help her.

ROSA: ...Give her some sort of therapy, too, for the kids because that's affecting the kids.

COLON: Yeah. It is. She said it is.

SHERIDAN: It isn't their job to get these kids into therapy, but Rosa and Colon want to make sure they do all they can to help them stay in school. Months later, their efforts seem to have paid off. Colon says the children have met with their guidance counselors and are adjusting to their dad being away. Most importantly, they are all still in school. For NPR News, I'm Kerry Sheridan in Tampa.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "RAIN FALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.