Immigrant families are leaving D.C.’s public schools. Will they return?

One of them was sophomore Danni Hidalgo, who moved to the United States from El Salvador a few years ago and lived in a cramped D.C. apartment with her family, where she and two siblings all did virtual learning during the pandemic. Her mother, a construction worker, lost income during the pandemic, and when people in their apartment building started to fall ill with the coronavirus, she decided this year to move the family to North Carolina, where they knew some people and could have more space. 

“We left Cardozo with pain in our hearts, because it had been such a great place of support for us,” said Silvia Cisneros, Danni’s mother. “We needed to protect our health. We wanted to be more isolated.” 

During a pandemic that has hit immigrant communities disproportionately hard, the number of students enrolled in D.C. public schools whose first language is not English has dropped more than any other student group.

Some families leave the city, others the country. A parent of three, Teresa Garcia, said she knows four immigrant families with children in public schools in her Northwest Washington neighborhood who returned to Mexico and El Salvador during the pandemic because they felt they had no job prospects and little support here.

The restaurants, hotels and commercial cleaning industries that employed many of them have laid off huge numbers of their workers this past year. Some are undocumented and so have not been eligible for federal stimulus checks, although they have been able to receive smaller amounts of local aid. Others live in informal housing arrangements where they pay cash and do not have leases, leaving them unprotected by the city’s eviction moratorium, according to interviews with students, educators and community organizers.

“If their jobs are in the informal economy, and their housing arrangements are informal — and with an additional technology access barrier  — their kids’ school enrollment is the first thing to go,” said Megan Macaraeg, organizing director of Beloved Community Incubator, a community group that has provided aid to immigrant families that have left the city during the pandemic.  “They are focused on survival.” 

The District public school system is anticipating 900 fewer English-language learners than it had projected before the pandemic, or more than 8 percent of that population. Charter schools forecast a much smaller decline, with most new immigrants enrolling in a neighboorhood public school.

This expected decline is leading to staffing cuts. The school system’s initial school budgets eliminated more than 50 staffers serving English-language learners, though schools have been able to restore some of those positions as they work through their budgets.

Parents and educators say that these students will need the most support when classrooms reopen and that it doesn’t make sense to cut staff numbers even if enrollment is declining. And they say they fear that as industries reopen and immigration numbers rise, their schools could experience an influx of students midyear. The school system’s budgeting does plan for midyear enrollees, but this year there is more uncertainty than ever around enrollment numbers.

“If you are going to cut these teachers, then where are we going to get them when we really need them,” said Vanessa Rubio, president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Brightwood Education Campus, a school in Northwest Washington that has a student body that is more than 70 percent English-language learners.

Educators and community organizers say they have been trying to track down disconnected immigrant families. Some turned off their phones when they lost their jobs or moved addresses. Many are undocumented and do not want to be found. Some teens and older students took jobs to help their families, and schools are hoping they return. The school system is also looking to federal immigration policies and trends to try to predict how many students will enroll midyear.

Although migration into the country slowed during the pandemic, advocates fear that many children who did arrive never enrolled in virtual school.

In the summer before the pandemic, the school system’s Welcome Center — which assesses students’ language skills when they first enroll in a school — screened 1,654 students whose first language is not English. For this academic year, it has screened 700 students. It’s possible that at the youngest grades, students enrolled…

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