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Why students connect to their classroom from 7,000 miles away

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Faiqa Naqvi, a 15-year-old student at a public high school in New Jersey, logs into her far-away classes every evening from Pakistan in a time zone nine hours in advance.

Max Rodriquez, who also attends school in New Jersey, joined his Advanced Placement history course for about two months from Guayaquil, Ecuador, a port city on the South American coast.

Max’s classmate Naobe Maradiaga, 16, attended classes in northern Honduras.

Amid the pandemic, in a year when almost nothing about school has gone back to normal, administrators and teachers are grappling with a new layer of complexity: students accessing virtual classrooms from outside the states -United.

Faced with financial strains linked to the pandemic at home or the health needs of loved ones abroad, some students from immigrant communities connect to school thousands of kilometers away.

It is not known how widespread this practice is. But connections abroad have become more and more common since late fall, as the level of comfort with air travel has increased and vacations popular for overseas visits, in particular. in immigrant communities, have been approached, according to educators in New York and New Jersey and as far away as Florida and California.

Some families said they took advantage of the new-found mobility offered by distance education to schedule extended visits with loved ones they had not seen in years.

Others temporarily left the country to care for sick parents, and some told principals and teachers that they had sent their children abroad because they needed help caring for them. children to continue working at jobs that cannot be done from home.

“New immigrants – they have the most difficulty,” said Aixa Rodriguez, who teaches English as a New Language at a college in Manhattan. “They don’t have anyone here to help you.”

At least one of his students has logged in from outside the United States in the past few months.

Nate Floro, a high school teacher in Brooklyn, said three of his students logged in in class from Yemen, Egypt and the Dominican Republic.

The practice, Ms. Rodriguez said, is an open secret among teachers, as parents struggle to navigate the limited number of days and hours that students take in-person lessons and the constant threat of closures. schools linked to Covid-19.

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“The reality is that parents can’t deal with this inconsistency,” said Ms. Rodriguez, who lives in the Bronx and heads a social justice group within the teachers’ union, MORE, or Movement of Rank and File Educators. “These parents have to work and have no choice.”

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The willingness to give a child to a parent in another country in the midst of a pandemic, she said, “tells you about unmet need and desperation.”

By adding a level of complication to distance learning, the model has the potential to worsen learning loss, experts say, especially in poor and minority communities already plagued by achievement gaps.

“It’s one thing to say kids can connect anytime, anywhere,” said Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national nonprofit network of education leaders. “But if they’ve been to a place where they have to log in at 2 a.m., that doesn’t sound ideal.”

Danielle Filson, spokesperson for Public Schools in New York, the largest district in the country where classrooms are now open to all ages of students, said she could not provide data on students who might connect from outside the country.

In New Jersey, officials in two of the state’s largest districts, Paterson and Elizabeth, were able to provide a snapshot of students connecting from IP addresses outside of the United States. Schools in both towns have been closed for over a year and all lessons are taught at a distance; Elizabeth expects to reopen to some students next week, but Paterson has canceled a plan to restart face-to-face teaching on May 3 and has not set a return date.

In Paterson, a recent one-day sample of 5,400 students showed that 306 children were connected from outside the country, Deputy Superintendent Susana Peron said. The district educates nearly 25,000 K-12 students, and the actual number of students learning from outside the United States could be much higher.

“We’re not encouraging it of course,” Ms. Peron said. “But families here have just faced so many challenges during the pandemic.”

“I’d rather they learn wherever they are,” she added, “than not.”

Elizabeth, a city of 129,000 people about 20 miles southwest of Midtown Manhattan, is one of the state’s wealthiest immigrant communities. More than 75% of families speak languages ​​other than English at home, and nearly one in five residents report an income below the poverty line, according to census data.

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One day in early March, 679 of the district’s nearly 28,000 public school students were connected from outside the United States, spokesperson Pat Politano said. Several weeks later, days before the start of a spring break, 767 students – about 2.7 percent of students – were taking classes in one of 24 countries, according to records.

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Most were from Caribbean countries; the Dominican Republic was the most frequent location. But there was one child each in Kenya, Moldova and Bangladesh. Five students – including Faiqa – were in Pakistan.

“I had some problems at home,” Faiqa said in one of a series of emails, “so I had to come to Pakistan for a while.”

She, her sister and her parents left New Jersey in early March and plan to return on April 20. Due to the time difference in a country 7,000 miles away, Faiqa ends its virtual school sessions around 9:30 p.m. each day.

“It’s difficult for me,” she said. Still, a teacher said Faiqa, who hopes to become a doctor, was often among the first to answer questions.

States have residency rules that require students to live in the district where they attend school.

But providing flexibility related to a child’s physical location during virtual instruction is appropriate and legal, as long as the child has a residence in the district and plans to return, said Bruce D. Baker, a national expert. in education funding that teaches at Rutgers. Higher university school of education.

Taendra Peralta said she decided to take her 4 and 14-year-old children to the Dominican Republic for a month to give them a break from the monotony of online school from an apartment in Elizabeth – and to get some support. help with childcare. of parents there. “There’s more for the kids, more space,” she says.

In Elizabeth, families must show they are renting or owning a property to gain access to an international connection, Politano said, and they must provide proof of a return date.

“It takes a thirst for education on the part of the student to connect to the school from Egypt or Kenya,” he said. “It takes dedication from teachers, staff, school board and administration to make this happen.

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Several teachers said spotty Wi-Fi was the most common problem facing children abroad.

But Mr Floro said students contacted him frequently after their internet access returned, seeking advice or instructions on homework; two of the three students who log on from outside the United States are doing as well or better than their classmates in Brooklyn, he said.

“A lot of them, if they hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t even notice it,” said Mr Floro, who teaches English as a new language and Arabic for native speakers in a high school. from Bensonhurst.

In New York, officials said it was possible for students to connect from anywhere in the world without special permission.

“We recognize that the challenges of the pandemic may have temporarily changed the situation for our families, and New York City schools provide strong virtual education for those who have chosen to learn remotely,” Ms. Filson, district spokesperson. .

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In Carteret, NJ, a diverse district of 4,000 students in central New Jersey, about 20 to 30 students have logged in regularly over the past few months from outside the country, principal Rosa Diaz said.

But after a series of “zoom bombs” – interruptions by strangers who hacked several online courses – the district began blocking access to IP addresses outside the United States in mid-March, a. she declared. In addition to securing the network, there was also a desire to encourage students to resume teaching in person.

“We want people to know: we’re open for business and we expect these students to come back, or at least be here locally,” she said.

Max Rodriguez, 16, a sophomore student at Frank J. Cicarell Academy in Elizabeth, traveled with his mother and sister to Ecuador just before Christmas to visit his grandfather, who had a heart attack . He first met cousins ​​and practiced his Spanish.

“A cousin, she would sit with me,” he said. “We almost gave each other lessons. I would teach him English. And she was teaching me Spanish.

He said he was grateful that he could still log in to class until he returned home in late February.

“Missing two months of school is really crucial,” he said. “Two months could have been really bad.”

Juliana Kim contributed reporting and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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