Canby's Latino families have written two letters on COVID-19 concerns and say they're being ignored

Many of Canby School District's Latino families are raising concerns over the return to in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and they're saying they don't feel heard.

Latino families first sent a letter to the school district to be read at the Jan. 21 board meeting. The letter was signed by 81 individuals who disagreed with students returning to the school buildings because of the virus and families not yet being vaccinated.

"Parents will be exposed when you ask us for our children to attend classes," Yolanda Sanchez said Jan. 21 on behalf of the 81 Latino parents. "Teachers will be vaccinated, but not our children and consequently, it is a risk every day for us that we are not yet on the vaccine list."

The letter also said, "Learning at home for our children is difficult, but it would be harder to lose them forever, or for them to lose a family member because they brought the virus home to us."

Sanchez told the Herald-Pioneer that she is particularly concerned about COVID-19 reaching her home because her husband has health conditions that render him high risk.

But after reading the letter, Sanchez said she and the other parents received no identifiable response from the district.

Emanuel Hemsi, a district parent and dual language immersion science teacher at Baker Prairie, on March 4 questioned the district's lack of response to and consideration for Latino families.

He pointed out that while Oregon is about 13% Latino, on Feb. 10, Latinos made up 26.5% of the state's COVID-19 cases. According to the Oregon Health Authority's Race, Ethnicity, Language and Disability data published on Feb. 19, Latinos made up 28.4% of cases.

Hemsi also noted that "Hispanic or Latino persons" are 1.3 times more likely to contract COVID, (3.1) times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID and 2.3 times more likely to die from COVID than "white/non-Hispanic persons."

Then Hemsi went on to note that he did not hear any discussion around these topics at the Jan. 21 meeting when the Latino families wrote their first letter.

"I did not hear any board members advocating for the specific needs of our Latinx families and students," Hemsi said. "When you are speaking for our community, please make sure you are taking into account our Latinx families and students."

The lack of response also prompted the families to write a follow-up letter to be read aloud at the March 4 board meeting. This time, they gathered 93 signatures, including non-Latino allies.

The letter noted that 30% of Canby's students are Latino but that the district does not appear to be considering Latinos as they make decisions. Sanchez said they just want to be heard.

"This is the second time that we have made a request, and we feel like we are being ignored, maybe because we are a minority," the second letter said, ending with, "What more can we do to be heard?"

In response to a question about whether the district would respond or not, district spokesperson Autumn Foster said that during the public comments portion of the meeting, the board chair announces that the board does not respond to public comments during the meeting as it is the directors' time to listen.

"The board values engagement from the public," Foster said. "Members receive the comments ahead of the meeting, listen to public testimony during the meeting, and can review comments in the board minutes.

"All comments are heard," she said.

Foster also offered some assurance that the district is doing everything possible to create a safe learning environment for students upon return to the buildings. They are following directives around face coverings, physical distancing, airflow and ventilation, hand hygiene, monitoring for symptoms, rapid COVID-19 testing, quarantine procedures, meals, transportation and student cohort groups.

Foster pointed to the Centers for Disease Control's statement that, "though outbreaks do occur in school settings, multiple studies have shown that transmission within school settings is typically lower than — or at least similar to — levels of community transmission, when mitigation strategies are in place in schools."

Language and communication concerns

But according to Sanchez and others who wrote separate letters, the nonresponse to their public comments is not the only problem.

Sanchez indicated that there are ongoing frustrations around the language barrier and communication with the district. She said even though district communications come in English and Spanish, some of the Latino families are not literate. And some messages from the school get lost in translation between child and parent.

Furthermore, anytime Spanish-speaking families wish to participate in a board meeting, Sanchez pointed out that they are required to request a translator. The district has since changed its tune on that and is now providing a translator at every board meeting beginning Thursday, March 18.

But Kathleen Jeskey, an ally and former dual language teacher, said that translation at the meetings may not be enough.

"I don't think people who have never really learned a second language, because Spanish is not my first language, I don't think they understand how important it is not just to have this little translation available," Jeskey said, "but to be able to fully participate — to have a very clear way to go, 'Hey, I would like to say something, and I know that what I'm saying is getting communicated properly and everyone's hearing it.' "

Jeskey suggested the board create a Spanish-speaking liaison position that could not only represent on the board but also hold Spanish-only meetings that people would feel comfortable coming to.

The district recognizes the need for quality communication with Spanish-speaking families.

"Communication and authentic engagement with our Latino community are a high priority for the district," Foster said. "Over the past year we have learned that traditional communication channels do not always reach our families."

As such, the district has implemented strategies to provide more inclusive communication including text messaging directly with families, providing bilingual phone calls with important information, delivering all written communication in both English and Spanish and leveraging staff relationships to have two-way conversations with families that are not being reached through the district's communication channels.

Over the past year, district staff have made direct phone calls to families that have not responded to communication efforts.

But Foster indicated the district sees room for improvement.

"The district needs to do better to ensure all parents feel valued, are heard, and are comfortable sharing their concerns with all staff," Foster said. "We want to work in partnership with every family in our district in support of all students. We need to know where we're falling short so we can implement strategies to build trust and authentic relationships."

She said Canby is actively looking at additional opportunities to improve district- and school-to-parent communication. The first step was to begin providing a translator at every board meeting.

Kristen Wohlers
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