August 27, 2020

What Latinx Education Leaders are Doing to Help Their Students and Communities

Amanda Aguirre, Marla Franco, David Verdugo, Vince Yanez

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an indelible impact on education. It has forced us to take a hard look at how we deliver education, and highlighted the inequities that exist in terms of access to technology and resources. We spoke with four Latinx education leaders about these challenges, and how we can meet the basic needs of all students so that they are ready and able to learn.

Amanda Aguirre is President & CEO for the Regional Center for Border Health, Inc. & San Luis Walk In Clinic, Inc. and Former Arizona State Senator.

Marla Franco is Assistant Vice Provost of Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) Initiatives at The University of Arizona.

David Verdugo is Superintendent of Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District and serves on the Achieve60AZ board of directors.

Vince Yanez is Senior Vice President of Arizona Community Engagement for Helios Education Foundation and serves on the Achieve60AZ board of directors.

What have been the main challenges you or educators in your community have faced as a result of COVID-19? How have you and your colleagues managed those challenges?

Amanda Aguirre: At the Regional Center for Border Health, first, we had to educate ourselves on COVID-19 to be ready to educate others, while also finding a way to protect our entire campus community. There was a lot of fear in the beginning, so our priority was making sure we all had accurate information, and figuring out how to quickly provide community screenings and culturally sensitive educational materials to our community.

Marla Franco: In March, The University of Arizona had to quickly switch gears to support distance learning. That immediate pivot didn’t allow for adequate planning  to provide the highest quality of learning that our faculty and staff are known for. Many students lacked access to broadband Wi-Fi or the technology to engage in online learning. Others lacked reliable food sources, were laid off, or found themselves in unsafe environments as essential workers. We really had to force ourselves to have a collectivist mindset, and to think about the ways our university could share its resources.

David Verdugo: The challenge has been to meet the needs of all of our students, not only in academics, but also from a health and social-emotional standpoint. We needed to continue to feed 3500 of our students on a daily basis, , which we did by maintaining our school food service program including delivery to students and working with local produce houses to divert excess produce to families. We also had to find ways to support student language development, especially for our youngest students, which we did by helping teachers build relationships with their students online.

Vince Yanez: The overriding challenge related to impacts of the pandemic is uncertainty: How do we provide safe schools for students and staff? How long do we educate remotely? How do we prepare teachers to instruct students in a virtual environment and what systems need to be put in place? How will families manage the new demands this places on their time? There aren’t clear answers to any of these questions – and so many others. We all need to do our part to support our schools and higher education institutions as they navigate these challenges. At Helios we are trying to do our part to by providing emergency financial asstance to college students, and supporting efforts to provide training for teachers as they transition to online instructional models. There’s much more for all of us to do.

What are you talking about now that was previously not talked about in education? What does this mean for the future of education?

Amanda Aguirre: We can now give students options for course delivery: either to stay home and participate in the class via Zoom or to come in-person. We worked with the Board of Nursing to adjust students’ requirements and help them graduate in time under these current conditions.

Marla Franco: We were always concerned about the well-being and safety of our students and employees, but definitely not to this degree or at this sense of heightened urgency. Just like all colleges, universities, and K-12 schools, we’re grappling with quickly identifying a game plan that supports ongoing learning and takes into account safety and public health concerns, while being mindful that systemic inequities have resulted in our Latinx communities being disproportionaly negatively affected by COVID-19.

David Verdugo: The pandemic forced us to look at different learning models. Our district has worked hard at providing individualized learning for each student, but we are now talking about giving students even more options. For our students who have found greater success working from home, how do we continue to meet their needs going forward?

Vince Yanez: As schools shut down and we were forced online, the inequities we’ve been talking about for years were made even more apparent. Perhaps the most prominent issue has been the lack of access to internet connectivity or devices. And, it’s not a new issue. But, now a large portion of the population is being left behind, and that’s just unacceptable.

How do high schools and postsecondary institutions help current students prepare differently, given the recession? From your perspective, what effect will this have on career choices for the Class of 2020?

Amanda Aguirre: Our local nursing homes had to stop hiring, so our graduates couldn’t find work. Since we are also a clinic, we hired as many of our graduates as we could. Unemployment is going to continue impacting Yuma County, especially because we already had the one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Compounded by the pandemic, it just feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel without a vaccine.

Marla Franco: Our university surveys its graduating students to get a better sense of their most immediate plans after graduation. Because we anticipated students would have greater challenges in securing work because of COVID-19, we tried to proactively strategize and provide career resources. We are exploring how to provide ongoing support so our students know that we’re here for them.

David Verdugo: The market is changing drastically, and Santa Cruz County already had high unemployment rates. We’re trying to help our students prepare for new opportunities within local industries. For example, at our agriculture farm, students can learn to become inspectors. We’re incorporating engineering, technology, and logistics to teach students about the autonomous driving industry. We’re starting to teach welding because there is a need at the new zinc mine.

Vince Yanez: At this point it is difficult to anticipate how the recession will impact career choices, but we do know that students who earn a degree or credential fare much better during difficult economic times. Unfortunately, we also know from experience that getting students to graduation during a recession can be extremely challenging. This is something that requires our attention and action. Now, more than ever, college students need to be provided the assistance they need to stay enrolled, persist, and graduate.

How do you think a recession and unemployment will affect opportunities for adult education?

Marla Franco: For adults, we need to be mindful of the ways the economy has shifted and make sure we’re cognizant that adult learners have different needs. They might be looking for very targeted short-term learning opportunities, like specific skill-building or certifications that allow them to be more competitive in the current job market.

Vince Yanez: A big part of reaching the attainment goal will involve adults having to upskill, learn new trades, or just be nimble in a changing economy. One effect of the recession will be a need for individuals who have lost their jobs to gain some sort of postsecondary education to find a new place in the economy. That’s a big part of what we’ve been talking about at Achieve60AZ since the very beginning, and that need is heightened in a time like this.

What have been the biggest issues, challenges, or educational inequities highlighted by the pandemic? In what new ways do you think we will address these gaps moving forward?

Amanda Aguirre: Hispanic and Native American students are experiencing higher exposure to the virus and are more likely to lose members of their families. The safety net is not as strong as we need it to be, so our agency is providing food, education, access to healthcare – all the things people in rural communities need to survive. It takes a village.

Marla Franco: As university leaders, we need to be thinking holistically about the needs of students, because they can’t be successful learners if they are having to worry about meeting their families’ most basic needs. What do messages around handwashing and staying at home mean for communities who have challenges accessing reliable, clean water or groceries? Our campus food pantry has had a consistently heavy flow of students, staff, and faculty over the past two months.

David Verdugo: I talked to other superintendents who were trying to meet the academic, language, food, and social-emotional needs of their students. They were trying to make sure not to lose track of their students, especially those without a home phone or device, who may have moved in the early days of the pandemic. We need funding to do these things, and to make sure that we are providing necessary professional development so teachers can work with the entire student, helping them to function and be successful.

Vince Yanez: My daughter is getting ready to start kindergarten online this fall. We’re fortunate to have the tools at that are necessary for her to do the best she can in that world. But many families don’t have that access. If you’re a family with multiple children, each of those students now needs a device. And many parents need one to work. The issues are complicated, and the pandemic just made them more apparent. If we expect our students to learn in an online environment then we – as a state – have a responsibility to make sure those students have the tools they need to be successful.

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to achieve the 60 percent postsecondary attainment goal given our new reality? What is your greatest hope for education coming out of COVID-19?

Amanda Aguirre: It might take us a long time to get back to the way we used to run our lives, but we’re still working toward the goal. We have an incredible workforce of teachers who are always so innovative and thinking outside the box. The challenge is, we need the financial resources to make it happen.

Marla Franco: If we’re going to remain committed to the goals of Achieve60AZ and the outcomes that we anticipate from this collective effort, then we have to be all in as a state – as teachers, as higher education leaders, as employers, as local government leaders, as legislators, and as the governor. There needs to be real commitment to resources and funding to account for all of the unintended expenditures related to COVID-19 and preparing schools to reopen only when it is safe to do so.

David Verdugo: It goes back to equity – we need to provide students with what they need to be successful. We tell our students that we are a strong community, that there are no excuses, that we can do anything. Our students just need equitable opportunities so we can move toward that goal.

Vince Yanez: This time has given us the opportunity to think about all of our systems a little bit differently, whether its pre-K access, K-12 funding, or success metrics in higher education. When Achieve60AZ was formed and the attainment goal was adopted, it was with the knowledge that we were not going to reach 60 percent unless we do things very differently. There is a lot right with our system, but we also need to make significant investments across the educational spectrum and be willing to think outside the box to find new solutions to old problems.