Melissa Baralt snapped pics of her sons Liam and Milan Rosario this past week on her front porch in Paterson.
Their red uniforms, ironed khakis and new face masks had been laid out the night before in preparation for the first day of school at the Paterson Charter School for Science and Technology.
Baralt’s own prep for the school year involved something aside from buying notebooks, sharpening pencils, or confirming home room numbers. She surveyed her email and text messages for fellow Spanish-speaking families in the district who may still have questions with return of full in-person classes amid the pandemic.
“I’m like one of the mom leaders of the group and as a bilingual mother I (can speak) both languages so I’m able to maneuver all the information better,” Baralt told NJ Advance Media. “It’s a language barrier, but it’s also an accessibility barrier.”
Baralt, who has built connections locally as an aide for a city councilman and on the Latinas United For Political Empowerment PAC board, said she’s found communicating with parents informally over the phone the most effective. And communication will be key this school year for families as the coronavirus pandemic — including its impact on schools and younger unvaccinated populations — lingers throughout New Jersey.
Baralt has helped some Spanish-speaking parents navigate masking rules and clarify that remote learning won’t be available except for special exceptions. She noted that there’s room for improvement for translation services in a state where Spanish is the second-most spoken language behind English.
About 17% of New Jersey’s more than 1.3 million public school children speak Spanish at home, according to the latest available statistics from the state Department of Education.
“Schools are communities and good communication is at the heart of any successful community,” said Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association. “Without translation services, some families are effectively excluded from the community, which harms students, makes educators’ jobs more difficult and makes our schools less effective. Providing translation services is a smart investment.”
The level of translation services a Hispanic parent will have access to in New Jersey depends on geography, advocates say. Most school districts promise to translate information if parents or guardians reach out with a specific inquiry. Many also post updates in English and Spanish, as well as other languages, online. But districts vary in how often they make those updates or notify parents about available Spanish-language resources.
For example, Camden appears to be a rare example in New Jersey’s nearly 600 school districts to provide live Spanish simulcasts of board of education meetings online. This includes the option to watch the meetings later if Hispanic families missed the live session. Prior to March, the school district operated like many others in New Jersey when it came to district meetings. It gave the option to hear a Spanish translation over the phone as meetings were happening live but only provided written highlights afterward.
Janet Pablo, who lives in Camden, said that even her district can improve its services.
“Many of us want this information as parents but don’t always know it’s available or how to find it,” Pablo said in Spanish — noting that she prefers videos or speaking with a district official over receiving written updates.
Pablo expects this school year to be more challenging following the death of her husband from a stroke in 2020.
“I’m both the mom and the dad, so it can be difficult to balance everything. I want to see the district be more proactive in how they communicate in Spanish about not only the basics but social emotional wellness and vaccine resources too,” Pablo said.
Pablo’s need to juggle tasks was clear on the first day of school Tuesday. Her oldest, who is 14, gets to school by herself with no problems, but Pablo had to get up early to drive her 9-year-old and 12-year-old to Thomas Dudley Family School.
Heading out in the morning was not an issue, but Pablo had to rush over from work at 2 p.m. when it slipped her mind her two youngest were finishing up an hour earlier than she expected.
“My children are my priority but it can be overwhelming which makes the information the district provides me very important,” she said. “We as parents are very busy and I try to help other Hispanic families if they may be confused about something but don’t always have the time myself.”
The ability for Camden parents, including Pablo, to watch for updates during school board meetings in Spanish, as well as view later, was made possible by the New Jersey-based news and media company, The Latino Spirit.
Diego Maya, who heads The Latino Spirit, says a three-month pilot to provide live translations began in the spring. It was the first time his company has partnered with a municipality for live Spanish simulcast services.
The contract in Camden has been extended for the foreseeable future and the company is now working with two districts in Passaic and Mercer counties to provide the same resources. Maya declined to disclose the specific cities because negotiations are ongoing.
“We’re offering these services and people are responding. We need to keep it going. It takes much more than just posting videos. We need grassroots organizations to reach out to these communities and engage,” Maya said.
Falio-Leyba Martinez, a school board member in Camden who spearheaded the addition of Spanish live translations, acknowledged that there’s more work to be done to bridge the gap for Hispanic residents.
“It’s about making sure the barrier is minimized as much as we can in order to take care of our kids,” said Leyba-Martinez, who translated school information for his parents starting when he was 10.
Mary Sanchez, whose 8-year-old son Jacob goes to school in Paterson, is happy to have access to translators in her district. This year it will be important to keep updated on any shifts to remote learning and the availability of inoculations once vaccines are approved for kids under 12, she said.
“The COVID pandemic is what I’m concerned with first, but there are also (non-coronavirus) topics. Sometimes I’m helping my son with homework and I might not understand something in English in the assignment. I don’t want to confuse him, so I’m always careful about that,” Sanchez said.
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Steven Rodas may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.