The pandemic era policy known as Title 42—which made it possible to expel migrants quickly—expired May 11, leaving behind several questions over the future of people seeking asylum at the U.S. southern border.
It’s not yet clear if the policy change at the border will bring an influx of immigrant students to schools before the academic year ends within the next month or so. But school districts across the country said they are already preparing to welcome new students and their families with potentially outsized needs.
“These people that are coming over now, many of them have been waiting on the border for weeks or months. So this is a group that may have particularly dire needs in terms of health care, in terms of social work issues, and may need a lot of care and help in terms of settling in,” said Julie Sugarman, senior policy analyst for PreK-12 Education at the think tank Migration Policy Institute.
Title 42 was a public health policy that was put in place in March 2020 by the Trump administration, after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal of the policy had been to stop the spread of communicable diseases, said Colleen Putzel, a research assistant in the U.S. immigration policy program at the Migration Policy Institute. In effect, it stopped people from being able to cross the border and ask for asylum by permitting immediate expulsions—though not necessarily for all nationalities.
The policy continued with the Biden administration through May 11. Now that Title 42 has expired, a variety of processes for seeking asylum are likely to be put in place, with the Biden administration essentially “trying to fix the plane while flying it,” Putzel said.
As uncertainty over immigration policies continues, as well as uncertainty over how many immigrants will enter the country through the border in the coming months, large and small school districts offer advice on strategies to best support migrant families navigating a complex system of resettlement.
Districts support families with welcome centers, enrollment outreach
After the onset of the pandemic, the Houston school district, saw a decrease in enrollment. It prompted the district to think creatively about reaching out to families whose children hadn’t returned to school.
Last year, through federal pandemic relief funds, the district began operating a mobile enrollment unit outfitted with iPads and other technology, allowing district staff to go into communities, and apartment complexes to meet families where they were for enrollment support, said Melanie Gomez, executive director of innovation and student enrollment for the district.
That mobile unit will come in handy especially when assisting resettled families in navigating the enrollment process, she added.
This past school year the district served over 189,000 students, with 10,538 classified as immigrant students, according to district data.
Her department also meets with immigrant resettlement agencies on a monthly basis, allowing staff to be better prepared for what’s coming.
That initial contact with families is key, Sugarman with the Migration Policy Institute said.
Districts need to make sure front office staff and others working with families in registering for services know what to do and what questions to ask. Translation and interpretation services need to be available as well, Sugarman added.
When the Houston district recently welcomed several students from Afghanistan, district staff realized they did not have the information to be able to support them in their native language and quickly worked on translation services in Dari and Pashto, as well as K’iche’ for their growing Guatemalan population, Gomez said.
Districts offer non-traditional, creative support services
The Fairfax County district in Virginia, with more than 181,000 students, has been able to build out extensive wraparound services over the last few years for its growing immigrant population by being intentional in how it invests in these students, including how it uses federal funding for English learners, known as Title III.
While they are uncertain of how many students will be enrolling as a result of the policy change at the border, Fairfax officials have plenty of experience in this area. Just this year the district welcomed 3,200 students coming from outside of the United States, said Rich Pollio, the district’s director for English-as-a-second-language services.
The district has welcome centers in place where immigrant students go through a whole separate registration process. Language assessment staff or community liaisons work with families by filling out free and reduced lunch meal applications, providing information about job opportunities, and even offering medical screenings at welcome centers and telehealth services for trauma counseling, said Renee LaHuffman-Jackson, coordinator of family and school partnerships.
The district also has family liaisons, partially funded by Title III, who get monthly professional development and are given tools to implement projects and initiatives at individual schools such as educational sessions walking families through the ins and outs of public education, LaHuffman-Jackson said.
On the academic side of things, Pollio shared ways in which the district has added flexibility in best meeting students’ needs. Summer programs are available, especially for students enrolling in the middle or toward the end of the school year. The district assesses immigrant students in their home languages in addition to English to get a holistic view of where students stand academically.
And when the district welcomed a number of families from Afghanistan, staff shifted to interviewing and trusting families to fill in gaps in their children’s academic records, especially in light of some students not having all their academic paperwork accounted for, Pollio said.
The district has more recently added family partnership specialists who work specifically with English learner families, and specifically students who are between the ages of 18 and 22 to offer them non-traditional school settings. Students may need evening classes or other flexible schedules to still be able to graduate high school.
Districts partner with universities for academic support
The Levy County school district in Florida has 10 schools and two charters. Of their roughly 5,000 students, only about 200 are classified as English learners, said Jaime Handlin, English-as-a-second-language director for the district.
Over the years, the district has been better able to assess and improve instruction for immigrant students by adding bilingual paraprofessional support and bilingual teachers, increasing the amount of language acquisition lessons being taught in the classroom, and increasing academic vocabulary use.
Key to their instructional work is partnering with the University of Florida, which helps facilitate professional development for their teachers in working with immigrant students.
In general, district leaders spoke of how vital partnerships with resettlement agencies, local government officials, and universities are to serving immigrant students, especially when resources are limited.
Title III funding, for instance, doesn’t always provide enough cash for districts serving immigrant students. Allotments are determined by older population data meaning the funding given out doesn’t fully account for all students in need, Sugarman with the Migration Policy Institute said.
It’s partly why on May 12 Representative Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat representing New York’s 13th congressional district, introduced a bill amending the Every Student Succeeds Act which would allow grant funds to increase immigrant students’ and parents’ access to legal, education, financial, and social services, among other things to improve education for immigrant and English learner students.
“We know that schools obviously are super important for kids to learn and to get a degree for their eventual economic benefit,” Sugarman said. “But schools are also really key sites of integration and so having a family be welcome at a school, having the resources there, knowing they can turn to the school for help is a really important piece of making sure that people get off to a good start in the United States.”