Why schools serving high Latino populations are affected more during closures

Hispanics are more concerned about complications that arise from COVID-19 than whites and do not have equitable access to mental health care, experts say
By: | May 12, 2020
Latino mental health is at risk during school closures as studies show that hispanic students and their families are more negatively affected by COVID-19, so  school mental health services are more crucial than ever.gettyimages.com: Pollyana Ventura

A major food company in a California community of new immigrant families recently halted all production when several employees tested positive for COVID-19, a move that frightened local hispanic students, whose parents work there in Tulare county.

“The Spanish news has been causing much anxiety and stress for our Latino students,” says Superintendent Yolanda Valdez of Cutler-Orosi JUSD, a district with a student population that’s 97% hispanic. “Many of our kids think that they or their parents are going to die if they are diagnosed with the coronavirus.”

Hispanics are more concerned than Americans overall about the threat the novel coronavirus outbreak poses to health, their financial situation and the daily life of their local community, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

Meanwhile, many linguistic minorities, especially Latinos, will not have suitable resources to access mental health care during the pandemic, which will magnify their overall sense of catastrophe, says Harvard Psychologist Margarita Alegria on the subject of how COVID-19 is affecting Latino mental health at significantly higher rates than whites. “Serious psychological distress is more likely to happen in people who are underinsured in a pandemic, and Latinos are the group with the highest under insurance rates.”

These stressors will especially affect hispanic students living in poverty, who are most likely experiencing negative changes in family relations and the quality of parenting. “We know child poverty is highest for hispanic students, so Latino mental health will be worse,” says Alegria, a preeminent expert on racial and ethnic disparities. “This is layer upon layer of disparity.”

Providing school mental health services for hispanic students

At Cutler-Orosi JUSD, administrators created a multitiered support system during school closures to help their vulnerable Latino students. Teachers who don’t hear from students after several contact attempts are followed by outreach efforts from student advocates—parents with four-year degrees who are working on their counseling degree. These professionals sometimes make in-house visits. “If a student is exhibiting anxiety or if a teacher notices something is wrong, there is an electronic form that can be sent to one of our counselors or psychologists for additional support,” says Superintendent Valdez.

Teachers are often alerted to worrisome behavior when students fill out mandatory forms after logging into Google Classroom. These forms ask how students are feeling, what they’re thinking, and how they’re coping.

Related: How this district is tackling educational barriers for Latino students

Related: Survey: Teachers need training in trauma

Related: 6 ways to curb student anxiety during school closures

Even though the district provided students with 500 web-enabled devices for online learning, not every home has Wi-Fi. “For the 80% that are connected, that’s great. But what about the other 20 percent?” says Valdez. “These are the ones who we reach by phone or do our very best to connect with.”

Meanwhile, hispanic students who do have internet access might not have the support at home to connect. “Many of their parents are working up to 14-hour shifts, so these kids are left to fend for themselves, with older siblings taking care of their younger brothers and sisters,” says Valdez.

Community solutions to support the mental health of Latino students and communities

Keeping Youth Connected—Youth Commissioners in Gonzales, Calif., where about 94 percent of the population is hispanic and Latino,  hosted a #LoveCareConnect Q&A with Adult Allies and the Assistant Superintendent of Business Services at the Gonzales Unified School District. Also, youth commissioners are organizing via Instagram to help students ask questions around COVID-19 and they are working to support graduating seniors through Senior Swarm activities.

Connecting all residents to the resources needed—In Lake County, Colo., where a third of the county’s population is Hispanic, a simple Google form in both Spanish and English is being utilized to coordinate local need. It can either be filled out by community members themselves or by staff of local organizations by contacting 211. To learn more, click here.

Helping youth heal, grow and thrive – The National Compadres Network, based in San Jose, Calif., focuses on racial healing and helping people of color overcome the effects of violence and trauma so they can thrive. The network has been holding virtual “circles of support” meetings for boys and young men of color in the community so they can share their experiences and how they are coping.  To learn more, click here.

Budget cuts could affect Latino mental health services

Despite the additional help from support staff, the district could lose their student advocates, counselors and psychologists that provide these school mental health services since state budget cuts will most likely force Cutler-Orosi JUSD to make their own by upwards of 15% next year and possibly 20% in 2021-22.

“I can’t cut the teachers, since we’re an educational institution and you can only cut so many custodians, since our schools need to be sanitized, and we don’t have many instructional assistants,” says Valdez. “As for our administrative staff, we only have one principal and one learning director at each building, and our learning director does all the paperwork for special ed and 504s, and coordinates all the services, while the principal performs all the instructional leadership at each school. So what’s left? That’s what’s disturbing about all of this. Right when you need these support services the most, we are going to have to do without.”

Complications for Dreamers

The district has been using funds from the CARES act to provide additional help for students, but many are categorized as DACA recipients and therefore can’t receive this federal support. In these cases, Cutler-Orosi JUSD has connected Dreamers to several local organizations for aid. “We live in a very agricultural-based community, and all of the agricultural work is starting up right now, so when school is let out, students are working to make ends meet, so they don’t have the time to access these support systems,” says Valdez.

She adds, “We are trying to fill in the gaps as much as possible by providing schedules, and making sure our teachers are working hard to keep students engaged and to provide them with school mental health services.”

For more coronavirus coverage, click here.