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Back to School: The IRC partners with Leon County Schools

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Schools in Leon County recently welcomed students back to the classrooms, both virtually and in person. The IRC in Tallahassee partners with Leon County Schools to prepare students and families for this unprecedented school year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Photo: IRC

The coronavirus pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to Floridians throughout the last seven months, circumstances unlikely to change as fall arrives. While incorporating long-term safety guidelines intended to slow the spread of the virus and save lives, communities across the state have started to reopen.   

Leon County Schools welcomed their students back, virtually and in person, on Monday, August 31. The Safe Start Leon Reopening Plan was approved by the Leon County School Board Tuesday, July 28. It outlines the steps and guidelines Leon County Schools adopted as they prepared for the reopening of schools during the COVID-19 era. Preparations for the 2020-2021 school year were like no other: students had been out of school for several months, families had the option to send their children back to brick and mortar schools or have them attend virtually, schedules and grading were revisited and students needed to understand these changes.

In partnership with Leon County Schools, we worked to ensure refugee students were well equipped and prepared to begin the 2020-2021 school year. The community supported these preparations by volunteering, donating school materials and providing reusable masks and other forms of support. Our resilient families once again demonstrated their desire to belong and contribute to their new community, as they participated in workshops and informational sessions intended to guide parents and students through the schools’ reopening.  

Leon County Schools are a critical partner in welcoming refugees in the Tallahassee community. Almost all families resettled by the IRC in Tallahassee have school-aged children who attend Leon County Schools. On Monday September 28, we were joined by Ms. Althoria T. Pickett from Leon County Schools, who highlighted the preparations made by the school district to ensure students were ready to return to school. Una Bilic, Site Manager of the IRC in Tallahassee, also joined us and she shared how the community and the IRC work together to address the challenges refugee families faced during the reopening process. JC Torres, Development Manager of the IRC in Florida, moderated the discussion.

Cultural Context

Leon County School presented two reopening options to parents. Families were able to choose between their students physically attending brick and mortar schools, required to follow social distance guidelines and wear masks throughout the day or attend virtual school from their homes and required to follow strict attendance rules.   

The IRC and Leon County Schools provided information in the two main languages, Arabic and Swahili, spoken by refugees in Tallahassee about their reopening options. However, it wasn’t just a matter of translating, but more about helping families understand the concept of attending school online, the implications of sending their children to brick and mortar schools during a pandemic and how students would react to the changes.   

“Ms. Althoria (Leon County Schools) somehow found the one Swahili speaking teacher in Leon county and got him on board to help connect our kids.” - Una Bilic, Site Manager for the IRC in Tallahassee

Many IRC families decided to send their students to school as opposed to having them attend virtually. For those families who decided to have their students participate virtually, we assisted them in understanding the challenges presented by online learning, the tools necessary to access classes and what expectations to have as learning takes place at home. 

Technology and Access

When Tallahassee began to noticeably experience the pandemic in March, Leon County Schools were quick to react, closing schools and switching to virtual schools. The initial transition to virtual school was “rough” as described by Una Bilic. According to Bilic, Site Manager of the IRC in Tallahassee, families had an incredibly difficult time accessing the internet, as many did not own laptops, and most were unfamiliar with communication platforms like Zoom.   

Prior to reopening for the 2020-2021 school year, Leon County Schools and the IRC conducted several successful Zoom conferences that provided the critical knowledge necessary for families to make their decisions on the available options. By August, families had access to the internet, were provided with laptops and were much more familiar with Zoom and other digital platforms. 

Community Support

Across the state, we’ve experienced neighbors’ solidarity and the support of the community at-large. Individuals and community-based organizations continuously provide critical support through volunteering, organizing school supplies drives and donating. For example, On Saturday, August 22, members of the Chi Upsilon Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority donated over 60 backpacks filled with school supplies and reusable masks to students across Tallahassee. College student groups associated with Florida State University have begun mentoring refugee students, specifically supporting them as they learn English and helping them navigate online school.

“In school now, you don’t share supplies as you used to, so every kid has to have their own everything, so for those children to go back, any child, to go back, and not feel embarrassed or if they can’t get or they can’t have...  they have everything just like their counterparts, and that is amazing!” - Ms. Althoria T. Pickett, Leon County Schools

We are proud of our families, who demonstrate their resilience, overcoming obstacles and contributing to their community. We are thankful for our partnership with Leon County Schools and all other agencies that welcome refugees in the community. We are continuously humbled by the generosity of the community and their commitment to welcoming their new neighbors. 

To learn more about the work of the IRC in Florida and for information on how you can get involved with the IRC as a donor or volunteer, please contact Development Manager, JC Torres, at Juan.Torres [at] Rescue.org or 786-325-6257. 

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