Education is a lifeline for children during a crisis. When their normal schedules are disrupted, schooling can provide the routine, socialization, and opportunities to build the skills they need to heal and thrive. This is especially true for refugee children who have experienced trauma and are resettling in unfamiliar locations.

That’s why the International Rescue Committee (IRC) launched a remote learning program for refugee children and youth during the COVID-19 shutdown. The program is meeting a need in the local community beyond the IRC's work with our clients, partnering with school districts to reach families who haven’t previously worked with us.

Eritrean mother Abrehet stands with her arms around the shoulders of her 5-year-old son Kudus and daughter Delina, 8.
Kudus, 5, and Delina, 8, resettled from Eritrea last year with their mother Abrehet. “When I see them reading, studying, and learning day by day, I consider myself lucky," Abrehet says.
Photo: Emmanuel Ndayisenga/IRC

One study in the U.S. warns that students might lose 30 percent of their annual reading gains and up to 50 percent of their math gains due to the so-called COVID slide. Young refugees and immigrants who are learning English could face even greater setbacks.

In Seattle alone, the IRC reaches over 140 students with virtual tutoring and online reading programs. We work with four school districts, where we already ran in-school and after-school programs, to connect with recently resettled families in need of these services. We have also delivered over 100 remote learning kits including essential school supplies, individualized reading and math learning materials, fun games, puzzles and coloring sheets. We plan to distribute over 200 summer learning kits at the end of this month to mitigate summer learning and reading loss and provide fun enrichment activities for children to engage in.

“It’s really important for children to continue their education and have access to these resources during a crisis,” says Rachel Stephens, IRC youth program coordinator in Seattle. “We know that school and a regular routine are key factors in helping students who have experienced trauma to recover and build resiliency. We also know that school closures disproportionately impact students with low English levels and low income levels, which is the majority of the families that we work with.”

Ready to read

The IRC’s Ready to Read program helps elementary and middle school students who are still learning English continue reading and advancing their skills. Students use Raz-Plus, an online literacy program, to access a library of books categorized by reading level. They join tutors in weekly, 45-minute Zoom sessions to read new books together, build essential literacy skills, practice conversational English, and advance their English language proficiency.

“Students in ELL (English Language Learner) programs heavily rely on one-to-one and small group instruction to get the support that they need, dive deep into questions, and figure out assignments,” says Stephens. “That’s the connection we’re providing.”

Ready to Read also kept students learning and connecting while their schools worked on distributing resources and building their own virtual programming.

Kudus, a 5-year-old boy from Eritrea, stands outside his new home in Seattle holding his picture of a space shuttle rocket launch.
Kudus, 5, dreams of one day becoming an astronaut. He and his sister Delina are two of the IRC Ready to Read program’s top readers.
Photo: Emmanuel Ndayisenga/IRC


“Our program was really important for these elementary school students who didn't get computers right away,” says IRC tutor Emily Hagen. “We were able to step in right away with our reading program and make sure that kids still had an avenue through which to learn—while at the same time connecting with school districts to make sure refugee families with limited English proficiency were receiving the information and resources from the school.”

Siblings Kudus, 5, and Delina, 8, who resettled from Eritrea last year, are two of the program’s top readers. Together they read over 300 books in the first three weeks of the pandemic and to date have read nearly 500 books.

“They’re such a sweet family,” says Hagen, who meets with them weekly on Zoom. “I’ll read with them together and they’ll alternate pages. Kudus is a funny kid. He can be a goofball and Delina is so kind and patient with him.”

Earlier this month, Hagen showed them a video of the SpaceX rocket launch and read a book about space with them. Kudus says that he wants to be an astronaut when he grows up and Delina says she wants to be a doctor.

Hagen has noticed how fast children in general are advancing in reading levels.

“I was surprised with several of my kids, once I started meeting with them over Zoom, just how much more confident they were with their reading than when I had last seen them,” she says. “This was all from them taking the initiative and reading on their own, just going online and reading as many books as they can.”

Kudus and Delina’s mother, Abrehet, is grateful to see her children receiving education, even through this disruptive crisis.

“I was not educated but that didn’t happen to them,” she says. “When I see them reading, studying, and learning day by day, I consider myself lucky. I don’t want them to live similar lives to what I have been through.”

Virtual tutoring

The IRC in Seattle also provides virtual tutoring to refugee children and youth during the pandemic. Students are matched with one of its 19 tutors for one-on-one or small group sessions on Zoom.

Beyond just working with students on their school assignments, tutors also help them with digital literacy, setting up computers and online platforms to access their new virtual classrooms.

“From day one, in addition to making sure students had learning materials in their hands, our team was doing weekly parent check-ins to make sure that parents have access to school meals and understand the expectations from their schools during closures,” Stephens says. “We wanted to support parents as they took on this new task of learning from home.”

Delina, an 8-year-old girl from Eritrea, stands outside her new home in Seattle holding her drawing of a doctor with her medical implements.
Delina, 8, says she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. Together she and Kudus have read nearly 500 books during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Photo: Emmanuel Ndayisenga/IRC


One IRC staff member spent five hours on a Zoom phone call to help a student set up and navigate Google Classroom.

“Many teachers just don't have time to do that for every single student,” says Stephens. “And refugee students might have parents with lower English levels; this may be their first computer at home. So we just wanted to make sure they had basic access and understanding of the platforms.”

This highlights the great partnership the IRC has with school districts.

“We worked hand in hand with our district partners to be a bridge between schools and refugee families to ensure families had access and connection during a time when lots of critical, confusing, and rapidly changing information was going out about closures and learning platforms.”

Virtual tutoring also provides ELL students with the space to continue practicing English. Even in a normal classroom setting, studies show ELL students typically spend only 90 seconds per day speaking English. Now that classes are virtual, that time has significantly decreased.

“Giving children the opportunity to continue conversing in English is really critical, along with that social connection,” Stephens says. “We’ve found that kids have really been wanting to talk more. They’re lonely and they are opening up and just wanting to have conversations with their tutors, which is really important.”

 The IRC’s high school program also works with many seniors one-on-one to earn enough credits to graduate, which is already difficult for refugee and ELL students.

 “We've been helping a group of high school students complete this very big senior project to be able to graduate,” says Stephens. “Some districts have policies against teachers having one-on-one tutoring time with students. The fact that we've been able to do that has taken a huge burden off their backs. We've been able to help these students get across the finish line.”

Going forward

School districts in the Seattle area have already asked the IRC to continue and expand its virtual programming over the summer. The IRC is set to reach 230 students with online tutoring and remote learning kits.

“That just highlights the huge need that schools, parents, and students have for this type of program,” says Stephens. “ELL students are already extremely far behind, and now they're even further behind. We’re providing extra educational learning time over the summer, opportunities to keep speaking in English and reading, and the chance to have fun and engage with peers and other caring adults.”

A drawing of a Space Shuttle rocket launch.
IRC tutor Emily Hagen showed Kudus and Delina a video of the May 30 SpaceX launch and read a book about space with them.
Photo: Emmanuel Ndayisenga/IRC

There is also a likelihood of these virtual programs continuing when fall comes, depending on whether schools reopen with traditional, in-person instruction

“Our programs will probably be a hybrid of both in-person and virtual meetings, as that's what school is likely going to be like,” says Stephens. “Having built out this great foundation for virtual programming in the spring, I feel very confident that we can continue in the fall.”

This remote learning program is just one of the ways in which the IRC is adapting our existing programs so that we can continue providing vital services during this global crisis. Read more about our COVID-19 response.