When public schools in Ann Arbor, Mich., closed last spring Betty, an undocumented domestic worker, feared losing her job if she stayed home to help her children navigate virtual schooling.
But even if she could stay home, she worried that she didn't have the English proficiency to support her daughter, a ninth-grader at a public high school in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"I know that I'd be able to help my son who is in fifth grade, but not my daughter," said Betty, who asked that her family be identified only by first names because of their immigration status.
Around the same time, Paula Manrique Pfeffer, a graduate education student at the University of Michigan, found herself being asked to supervise learning pods that were starting to form among families with means.
"I had so many job offers starting at $40 dollars per hour but I kept thinking about other students in need," she said.
As an activist with Movimento Cosecha, an immigrant-led advocacy group, she knew what parents like Betty were going through.
So she organized a group of undocumented families and created an in person learning hub for kids grades K thru 12. For the past six weeks, 24 students at Ann Arbor Community Learning Center have been doing their virtual classwork on computers provided by the public school district, with the support of the center's volunteers and teachers.
The center is hosted by the Church of the Good Shepherd, which has a long history of being an ally to local undocumented families. Back in 2017, it declared itself a sanctuary church to house undocumented immigrants facing a threat of deportation.
When the pandemic hit, the church stopped holding worship in person and the Rev. Deborah Dean-Ware said the opportunity to host the learning center was a way for their congregation to engage in its mission.
"To know that our building is being utilized in this way has been gratifying for the church," she said. "It's just a new way for us to live into being a sanctuary congregation."
There are an estimated 7.6 million undocumented workers in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. They often earn low wages and lack unemployment insurance or other social safety net. They are also a high risk group for COVID-19, and are less likely than the general population to be able to get the medical care they need if they get it.
Manrique says coordinating a learning center for undocumented families during a pandemic isn't just about creating a safe place for students, but also recognizing other challenges they face, like not having a driver's license.
"The first day of school we realized that the families need transportation, because a lot of them are undocumented and don't want to drive. So we got a car and a driver to pick them up and drop them off," Manrique said.
The learning hub is funded entirely by donations, and depends on parents like Betty who volunteers to clean the church after school.
The donations have allowed Manrique to hire Robin Armstrong, a licensed Montessori teacher and two part-time bilingual assistants to help with assignments the children get from their teachers in the virtual classrooms.
"As a Montessori teacher, it's very important for me to make sure they have the opportunity to engage in activities beyond the academic part," she said, adding that the kids go out on the church grounds to explore nature, play games and do some gardening.
Armstrong says the hardest part has been communicating through face coverings.
"It's hard to hear the kids through the mask," she said. "For some of the kids here we are trying to work on their language skills including reading and letter sounds and it's difficult to do that when I can't see their mouth and they can't see mine."
But the teacher said she has seen a huge positive impact for the kids at the hub and many students are having an easier time keeping up with their regular school's workload since coming to the center.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The coronavirus pandemic and efforts to control it have been tough for many parents to navigate. We're going to talk more about that in just a few minutes. But it's posed unique challenges for undocumented parents, many of whom have essential jobs, like domestic work that they cannot do from home. So a group in Michigan raised money to form a learning pod for their children. Michelle Jokisch Polo of member station WKAR visited the pod and found it bustling with activity.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: No.
MICHELLE JOKISCH POLO, BYLINE: A fourth grade boy lodges a protest when the girls in his learning pod request the Top 40 song "Dance Monkey" during a break for socially distanced dancing.
It's a typical afternoon for the children at the Ann Arbor Community Learning Center. It's a learning hub for children in grades K through 12. And they're meeting in a local church that is not holding services due to the pandemic. When they're not dancing or on a break, the students are doing virtual classwork on computers they got from their schools. And they're getting help from a full-time licensed teacher and two part-time bilingual assistants. One of the parents is named Betty. She's from Mexico. And because she's undocumented, she asks for her and her family to be identified by their first names.
When the pandemic first began, Betty says she was worried that she would lose her job as a domestic worker if she had to stay home and help her children navigate virtual schooling.
BETTY: (Speaking Spanish).
JOKISCH POLO: "Either we stay home with them, or we go out to work so that we can pay our rent, utilities and in addition, the Internet, which, by the way, they need for schooling," she says. Betty has two children, a son in fifth grade and a daughter in ninth grade. Even if Betty could leave her job, she says she doesn't have the English proficiency to help her daughter with her schoolwork.
BETTY: (Speaking Spanish).
JOKISCH POLO: "I know that I'd be able to help my son, who's in fifth grade, but not my daughter," she says. That daughter, Joana, studies with seven other middle and high school students in another part of the church, where the congregation usually meets for Sunday services. She says the setup is way better than it used to be studying in her family's mobile home.
JOANA: It was pretty stressful and overwhelming. Plus, I kind of enjoyed going to school and seeing people and communicating with others.
JOKISCH POLO: Last spring, when public schools closed, Paula Manrique Pfeffer knew it would set undocumented children back. She's a graduate education student at the University of Michigan and an activist with an immigrant-led advocacy group.
PAULA MANRIQUE PFEFFER: If you think about it, you're not only marginalized, you're not only immigrant. Your parents don't speak the language. You feel different. You look different. Your food looks different. On top of that, you're going to come back to school next year where your peers are ahead of you, and you're going to fall even further behind.
JOKISCH POLO: Manrique worked with parents of the 24 kids here and raised money to hire the staff. Now the program has been running for 10 weeks, funded entirely by donations. They hope to have enough funding to cover them until schools reopen again, whenever that is. But at least the kids' grades are up, and they get to have fun dancing together, even if they can't agree on the song.
For NPR News, I'm Michelle Jokisch Polo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.