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A tablet with a father and son is being held by two older adults.
Schools helped connect immigrant children to grandparents and families overseas. (Shutterstock)

How heritage language schools offered grassroots community support through the pandemic

Heritage language schools are grassroots organizations that maintain the languages and cultures of immigrant communities, and offer vital community services, employment opportunities and networking to prevent social isolation. They advocate for multilingualism and cross-cultural understanding. These schools range from small organizations, run by volunteers, to large, accredited schools.

We collaborated on a study to examine how 25 heritage language schools of the International and Heritage Languages Association in Edmonton responded to the pressures and challenges of the pandemic.

Despite pandemic-imposed threats to these schools’ operating capacities, they continued offering vital services. These services included translation, English-language classes for newcomers, early learning classes for young children, daycare and providing selfless community care where needed. Schools reached out to the vulnerable in the earliest stages of the pandemic, often before the government’s sluggish response.

Many continued to teach and work together with other heritage language schools in Canada and beyond. The pandemic also pushed these schools to become more professional and to forge new supportive alliances.

Struggles during COVID-19

Out of a rich linguistic palette in Canada, the Edmonton heritage language schools in our study teach Arabic, Armenian, Bangla, Czech, Farsi, Filipino, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Italian, Marathi, Nepali, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Slovak, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Telugu, Tigrinya, Turkish, Ukrainian and Vietnamese.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, governments offered public schools financial support to ease the transition to online teaching or to cover pandemic protocols. Heritage language schools, left to their own fates, had to cope by themselves.

Students and teachers from schools teaching Czech, Filipino, French, Hindi, Greek, Italian, Marathi, Nepali, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Slovak, Telugu, Ukrainian, languages share at International Heritage Language Association’s second virtual Mother Language Day celebration.

These schools teach children and adults, and typically meet on the weekends in libraries, community centres or church basements. Most of these schools dream of permanent space but make do with whatever space they can get.

Heritage language schools often operate outside of the public school system while supplementing and enriching public school education and contributing to social justice. They help immigrants integrate into society, connect immigrants with the local heritage language community and provide newcomers with meaningful work experience and leadership opportunities.

Responding to racism, xenophobia, inequities

The pandemic clearly showed systematic inequalities: Racialized communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, as have immigrants and migrant workers. Visible minorities were exposed to verbal harassment, aggression, unwanted physical contact and cyber-racism.

A report by the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter and Project 1907, a grassroots community group, showed a disturbing rise in anti-Asian racism and xenophobia across Canada during the pandemic. Fears of crimes motivated by hate seriously concerned Edmonton’s Asian community. Edmontonians have experienced multiple incidents of racial hatred.

One school made this public statement:

“It has been deeply bothering to read, hear and see the recent rise in attacks on the Asian community. We are personally affected by these incidents, which have shaken up deep rooted issues of racism felt in our society and have provided an opportunity to reflect on our personal experiences … We are here to listen and check in with our community to ensure everyone feels safe, heard and protected.”

In another case, when a student in an online adult heritage language class shared the experience of being subjected to an anti-Asian racial slur, the teacher opened the space for students to openly discuss racism.

How communities coped

A protester stands near the Cargill beef processing plant in High River, Alta., May 4, 2020, as workers return following a temporary closure due to a COVID-19 outbreak. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

In the Edmonton area, heritage language schools’ support network was important when racialized temporary foreign workers were blamed for the spread of the pandemic.

One school helped temporary foreign worker families find places to live when they could not longer afford apartments. People from the school community provided financial support and delivered food from a communal bakery.

Connectivity with motherland and direct information from relatives inspired action across borders. Two schools moved their teaching online before the official school closure in the province to curb the spread of the pandemic. “It was obvious to me that what was happening there would come here, too,” a principal said.

Almost half of the schools played critical roles translating and sharing important information about COVID-19.

Supporting frontline workers and families

Sixteen schools that were part of our research reported that they have community members who are frontline workers. Global migration researchers Laura Foley and Nicola Piper note that the pandemic “exposed the front-line nature of much of the work carried out by migrant workers.”

Six schools started sewing cloth masks for the homeless, elderly and for hospitals, three schools cooked and distributed food donations through connected local churches and organizations. Seven schools provided mental health support and two schools took part in blood donation and helped migrant workers.

A boy is seen talking to a woman online.
Schools supported frontline workers and their families. (Pexels/Katerina Holmes)

Some schools joined online teaching with similar schools across borders and thus increased equitable access to education.

Online connections overseas

Schools provided access to heritage language education to students in all geographic locations. In one case, students or teachers attended online classes from Edmonton, Montréal and Toronto, as well as from Bratislava, Slovakia; Zwickau, Germany; and Mullagh, Ireland.

Many schools benefited from the higher engagement of grandparents. Grandparents or relatives overseas soothed pressures faced by immigrant families with several children.

Relatives taught children school subjects in online learning when immigrant families were scrambling to manage online schooling. This allowed for increased usage of heritage languages in families during the pandemic.

Increased global collaboration

Lack of governmental support played into the resilience and transformation of these schools. The lack of support pushed leaders to gain new skills and to seek help in transnational resources and collaboration.

One critical outcome was the development of International Guidelines for Professional Practices in Community-Based Heritage Language Schools.

These will guide schools that choose to use them in improving their professional practice. They also represent values and professional ambition of heritage language schools towards becoming recognized by the public school sector. For example, in Alberta, some heritage language schools are recognized by the Ministry of Education as accredited private schools.

Guidelines were a result of the collaboration of leaders of several organizations, based in the Netherlands, Iceland, the United States, Canada and Ireland. This collaboration also inspired establishing a European coalition of heritage language school associations.

Through their strong community involvement, heritage language schools foster different models of integration and belonging than public schools. They respond directly to the needs of their communities, representing a bottom-up, grassroots approach to integrating immigrants into society.

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