Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

How a federal program is filling an education gap for rural migrant students during the pandemic

Migrant farmworkers work on a farm in Virginia. Photo by USDA

Many migrant workers and their families rely on the Migrant Education Program to help students access school work. The pandemic has made it even more challenging.

This story was published in partnership with The Daily Yonder

Linda Traylor got custody of her six grandchildren so they could stay put. Stability and the fact that they liked the schools in Flemingsburg, Ky. was important. Their father, who worked on tobacco and horse farms in Kentucky, had been deported to Mexico in 2015 and their mother traveled wherever she could find work. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Traylor’s grandchildren — a preschooler, second grader, fifth grader, seventh grader, two high schoolers, and a 19-year-old who enlisted in the National Guard after a semester of college — did their best to keep up with school work from home without a computer or internet until in-person classes resumed in September 2020. The district allotted some Google Chromebooks for children to check out, but Traylor’s grandkids never brought the laptops home, relying on printed worksheets and help over the phone, which was a challenge, Traylor said. 

Traylor tries to break up the school days by teaching them to cook or sending them outside to play football and volleyball. Before the pandemic, her granddaughters, who are in the fifth and seventh grades, planned to try out for the school volleyball team. When it comes to school work, Traylor feels more limited in the help she can offer.

“The girls would sit down sometimes from 10 o’clock in the morning to 10 o’clock at night and work on it,” she said. “Some things I remember, but they’ve got to remember I went to school in the 70’s. Their math is a lot different from when I went to school.”

Traylor’s household relies on the Department of Education’s Migrant Education Program (MEP), which helps ensure migrant students, or the children of migrant workers, are not penalized when transferring between school systems, and offers services including tutoring and summer camp. Most of the families that the MEP assists in Traylor’s area move to Flemingsburg for seasonal farming work. Traylor’s oldest grandchild, Alberto Sanchez, who is 19, credits MEP with helping him succeed academically and connect with other students from similar backgrounds. He said it made the difference between graduating high school and dropping out. 

“They’d always help us stay on track with our schoolwork,” Sanchez explained. “They would come to the house sometimes and work with us and help us get it down. So that way, we could get our grades to pass.”

Sanchez went to college with an athletic scholarship but left after his first semester to join the National Guard as a better financial opportunity with the plan to potentially return to school down the road. Reflecting on whether migrant work is something he would consider, he considered his father’s work, “My dad, he worked on a horse farm. I’d probably do that, for sure.” 

Before the pandemic, migrant students faced major barriers to keeping pace with curriculum, or even finishing school. The nature of their parents’ work can force them to change school districts frequently, jumping around in curriculum; there are often language barriers in the classroom and between parents and schools. Research shows migrant families are often lower-income and have less access to reliable broadband

Now, Traylor’s grandkids, with the exception of Sanchez, are back in school, but with the pandemic still spreading in the U.S., the additional risk at many of parents’ work sites, such as farms and food processing facilities, have made it too risky for MEP employees to make their regular visits, where they typically identify families who qualify for the program and connect them to education and community services. Families moving into new areas are less likely to know about these services, losing opportunities not just for education assistance, but also for help accessing community and health resources.

Migrant workers across the U.S. already face dangerous conditions, such as exposure to pesticides and rising temperatures during the working season because of climate change. During the pandemic, a lack of safety measures in meatpacking plants and on farms — there are no federal mandates for additional protections for these workers, who may often live in barracks-style housing together and may not have paid sick leave — allowed COVID-19 to spread quickly in the South and throughout the U.S. There have been nearly 2,000 farms, meatpacking plants, or other food processing plants with confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network, and investigations have shown many employers have not taken the precautions to prevent the spread.

The Migrant Education Program was established as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” In the 2016 – 2017 school year, almost 220,000 students across 47 states participated in the program. (Wyoming has since closed their program, and Connecticut, West Virginia, and Rhode Island are not participants). In 2020, the program had a $374.8 million budget, with state allocations determined by an algorithm based on the number of students they support. Kentucky’s budget totalled $5.3 million.

Many of the students who receive help from North Carolina’s MEP, one of the more robust programs in the Southeast, may travel in a circuit from citrus and sugarcane operations in Florida — which serves more than 27,000 migrant students — to blueberry and Christmas tree farms in North Carolina, and on to apples, tomatoes and mushrooms in Michigan, which serves 6,200 migrant students.

“Due to the nature of the work our parents do, they are considered essential workers, and they are exposed to the virus more often than non-essential workers,” said LaTricia Townsend, Director North Carolina’s MEP. “This brings more stress to our families, which is then transferred to their children.”

Townsend said enrollment decreased in her region’s MEP because workers are afraid of traveling for jobs as they normally do due to COVID. The loss of enrollment ultimately decreases the number of migrants who are able to graduate from high school, as they lose access to peer programming, dedicated support from MEP regional staff and specific programs designed to help them obtain diplomas or high school equivalency. 

In Kentucky, regional offices give administrative support to district-level programs, including nine in Appalachia, and hands-on assistance to students in counties without a dedicated program, like Fleming County, which contains Flemingsburg. 

The colors on this map identify the Migrant Education Program Coordination Work Group regions. Image from MEP

Laura Puente, Director of the Northern Kentucky Migrant Education Regional Center, said their office supports around 400 students; there are roughly 1,500 to 2,000 across the state. “Not a lot of people understand that when there are families that move around because of their job opportunities in agriculture, that these kids fall behind with every move,” Puente said. “We’re trying to identify them as soon as they come into our school districts, and then identify their needs to be able to provide services to meet those needs, and take down some of those barriers they may be facing.”

About three-quarters of the migrant students in Puente’s region — which covers the northern region of Kentucky — are Latinx. African immigrants, particularly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, make up another 10%. Many refugees find themselves relocating to the area through services like Kentucky Refugee Ministries, which works with the Department of State to sponsor refugees and assist them with resettlement. In 2020, Kentucky over 1,000 refugees relocated to Kentucky, giving the state the sixth-highest resettlement rate in the U.S.

A lack of infrastructure and investment has made it difficult to access reliable telecommunications services in eastern Kentucky and throughout Appalachia. A 2019 report from the Population Reference Bureau shows that in the majority of Kentucky’s eastern counties, fewer than 70% of residents have access to high speed internet. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that from 2014-2018, 22.5% of Fleming County households did not have a computer, and nearly 30% were without broadband. In the same time frame, the census estimates that more than 18% of county residents were living under the poverty line.

Fleming County Schools Superintendent Brian Creasman said that data on household internet connectivity don’t show the full picture. “Many of our families do not have a device. When you look at our connectivity, it shows an 80% connectivity rate, but that can be really misleading,” Creasman explained. “Parents think, ‘Hey, I can connect to the internet via phone.’ Well, that’s fine, but they don’t have a laptop or a Chromebook [for students to work on].”

In addition to allocating Chromebooks for at-home use and extending school WiFi outside of the buildings, he said that the school district has worked with local churches, businesses like McDonald’s, and local government to open their WiFi access, to give parents and students a reliable option for connectivity.

Another challenge is finding information in Spanish and other foreign languages. “I would say one of the biggest issues families have had is obtaining information in this area, obtaining information in their native language,” said Puente.

During the pandemic, many migrant families have struggled to obtain information about COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. Some can access information via social media, Puente said, but many rely on the local health department. Lack of information in their native language is one of the biggest issues all the time, Puente said, but “even more now when these families have questions about health and things going on: ‘Where can I go for testing and when is testing available?’”

In an email, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s office outlined ways in which COVID-19 online resources have been made available in multiple languages, including Google Translate options on the state’s COVID website and other translation services. They also cited “more than 100 community partners across the state who serve non-English speaking Kentuckians,” such as Kentucky Refugee Ministries. But if non-English speakers aren’t already connected to this kind of resource, they typically have to navigate such translation options on their own. 

While this offers opportunities for many non-English speakers to gain access to COVID-19 information, they remain out of reach for those who don’t have access to the internet at home, and due to pandemic restrictions, may not be able to go to a public library.

Traylor’s grandchildren were excited to return to school in September, she said, especially because they weren’t able to connect with their peers from across the state at an in-person MEP summer camp this year. 

Throughout the fall, the district adjusted to a mix of virtual and in-person learning: They returned to non-traditional instruction a handful of times due to orders from the governor. They figured out how to quarantine single schools and even single classrooms when new cases were reported. But Creasmen said all the changes have made him concerned about students’ academic and social well-being. 

“One of the things I’m really concerned with as a parent of a seven-year-old and as an educator in a rural community is… the social and emotional aspect of [what] this prolonged remote learning is doing to the students,” he said. 

Creasman described the scene at an elementary school as students returned from winter break as being like the first day of kindergarten, with students having anxiety and feeling uncertainty about being back in a classroom and group settings. 

Ensuring migrant students in the ESL program — and their parents — stay connected is especially important, he said, in order to help them “navigate the complexities of this new learning environment, make sure they stay engaged, and also making sure that those families know who to contact.”

The Department of Education released a fact sheet in May 2020 outlining challenges regional workers may find during the pandemic and offering suggestions for adjustments, including delivering virtual lessons to eligible migratory children, loaning equipment, and following up with them. But the agency did not provide additional resources or funding to assist local agencies with the shift to at-home instruction.

The U.S. Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment about the Migrant Education Program. 

Mary Steward, a recruiter for the Northern Kentucky region, connects migrant families like the Traylors to program services, but also acts as something of a caseworker. During the pandemic, Steward tutored students in several counties in her region over the phone — talking them through lessons, practicing reading out loud. She delivered school supplies and packets of math problems, and read assignments and other materials the students worked through each day in place of typical classroom learning. 

Steward said she’s seen grades drop for many clients, including students who were on the honor roll or enrolled in AP courses. This is a problem all over the country: In nearby Louisville, which hosts the commonwealth’s largest school district, failing grades in the first six weeks of the 2020-2021 school year increased 388% in middle schools and 120% in high schools. Similar trends were found in Houston, Charleston, St. Paul, and New Mexico.

“I don’t know if it’s because they’re most used to being in person, being there, seeing it, hearing it and all that… compared to having to basically do it on their own at home,” Steward said. 

While it’s not a comprehensive resource, students who have utilized MEP like Sanchez credit it for helping them stay on track. 

“[Without the program], I wouldn’t have had the extra push and everybody trying to help me out with what they can, and [pushing] me to do my best,” Sanchez said. 

Michelle Eigenheer is a journalist based in Louisville, Kentucky.