The COVID-19 Classroom: Refugee Students & the New Citizens Center

COVID-19 is characterized by disruptions—disruptions to work, social lives, and, especially, education. While the shift to remote learning in Worcester’s public school systems was felt by all students, teachers, and parents alike, these circumstances also came with their own set of challenges for a group that had already been experiencing disruptions to their education: refugee students.

For this exhibit, we collaborated with Daniel Gay, a teacher of history and English as a second language (ESL), to tell the story of the New Citizens Center (NCC) and refugee students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

An interview with Daniel Gay on how the pandemic has influenced NCC and education.

The New Citizens Center

While most children in the U.S. are fortunate enough to have a formal education from elementary through high school, there are many other students worldwide who have had their education cut short or abruptly interrupted by extenuating circumstances in their home countries. These students are recognized as “Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education,” or SLIFEs.

Worcester’s Dr. James A. Caradonio New Citizens Center (NCC) is dedicated to the education of these refugee students. By building upon what students were able to learn before immigrating to the U.S. and providing resources for a comfortable transition to American culture, NCC’s goal is to close the gap in formal education for SLIFEs.

NCC Exterior

Exterior of NCC at The Fanning Building on Chatham Street.

With programs for young adults aged 18–22, NCC hopes to provide its students with a foundation for attending secondary education institutions and pursuing job training in the Greater Worcester Community and beyond. In addition to their ESL curriculum, NCC prepares students for a new set of surroundings in the traditional school system and workforce—which is often different from students’ experiences in their home countries—through partnerships with other local organizations and communities, like resettlement agencies and church groups. NCC is part of the Worcester Public Schools (WPS) district, and many students will transfer to their local public schools or other programs once they have the background necessary for traditional education.

NCC Entrance

Entrance to NCC, with signage requiring face coverings.

Pandemic Reflections from Refugee Students

NCC shut its doors on March 17, 2020. With Chromebooks provided by WPS and a redesigned curriculum, NCC pivoted to an online format—albeit with great difficulty. Between challenges related to internet access and communicating stay-at-home directives to English learners, online attendance and enrollment rates at NCC plummeted. 

On top of this, many NCC students were forced to find work as their other family members experienced job loss. Daniel Gay, an educator at NCC, observed that the “tangible paycheck at the end of the week” was far more “real” to students than the isolated online learning environment.

As part of an English-speaking activity upon returning to school in Spring 2021, NCC students shared their thoughts on the pandemic and how it has affected both their education and everyday lives in Worcester.

“I come from Tanzania. In our refugee camp we had the freedom to go where we wanted in the camp. COVID reminded me of living in a place with fences. It was like there was no opportunity this year. School was very difficult. I think my English didn’t improve because I didn’t have instruction with a teacher in a classroom.” – S. S.

“In the DRC (Dem. Rep. of Congo) there is no law sometimes. During COVID it felt like too much rules. I felt scared because disease in Africa is AIDS and Ebola. Almost always death. I never thought it could happen to a country like America. I’m glad to be back in my classes with my teachers.” – D. N.

“I come from Nepal, but my family is Bhutanese. In my country the camp is not clean. My house in Worcester is very nice and clean. I didn’t think a disease could come in my house in Worcester. My mom got COVID in her work. She is ok, but it was very scary. I am happy there is hospital in America that she could go to. In Nepal many people died. Even today. I am happy I was in USA right now.” – T. S.

I worked more this year than in my whole life. I do school and went to Taco Bell to work in the night. People ate more during this year I think. I work 50 hours each week and do my school work as much as I can. My brother lost his job so I needed to help. I am glad to go to school now in-person. I work less and the city is more busy. It feels normal. It was a very scary year for me and my family, but I am glad I am not in Honduras.” – S. H.

Needless to say, it was a stressful and scary year, especially as a refugee student still adjusting to a new city and a new set of cultural expectations. In addition, many felt acutely the competing demands of work, school, and caring for family members. Some felt trapped in ways they had never anticipated in the U.S. while others were simply grateful to have access to improved healthcare and education.

The Future of NCC & Refugee Students

While the shift to online learning for NCC wasn’t all bad—particularly in how it presented an opportunity for refugee students to access technologies they never could before—students and teachers alike were more than happy to return to in-person learning once it was safe to do so. NCC reopened its doors to students for a hybrid learning model in March 2021.

Precautions in Public Schools during COVID-19

Chromebooks, masks, and sparse classrooms during the first week back to in-person learning at NCC.

Following his return to in-person teaching, Daniel Gay shared the following reflection: 

“Today we went back to school for the first time in over a year. We're masked, the air is filtered and there's a feeling of both fear and excitement. It feels like a grand experiment. I hope it works. In conversation with my students there is a feeling of genuine hope. That's a nice thing to see at the end of March.”

And so, while refugee students—especially those in low-income, urban areas—have struggled immensely during the COVID-19 pandemic, educators and organizations like Daniel Gay and NCC continue to do what they can to support the newest members of Worcester’s immigrant community.

Exhibit created by Sam Sands—edited and reviewed by Allison Steeves.
The COVID-19 Classroom: Refugee Students & the New Citizens Center