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Language barriers can pose a steep hurdle for Kansas governments to overcome during COVID-19 pandemic

By Claudia Yaujar-Amaro, Stan Finger and Chris Green, Kansas Leadership Center Journal, Original Article Link

Imelda de Santiago didn’t expect that keeping track of current events would be difficult when she moved from Wichita to El Dorado. But as someone who communicates best in Spanish, she’s found it challenging to keep up with the rapidly changing news surrounding the spread of the coronavirus in Kansas.

The most stressful part? Figuring out how to help her children continue their elementary school lessons after classrooms closed for the year. She keeps track of developments related to the COVID-19 pandemic through social media groups and a Spanish-language radio program.

“I am very concerned about the children’s school,” she says.

Santiago says she had a hard time getting Spanish-language information in El Dorado, even though district officials have worked to provide it. Teresa Tosh, the superintendent of El Dorado Public Schools, said school officials have been translating and distributing information in Spanish, including making it available on laptops and iPads and in handouts being used by students.

“It’s a very different way to deliver information, and these are uncharted waters,” Tosh says. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking to our staff about giving grace to parents and families who weren’t expecting to be where they are right now. We’re trying to be responsive to every family and personalizing it as much as we can.”

But Santiago worries other Spanish-speaking Hispanic parents in the district are struggling, too. And not just because of the language barrier. Many don’t have an email address or much familiarity with the tools and technology that schools are now using, which includes iPads, MacBooks and a variety of learning, productivity and conferencing apps. According to state records, Hispanics make up about 9% of the district’s enrollment.

The district’s website can be translated into Spanish and more than 100 other languages using a dropdown menu at the top of the page. Online continuous learning resources are available in Spanish, Mongolian and Vietnamese. The district made translations of English-language materials easier to find on the website after The Journal inquired about them. 

When the state Department of Education’s continuous learning task force published a report offering guidance to districts, it emphasized the importance of clear, consistent and constant communication.

“Provide critical communication in languages representative of student and family/caregiver populations,” the report said. “This may include designating a point person for each ESOL family/caregiver to access over the phone interpreting and/or designating specific personnel who can provide interpretation services.” 

Not being able to find information in Spanish easily makes the transition more stressful, Santiago says, especially since she’s suffered from an anxiety disorder and has to deal with a lack of access to treatment in her native language. Santiago says she knows she needs to learn English and will focus on it, but overcoming the language barriers and the ongoing situation with COVID-19 has proven too difficult for her in El Dorado. She said earlier this week that she’d moved away to somewhere it’s easier for her to get a job.  

Santiago’s experience illustrates just how hard it can be for school districts to meet all the different needs of parents, despite the best efforts of district officials.

“I’ve talked to parents on every end of the continuum,” Tosh says. “Some feel like we’re not providing enough materials and enough learning opportunities. You also have parents that are overwhelmed. They may have lost their job and they’re worrying about their families and their bills and trying to take care of things. They might not be familiar with some of the educational platforms, like Dojo and Zoom, being used. Add in a language barrier, and it becomes a whole new level of support that folks need.” 

Information gaps becoming more significant

The COVID-19 outbreak has upended life for Kansans of all walks of life. But imagine having to decipher the warp-speed news related to this crisis in a foreign language. 

That’s a fact of life for thousands of Kansans. About 12% of the state’s population speaks a language other than English at home, according to U.S. Census estimates, and there’s often a lag between news breaking and the details being translated into languages other than English, if they get translated at all. Spanish speakers make up a large portion of the Kansans who speak a foreign language. In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that about 329,000 Hispanics live in Kansas and more than half speak Spanish at home.

State officials have been working to translate information, recently rolling out a website that has information available in more than 100 languages that’s compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. They’ve been translating Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive orders, subtitling news conferences into Spanish, and the Kansas Hispanic and Latino American Affairs Commission has been working to disseminate information through outlets that include bilingual posts on its Facebook page.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t information gaps still to be bridged. That’s becoming all the more important with the coronavirus spreading in Ford, Seward and Finney counties, which is home to large meatpacking plants, a sizable Hispanic population and significant percentages of foreign-born residents.

Kansas is testing a smaller slice of its population than other states. Among the 20,000-plus tests that have been administered, more than half don’t include data about the patient’s ethnicity. That has prompted state officials to urge caution when extrapolating the data. But based on those tests for which the state does have data, Hispanics have been more likely to test positive for COVID-19 per capita than non-Hispanics. (They have been less likely to die from it, though.)

Nationwide data is spotty thus far, but preliminary reports show that Hispanics are disproportionately getting sick from coronavirus, The Guardian has reported. In some regions, the rate of infection and hospitalization for Hispanics is three times the rate of non-Hispanic white Americans.

Hispanic Kansans, along with black Kansans, also face a disproportionate share of pandemic-related job losses, Kansas Labor Secretary Delia Garcia says. Most filing for unemployment don’t report an ethnicity, but among those who have over the last five weeks, about 21% indicated they are Hispanic. Estimates indicate that about 12% of the state’s population is Hispanic. (About 92% of filers reported a race, and about 9% indicated they were black but black people or African Americans make up an estimated 6% of the state’s population.) 

Minorities have been hit harder economically during the pandemic, Garcia said, because so many work in businesses that have been shut down to help prevent the spread of COVID-19: restaurants, hotels and other hospitality businesses. Working from home isn’t an option for many of these workers.

“We are still doing everything we can to serve our hard-working Kansans,” Garcia said. “We’re going to get through this. It’s a partnership.” 

Some community advocates worry that language and cultural barriers are getting in the way of helping some Hispanics protect themselves from the coronavirus and the economic turbulence it has created.

Araceli Amador, a longtime resident of Wichita who’s originally from Mexico, is bilingual and works to share information with her family and close friends. She watches Kelly’s news conferences on Facebook Live. But when she contacts her friends afterward, she realizes they haven’t heard the latest.

She fears that not having the latest information puts her community at greater risk from the virus. When they don’t get information directly from authorities, they have to rely on secondhand reports.

“I wish my community would have more information about what to do in an emergency, the new processes if anybody needs hospitalization, about symptoms and measures, different resources in our community,” Amador says. “I have friends who don’t have food; having such information would help them survive. More accurate information would give our community more peace of mind and would connect those who need support with those who can contribute.”

Araceli worries that despite the efforts of state officials, too many members of the Hispanic community are unknowingly putting themselves in peril. 

“This virus does not discriminate. This is something we want to overcome together, and we all want it to end soon,” she says. “We are in an emergency, and we must take everyone in the community into account. In this situation, we are all one.”

Keeping up with changes proves difficult

Keeping track of the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone. News conferences and information updates can occur multiple times a day. And it’s challenging for government officials to produce materials needed by residents for whom English is not their primary language.

It took about a month for Kansas Department of Health and Environment to roll out a microwebsite focusing on the pandemic that is accessible in all languages and is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, said KDHE spokeswoman Kristi Zears.

The website was developed by CivicPlus, a tech firm based in Manhattan that specializes in developing governmental websites.

The site, from concept to completion, took about 10 days to build.

“It’s really centered around making sure the content is accessible for all people … and that it’s going to be as useful as possible,” says Holly Brown, project manager for the site, which can be found at https://www.coronavirus.kdheks.gov/.

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in Kansas last month, Zears said, one of the first steps KDHE took with its communications strategy was to make sure the deaf and hard of hearing would be engaged in receiving relevant information.

“This included closed-captioning our videos as well as including a sign language interpreter during our press conferences,” Zears said in an email response to questions.

KDHE has a phone bank hotline offering translation services available in all languages through a provider, she said. News conferences are live streamed on Facebook, and closed-captioned in English and Spanish on Vimeo later in the day.

“We are unable to close caption in real time, so that does present a barrier to non-English speakers in getting information in real time,” Zears says. “But it is available same day.”

KDHE is also working with the Kansas Hispanic and Latino American Affairs Commission on translating material and looking at it for cultural competency. 

“Documents were translated into Spanish from the get-go,” Zears said.

Requests for information to be made available in Vietnamese have come recently, she said.

“Changing information has been the biggest challenge for all audiences,” Zears says. “Since this has been a new disease, there has been so much uncertainty with it, especially on the front end.

“Initially, it seemed as soon as we would get information published, it would become outdated. This created a delay in translations as well. Now, it seems that things have settled down, and while new information is coming out, we continue to learn more about the disease ourselves, and it’s an intentional response.”

With limited staffing, technology provides an edge

Local governments also need to quickly be able to provide information to all residents, some of whom are non-English speakers. 

The Sedgwick County Health Department, which oversees the response to the pandemic in Wichita, works with a vendor to translate communications material, posters and palm cards into Spanish, Vietnamese and Braille, said Kate Flavin, public information officer for the county.

“We are also providing interviews in Spanish as requests come in and schedules allow,” Flavin said in an e-mail response to questions. “Our goal is to make sure that all residents seeking information from the health department are able to receive information in a manner that they can understand.”

That’s challenging, Flavin said, given the frequency of updates related to COVID-19.

“There is new information coming almost daily, and trying to stay on top of it while sharing it in multiple languages can be difficult,” she said. “Another challenge is schedules.

“We have limited staff who can speak with reporters in Spanish and working through their schedules and reporter deadlines can be difficult to meet. This is still a rapidly evolving situation, and we are continuing to work to provide everyone with relevant information as we are able.”

The ability to respond quickly with information is challenging, but state officials have turned to technology to give themselves an advantage.

One of the strengths of the KDHE microsite on COVID-19 is that updated information can be added quickly and easily, and it’s designed with translation and use on mobile devices in mind, CivicPlus officials say.

In fact, the project and template for the microsite came together so well the company will be offering it to other jurisdictions for use in other scenarios, such as a natural disaster.

“This is part of a trend,” said Jonathan Wiersma, director of product strategy for CivicPlus.

Rather than overwhelm a department’s general homepage with information about one issue, he said, “You create a microsite for this content that is the trusted source and the consolidated source for it.”

At a time when a lot of misinformation or outdated information is floating around, officials say, being a source people can trust is vital.

Kendal Francis, Great Bend city administrator, recently hosted a virtual session for Spanish speakers with volunteer translator Venessa Favela that included information related to COVID-19.
SCREENSHOT PHOTO / KLC JOURNAL

Resources available at schools, other local entities, vary

Health updates from the state and county governments aren’t the only information that foreign language speakers are looking for. A shutdown of the state’s school buildings has meant significant changes affecting students, and access to information varies from location to location. 

Wichita Public Schools sent out frequent messages to parents when the pandemic was settling in and impacting schools, district spokeswoman Susan Arensman said.

The messages were offered in English and Spanish, with versions being sent to parents according to what they signed up for at the start of the school year.

The district has full-time translators for Spanish, Vietnamese and Swahili and subscribes to a service that has translators on call.

“We have 105 languages spoken in our homes” from 97 different countries, Arensman said.

The March communications initially dealt with the potential for change, then evolved into the actual closing of schools and what would come next. 

“Now we have passed the torches to our (individual) schools,” she says. “Teachers are contacting their students, so that is what we are relying on now … to make sure continuous learning goes on.”

But the district’s hotline is still ringing. 

Some parents, not trusting other sources, are calling the hotline to get updates on the pandemic.

“There are sometimes community questions that will come into that line, because it’s a line that they know,” Arensman said. “The Spanish community knows that’s a line they can get answers to their questions.”

In Great Bend, more than one-third of the students are Hispanic. While the school district does not list information for its continuous learning plan in Spanish on its website, it has worked to translate relevant materials into Spanish and make sure the information gets to the families who need it, says Great Bend Superintendent Khris Thexton. 

“Communication with our Spanish-speaking families has always been a priority in our district,” Thexton says, “but never before has it been so important. We have worked to translate all of our family communication materials into Spanish and we have staff designated to connect with and provide support. It does take some time to get things translated, but we have managed to translate applicable materials for families to make sure they receive not only school-specific information but also materials about health or safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as well as community resources that are available.”

Thexton said that while district is constantly trying to improve its website, its focus while implementing the continuous learning plan has been focused on making personal connections with families to make sure they were being reached in their preferred languages.

“District communications which are direct and specific are sent through media more personalized and more commonly used by our families beyond the website and are available in the preferred languages of our community,” he said.

Thexton acknowledged that the district has not been able translate its entire continuous learning plan, but it has prioritized the information that parents need to know about their children’s instruction and work. 

“We work diligently to ensure they receive communication and support in a timely fashion,” Thexton says.

The school district has been working to build connections with Hispanic families, says Victoria Sanchez, an activist and volunteer interpreter in the community. It has been increasing the number of interpreters available to translate and reach out to parents. But during the crisis, resources have been harder to come by.

The continuous learning transition and using more technology has been difficult for some English-speaking households. But she fears Hispanic families are struggling with even simple things, such as picking up packets of work for students to complete at home. She says many do not use email addresses or even have internet service, and she wonders how those families are receiving information.

Even if governments are improving at delivering information in Spanish, she questions whether that information is getting to rural areas. In Great Bend, there is no local Spanish-language media outlet, and most Hispanics there rely on word of mouth or family members.

“We have a Facebook group where people share stuff, which sometimes is inaccurate, or people share the information in English with no translation,” she said. “Families in Great Bend are giving the responsibility of translating to their bilingual children – the oldest siblings are helping the little ones with their school because parents just don’t know how to help them.”

Despite the challenges, government officials are trying. Kendal Francis, Great Bend city administrator, recently hosted a virtual session for Spanish speakers.

Francis says he regularly hosts a question-and-answer session, called Kendal’s Koffee, with residents at various coffee shops around town, which has gone virtual with the arrival of the pandemic. During a recent Facebook Live session in English, a resident asked if there could be a Spanish version of the events, so Francis hosted one with a local volunteer, Venessa Favela, translating it into Spanish.

At the event, Francis discussed basic city information, such as his duties, how to report a water leak, how code enforcement works and options for paying utility bills – things that he took “for granted that people knew.” He then transitioned to discussing COVID-19, the governor’s stay-at-home order and local steps to provide information. He also spoke about programs to help small businesses and the unemployed and took questions from residents watching live.

The video drew nearly 3,000 views and more than 5,200 engagements, he said.

“The whole event was extremely well received,” Francis said. “I have received numerous comments from the public. I am already beginning to plan for my next event.”

More broadly, Francis said the city has been attempting to translate documents that it posts online regarding COVID-19, making use of a bilingual staff member and community volunteers such as Favela. The city has also been sharing information from the Kansas Hispanic and Latino American Affairs Commission. 

According to Sanchez, Francis’ outreach is commendable, but more can be done.

“The city administration and other services such as hospitals and schools need to reach out in different ways and consider bilingual volunteers to help them,” Sanchez says. “They could also distribute fliers: brochures in Spanish about services and resources available to the community in strategic places throughout the city.”

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