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Neighborhood House’s International Learning Program (ILP) serves refugees from generally war torn countries. Many have never been to school nor held a pencil. Cynthia Zarazua, Program Manager of ILP shares, “Digital literacy skills have never been put to more use than they are now.” These students, even elderly refugees 60 or older, are learning remotely with Google Classroom, YouTube videos, online quizzes, and Zoom meetings.
In March 2020, the COVID pandemic shutdown in person tutoring.
These students refused to quit. They aren’t alone. In 2020, Wisconsin Literacy’s coalition of community-based literacy agencies taught nearly 16,000 adults and children. Currently, 1 in 7 Wisconsin adults are at the lowest literacy levels and struggle to fill out forms and follow printed and digital instructions.
Adults with low literacy skills are extremely vulnerable to the current economic downturn from COVID-19 and need additional support. Community-based literacy agencies serve the hardest to reach students with the most barriers to success. They do so with the least amount of resources. Of the students with demographic information, 69% have household incomes at or below $25,000 annually and 87% are from communities of color, immigrants and refugees, and our Tribal Nations. Many are essential workers or have lost employment in the hospitality or manufacturing industries.
Yet, they still continue to learn.
Many literacy students, don’t have internet or computer access in their homes. Students may be willing and eager to continue participating but they lack WIFI, tablets, or laptops to continue online education. Some have only their cellphone to work with, small data plans, and even more limited digital skills.
Jon Gilgenbach, Executive Director of the Adult Learning Center (ALC) in Milwaukee, commented, “There’s a big divide between people who don’t have the digital skills. We can’t just say meet online and we’ll figure it out, but have to be able to meet them here” in person at the center. If students can’t figure out how to fill out the online forms, staff at ALC talk them through it on the phone.
Literacy nonprofit agencies have to get their adult students’ laptops, Chromebooks, or tablets and solve connectivity issues as well. Through a contract partnership between Wisconsin Literacy, Inc. and the Department of Children and Families, some literacy programs were able to provide for loan refurbished laptops for students while they learn remotely. But the funding and resources for these community-based literacy agencies aren’t enough to meet this new demand.
“There will be an increased need for literacy services and job readiness skills, a need that the crisis has only magnified,” said Michele Erikson, Executive Director of Wisconsin Literacy. “If we do nothing to improve the literacy, numeracy, and digital problem-solving skills of Wisconsin’s workforce, we will see a decline in the health and earning power of our residents and the growth of our economy. We need to look at raising literacy levels to have a better recovery.”
To continue serving students, Wisconsin Literacy helped support the purchase of Zoom accounts and Internet Hotspots for those without access. The statewide agency also supported local literacy agencies needing to re-train current tutors for video conferencing, learning online and recruiting new tutors virtually. Training both existing and new tutors in online learning introduces them to how students might feel frustration or anxiety engaging in new technology for the first time.
Jon Gilgenbach from ALC tells his students, “This is how it is for everybody working right now. You are preparing yourselves for the modern work world.”
Literacy staff think creatively to get their students online and keep them engaged.
For those looking to support literacy programs near you, you can find how to volunteer, advocate and donate at wisconsinliteracy.org.
Wisconsin Literacy, Inc. is a statewide coalition supporting the work of 70 member agencies by providing resources, training, health literacy and advocacy services to help advance the skills of limited literacy adults and English language learners and their families. For more information: www.wisconsinliteracy.org or email Liz Fitzpatrick.