The COVID-19 outbreak presented Trini Olivera with a set of immediate challenges. As the Spanish Language Coordinator at Holy Family Catholic Schools, she was largely responsible for trying to figure out how to manage the transition to remote learning for students in the Wahlert Spanish immersion program. A Spanish immersion program means that all of the students enrolled in the program are taught the same curriculum as other students at Holy Family, but all of the teaching is done in Spanish, allowing the children to quickly build proficiency in a second language. The program has been very successful, with 65 immersion students taking the Advanced Placement Spanish Language and Culture Exam over the
past five years, and every one successfully passed the exam. Immersion teaching often requires close contact between educators and students, as it’s critical to be able to use body language and other nonverbal forms of communication to help children studying in a second language. Overcoming these obstacles forced Trini and the rest of the school team to get creative, turning videoconference classes into family cooking lessons or contests where students not only had to ask family members questions in Spanish, but then teach those family members how to answer in Spanish as well.
Yet the real challenge for Trini came not from helping the students, but from supporting the teachers. In order to staff the Spanish immersion program with fluent Spanish speakers that have a deep understanding of the language and Hispanic culture, the school utilizes a visa program that brings teachers from Spain to teach in Dubuque. But when immigration offices were closed down during the COVID-19 outbreak and new regulations were put in place restricting the ability of visa holders to travel, teachers at the school were forced to choose between being able to work in the U.S. and leaving their job in order to return to Spain to be with their families. “Many teachers are staying here because if they leave, they can’t come back,” Trini explains. “Others are going home to Spain because they can’t be separated from their families.” Trini herself would normally have gone back to Spain for the summer to be with her father, who is having surgery, but was unable to do so because of the restrictions. Faced with a number of teachers leaving for Spain and unable to return, combined with the suspension of the visa program that the school normally relies on, the program was scrambling to find enough teachers for the upcoming year.
But Trini and the other school staff have leapt into action in order to ensure that school is able to resume as planned in the fall. She and the school have launched a search around Dubuque, Iowa, and the country to find other fluent Spanish speakers who can fill in vacancies. She’s connected with educators who are natives of Puerto Rico, Colombia, Mexico, and other Spanish-speaking countries in order to build a staff with the linguistic, cultural, and professional skills needed to allow for full immersion. She and her husband Jose, who works at the school, have also been busy supporting both teachers who decided to remain in Dubuque and those who returned to Spain, helping them with the logistical and emotional challenges involved with the pandemic. The work has been challenging and full of anxiety, but through persistence and creativity, she and her fellow teachers are now once again ready to start school and bring immersive learning to the children of Dubuque.