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Volunteer Laura Kanagy and Promeese Nkurunziza, 10, work from the porch of a Congolese family as the kids need assistance with connecti ipads and logging into Zoom for class meetings on Tuesday, September 8, 2020.


Volunteers have turned Lancaster city porches into makeshift classrooms as they help refugee students navigate the School District of Lancaster’s online learning portals, LNP | LancasterOnline’s Jeff Hawkes reported and Suzette Wenger photographed for an article that appeared on Page A1 of the Sept. 11 edition. The city school district opened the year with fully remote instruction of students. But the school board approved a plan last week that will allow about 200 of the district’s most vulnerable students to return to in-person instruction this week, LNP | LancasterOnline correspondent Robyn Meadows reported.

We have seen compassionate efforts from every corner of Lancaster County in response to the COVID-19 pandemic this year. It’s a wonderful testament to the heart of this community in which we reside.

On the pages of LNP | LancasterOnline and in editorials, we have documented only a small fraction of all those efforts. Not because we don’t want to highlight more, but because there is so much good out there that it’s impossible to capture it in its entirety.

Over the past half-year, we’ve lauded individuals and organizations that make masks, nonprofits that provide at-risk people and families with safe places to go during bad weather, and groups that deliver food to first responders and front-line health care workers. Just to name a few good things.

Today, we want to give a nod of appreciation to another one, understanding that it’s just one more microcosm of the many kindnesses for which we’re so thankful.

LNP | LancasterOnline’s Hawkes wrote about the volunteers who work with students on the porches of South Ann Street. They are helping young refugees who are newcomers to Lancaster County and haven’t even been able to set foot inside a school because of COVID-19.

When Hawkes caught up with former teacher Laura Kanagy on a recent morning, she was doing her best to get the children connected with their School District of Lancaster classes despite the “spotty Wi-Fi and glitchy iPads.”

Many of us can identify with the frustrations surrounding the use of technology this year, whether we’ve been setting up Zoom work meetings on our home laptops, trying to help our kids navigate online learning or both — sometimes simultaneously.

And so Kanagy is a brave, patient soul to be spending her volunteer time helping eager but confused students connect to virtual classrooms. She was working with five Congolese children, ages 6 to 18.

“The young newcomers, their parents and two older siblings came to Lancaster in March from a refugee camp in Rwanda,” Hawkes explained. “Their parents, Javan Rwamuningi and Eniade Mupenzi, both 51, work the overnight shift at the Urban Outfitters distribution center in Gap and sleep during the day. On getting home, the father makes sure his children’s iPads are charging.”

Kanagy took the children to the porch, where Wi-Fi signals can be stronger, and worked to get them logged into their classrooms, so they could be — virtually — with their teachers and classmates for online learning.

Internet lag and connectivity remain serious issues. They are part of the reason we must get more students back into classrooms as soon as the risks can be safely managed.

“Loading, loading, loading,” Kanagy said, while Hawkes watched her work with the children’s devices.

Later, it was “Hurray!” when an issue with one iPad was resolved.

It is all so much work.

We deeply appreciate the selfless time being put in by Kanagy and other volunteers, including Elena Seiffert, Heidi Wert and Megan Heinly.

Heinly spoke of the limitations of virtual learning, especially for refugee children.

“(One student) was connected for the whole day, but he needs one-on-one help to understand what is going on,” Heinly said. “The sad thing is some of these kids, they really, really want to learn, and they’ve never gotten to be in school.”

There is much heartbreak in the situation surrounding education this fall. So it’s encouraging to see the School District of Lancaster take tentative steps toward the return of some in-school instruction, as Meadows reported last week.

The school board’s plan for this week is that the first to return will be “students with autism who are in support classrooms, those with multiple disabilities and those who are in the last year of the Lancaster Living Apartment Program,” Meadows reported. In all, they add up to fewer than 200 of the district’s 10,600 students.

After that, the district will reassess every three weeks and, after reviewing local COVID-19 data, determine whether it’s safe to begin a hybrid model of instruction with additional groups of students. It will be a phased approach.

That seems prudent. We understand it won’t be fast enough of a timeline for some parents who worry about their children falling behind. And we sympathize with teachers who have reservations about returning to classrooms without knowing the full details of safety measures that will be in place. This is uncharted territory for everyone.

But any steps that can get the students who are most at risk for falling behind back into classrooms for in-person instruction, done as safely as possible, should be encouraged.

If the initial phases of in-person instruction go well, perhaps the district will eventually get to the point where those eager-to-learn Congolese children Hawkes wrote about can meet their teachers face to the face for the first time.

Until then, we are grateful for the volunteers who are doing what they can to assist refugees with virtual learning.

It’s just another small example of how Lancaster County residents rise up and support each other in a time of crisis. 

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