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Out of Chaos Blossoms Hope
June 7, 2020
In a time of enormous colliding crises, we have searched for the right words to inspire our VEP community. Ever mindful that ‘implicit bias’ and cultural unawareness impact all individuals from diverse backgrounds, this is an unprecedented hour for us as a country and an organization.
Over the past several days, the staff and I have found inspiration in the following messages.
G.F., a 30-year-old Portuguese speaker from Brazil, as well as an aspiring business owner here in Chester County, was asked by his VEP tutor to write a paragraph in English about how the COVID-19 Pandemic has impacted him directly. To the tutor’s delight, the response was so uplifting that it begged to be shared. “Meeting” remotely (by email and telephone) during these restrictive months, both tutor and student look forward to their sessions in person again when it’s time or, as G.F. says, “when everything will return to normal.”
“The pandemic took us by surprise, left us scared, without work for some time, without having contact with family and friends. In the middle of it all we received wonderful news, I will be a daddy again. We will come out stronger and more united.
“At that moment, I got more from my wife and my son João Gabriel. We learned to make new recipes, we cycled, we put together a puzzle, and we spent hours on FaceTime with family members in Brazil.
“We are counting the hours when everything will return to normal and we can get together with friends, English classes and be able to live life as before.”
The Superintendent of Phoenixville Schools (a public school district ripe with diversity from all over the world), believes in starting with upcoming youth. Below are excerpts from his letter to the Phoenixville School District Community, released on 6/5/2020.
Dear Phoenixville School Community,
Racism has no place in Phoenixville or for that matter anywhere in our country. Unfortunately, over the last several months and honestly for many decades, multiple examples of racism have played across the national stage. The recent appalling killing of George Floyd has brought forth the explicit pain and anger people of color are experiencing. As a white male, while I cannot fully comprehend the thoughts, feelings, opinions or experiences of black men, women, children, or any person of color, I can and must listen, learn and empathize. How can it be that in this country a person cannot go for a run or birdwatching and not be or feel safe, or worse, not return home. It is with these thoughts, feelings and experiences in mind that we, the community, must be moved to support constructive remedies to racism and biases that exist in our society.
Later today, Phoenixville High School students have organized a peaceful protest, to show their support for the diverse Phoenixville community. Our students’ goal is to peacefully stand together and show that they are against racism and implicit bias. They are to be applauded and supported.
The students are doing what I see happening every day in Phoenixville. Every day, I see the amazing work of all the local non-profits and agencies who work tirelessly to ensure everyone in this amazing community is treated with respect and dignity. Every day, I see the thoughtful and caring work of the faculty and staff of the District as they work to provide a quality education to all students. Every day, I see how the places of worship in Phoenixville provide healing, direction and love for the Phoenixville community. Every day I see the local first responders and health care workers doing all they can to care for all whom they serve.
Yes, Phoenixville is an amazing community. One filled with the desire to ensure all are treated with respect and love.
Yet, within this community we have children (and adults) who are scared about what has been and is happening in this world and what it means for them and their future. They need our support. As a person, District and Community we are all compelled to step forward and acknowledge that the killing of an unarmed black man is wrong and will not be tolerated. We all need to work to end racism.
Over the past few years, as a District, we have worked hard in faculty and staff meetings to address implicit bias and increase cultural awareness. We have had honest and difficult conversations with each other, with the goal of helping us all grow. We have had honest conversations about equity and what we need to do to provide an equitable education. Select faculty members in each building have been trained on restorative practices and they will train all staff so that we can incorporate restorative practices in all of our schools. Our work is not complete. We will continue these difficult conversations and our efforts to come together and to understand. We want all children to feel emotionally and socially safe, accepted, and valued. Your children deserve nothing less.
As a District and Community we have work to do. But having these difficult conversations will make Phoenixville an even more amazing community for all.
Racism has no place in Phoenixville. The horrific killing of George Floyd should never have occurred and acts of racism must stop. Let’s continue to grow our understanding and empathy for all peoples.
Together We Can, Together We Will, Together We are Phoenixville.
May all have a peaceful weekend.
Alan D. Fegley, Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools
We hope that you find both of these expressions comforting and inspiring. Until we are together again, be safe and be well.
Since June 7th, we have received many resources from community partners on the issue of social justice. We invite you to visit the Chester County Community Foundation’s website for educational resources on understanding race, and actions to take to fight for equality: https://chescocf.
May 5, 2020 –
In the words of José Andrés – 2019 Peace Prize nominee and founder of World Central Kitchen – “We need shorter walls and longer tables.” I hope that recent virtual spring celebrations extended your table to reach friends, family, and neighbors in safe and reaffirming ways.
While remaining safely distanced, VEP students, tutors, and staff are working as close as ever to remain creative and focused during these challenging times. Here are just a few examples of such efforts:
Ron H. and his student prioritized the completion of the 2020 Census form early on in the pandemic. While often taken for granted in daily conversation by native speakers, they worked through the challenges of speaking on the phone to accomplish this time-sensitive task.
Anthony T. and his four students are working separately to apply for unemployment, search for interim employment, and find alternate solutions for stimulus checks that as tax-paying immigrants, they cannot qualify for.
Gerald G. and his recently matched student, a West Chester restaurant owner, were at first reluctant to have sessions on-line. Although the tutor has a background in IT, he was concerned that his student may not respond well to virtual learning. With some suggestions by VEP staff, he agreed to try and, as a result of their success, Gerald has volunteered to tutor additional VEP students on the waiting list, remotely.
Shannon A.’s student, a full-time working mother, now unemployed and coordinating high school studies at home for her learning-challenged son, described the current COVID experience by email…
“Sincerely, I need time to be with [my son]. We have had a very hard time understanding what he needs to do, where is the info, using new apps, and trying to think which ones are the priority, and trying to finish on time all of them. For me is hard because I don’t know too much about how to navigate the internet, and we receive all the homework at the same time from all of his teachers. It is like everything at the same time. Comparing with a volleyball, I feel like 8 people are throwing me 10 volleyballs at the same time, and I can hit just one.”
Every contribution to VEP will extend our reach and continue to provide for hundreds of students and tutors who remain faithful to their personal English instruction throughout these difficult times. As Señor Andrés says,”without empathy, nothing works.”
Thank you for your generosity toward the Volunteer English Program today and always.
April 3, 2020
We hope this week is finding you safe and healthy, continuing to adhere to the safety guidelines of our state and nation in these chaotic times. Please find at least a bit of ‘normalcy’ in that Volunteer English is fully up and running virtually and here to serve and support all of our tutors and students.
The following was forwarded by VEP tutor, Kathryn, from a church circulation. She feels that “Good things can be transmitted, too!” We hope that you agree.
Infectious disease epidemiologist focusing the dynamics of disease transmission, by Jonathan Smith, PhD en route at Emory University, Lecturer at Yale.
As an infectious disease epidemiologist (although a lowly one), at this point I feel morally obligated to provide some information on what we are seeing from a transmission dynamic perspective and how they apply to the social distancing measures. Like any good scientist I have noticed two things that are either not articulated or not present in the “literature” of social media. I have also relied on my much smarter infectious disease epidemiologist friends for peer review of this post; any edits are from peer review.
Specifically, I want to make two aspects of these measures very clear and unambiguous.
First, we are in the very infancy of this epidemic’s trajectory. That means even with these measures we will see cases and deaths continue to rise globally, nationally, and in our own communities in the coming weeks. This may lead some people to think that the social distancing measures are not working. They are. They may feel futile. They aren’t. You will feel discouraged. You should. This is normal in chaos. But this is normal epidemic trajectory. Stay calm. This enemy that we are facing is very good at what it does; we are not failing. We need everyone to hold the line as the epidemic inevitably gets worse. This is not my opinion; this is the unforgiving math of epidemics for which I and my colleagues have dedicated our lives to understanding with great nuance, and this disease is no exception. I want to help the community brace for this impact. Stay strong and with solidarity knowing with absolute certainty that what you are doing is saving lives, even as people begin getting sick and dying. You may feel like giving in. Don’t!
Second, although social distancing measures have been (at least temporarily) well-received, there is an obvious-but-overlooked phenomenon when considering groups (i.e. families) in transmission dynamics. While social distancing decreases contact with members of society, it of course increases your contacts with group (i.e. family) members. This small and obvious fact has surprisingly profound implications on disease transmission dynamics. Study after study demonstrates that even if there is only a little bit of connection between groups (i.e. social dinners, play dates/playgrounds, etc.), the epidemic trajectory isn’t much different than if there was no measure in place. The same underlying fundamentals of disease transmission apply, and the result is that the community is left with all of the social and economic disruption but very little public health benefit. You should perceive your entire family to function as a single individual unit; if one person puts themselves at risk, everyone in the unit is at risk. Seemingly small social chains get large and complex with alarming speed. If your son visits his girlfriend, and you later sneak over for coffee with a neighbor, your neighbor is now connected to the infected office worker that your son’s girlfriend’s mother shook hands with. This sounds silly, it’s not. This is not a joke or a hypothetical. We as epidemiologists see it borne out in the data time and time again and no one listens. Conversely, any break in that chain breaks disease transmission along that chain.
In contrast to hand-washing and other personal measures, social distancing measures are not about individuals, they are about societies working in unison. These measures also take a long time to see the results. It is hard (even for me) to conceptualize how on a population level ‘one quick little get together’ can undermine the entire framework of a public health intervention, but it does. I promise you it does. I promise. I promise. I promise. You can’t cheat it. People are already itching to cheat on the social distancing precautions just a “little”- a play date, a haircut, or picking up a needless item at the store, etc. From a transmission dynamics standpoint, this very quickly recreates a highly connected social network that undermines all of the work the community has done so far.
Until we get a viable vaccine this unprecedented outbreak will not be overcome in one grand, sweeping gesture, rather only by the collection of individual choices our community makes in the coming months. This virus is unforgiving to unwise choices. My goal in writing this is to prevent communities from getting ‘sucker-punched’ by what the epidemiological community knows will happen in the coming weeks. It will be easy to be drawn to the idea that what we are doing isn’t working and become paralyzed by fear, or to ‘cheat’ a little bit in the coming weeks. By knowing what to expect, and knowing the importance of maintaining these measures, my hope is to encourage continued community spirit, strategizing, and action to persevere in this time of uncertainty.
VEP advises all active tutors to NOT meet with students in person until further notice is received from VEP via direction from our local Commissioners and Health Department experts (CHESCO.org). This may be longer than first anticipated. However, we are already witnessing progress among students who are gaining valuable information and guidance from their tutors. VEP tutors are discovering creative ways to “instruct” new English language learners by phone, text, email, What’s App, and other forms of 21st Century communications.
Thank you for making Chester County a safe place to live and work!
Monday, March 23, 2020
Here are resources that we have learned about during the past two weeks:
Shelter in Place & What does this mean?: Sheltering in place means staying at home which is necessary to slow the rate of COVID-19 spread. People should stay in their homes unless they need to leave for “essential” activities and work.
For Health Care Updates: Local information can be found at chesco.org
Medical Reserve Corps: Opportunities for retired or inactive medical personnel to volunteer in their communities are part of new solutions. For more information visit https://www.chesco.org/Search?searchPhrase=Chester+County+Medical+Reserve+Corps
Open Hearth: VEP partners with Open Hearth. Their staff provide community support in areas of Housing, transportation and financial planning. https://www.openhearthinc.org/
SAMHA: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration are keenly aware that social and physical distancing is causing great distress. Our mental health is just as critical during this time. 24/7 Availability. Call 1-800-985-5990. Text “TALKWITHUS” to 66746. For Spanish speakers, Text “HABLANOS” to 66746.
For transportation needs: https://gis.penndot.gov/transitmap/.
For drug and substance abuse support: If you need assistance, call 1-800-GET-HELP (1-800-662-4357) or www.ddap.pa.gov
Good wishes for your health and peace of mind,
Terri Potrako, Executive Director
To reach any staff member by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Feel free to share this link with all non-English language speakers, regardless of their association with VEP, so that they can access critical health and travel information in any one of 50 languages. Simply “Select the Language” icon at the top of the home page.
UPDATED: Friday, March 13, 2020
As an organization, VEP will be following the Chester County Commissioners’ guidance. VEP staff will be available by phone or email during the next two weeks. We will be exploring opportunities to conduct any scheduled meetings through virtual platforms. We advise that Tutors and Students not meet in person. Please consider the information below to protect your health and those around you.
First and foremost, if you have concerns or are aware of someone who has been traveling recently, don’t hesitate – view the following link for travel alerts and information. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/index.html
For general information and resources, view the Chester County Health Department to remain informed www.chesco.org/coronavirus
Please follow these precautions as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Stay home if anyone has respiratory symptoms (coughing, sneezing, shortness of breath) and/or fever of 100.4 F.
- Leave work, school or other occasions if these symptoms develop during your day.
- Shield coughs and sneezes with a tissue, elbow, or shoulder. Immediately dispose of any used tissues.
- Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid shaking hands to reduce risk of spreading infection.
- Limit your exposure to large crowds.
- If you have been exposed to the virus or have recently traveled, use self-imposed quarantined precautions of 14 days minimum and contact the Department of Health for further guidance.
Other suggestions that we think are part of keeping you healthy:
- Eat well.
- Drink plenty of water/fluids.
- Sleep well.
- Stay in touch with family and friends through Skype, phone calls, handwritten letters (just don’t lick the envelopes), emails, and FaceTime.
- Work or study from home whenever possible if your business can support this activity.
For Tutor and Student Instruction, consider the following guidelines:
- 3/13/2020 Suspended: Continue meeting in public places with your tutor or student as long as you are comfortable with the environment.
- Use common sense, don’t take unnecessary risks and be sure to communicate any changes to meet with your tutor or student.
- Agree to elbow-bump with others instead of shaking hands or hugging.
- Use Lysol or other antibacterial wipes on table tops and other surfaces before and after use.
- Don’t share pens, paper, workbooks, computer or phones with others during this time.
- Give others additional distance when speaking.
There are also ideas presented below that encourages remote language learning. Let’s be creative while being safe.
- Remember that VEP’s model of learning is adult focused. No one is terminated from the program when flexibility is required.
- Remember that language learning takes place every day in many ways.
- 3/13/2020 Suspended: Consider “safe” field trips and instruction in open-air settings when possible. Hopefully, the spring weather will be conducive to such outings.
- In place of weekly, person-to-person meetings, create opportunities for independent exercises and practice that a student can report on periodically or when you resume formal instruction.
- Consider that students often have trouble understanding English over the phone. Phone conversation can also be a lesson.
- Tutors, unless you plan on a formal break with your student, please keep your Tutor Portal status as ACTIVE. Log in any session hours weekly, or enter a ZERO even if you are not formally meeting.
- Students, consider using this time to create writing samples for VOICES Student Magazine or practicing English with your family.
Keep in mind that VEP staff:
- Are available by phone and email. Please contact us through these systems before stopping by the office (in case we are also working remotely).
- Will schedule new student intakes and matches/rematches in the future and on a case-by-case basis to reduce risk to all involved.
- Are exploring ways to conduct upcoming Peer-to-Peer Workshop sessions via Zoom Meeting platforms to maximize participation. Details and invitations will be sent separately.
These times require our creativity and commitment to one another. As Executive Director, I welcome your messages and suggestions as to how we can navigate these unusual times together. Thank you for sharing this information in ways and languages that protect everyone.
The staff and I look forward to speaking with you soon.
VEP Conversation Groups
Due to the COVID-19, Coronavirus health alert, many of our community partners and libraries are limiting access to facilities in the weeks ahead. Individual group facilitators will notify participants when groups begin again later this spring or summer. Thank you for your patience.
Our communities are enriched by the experiences and contributions of our students, tutors, volunteers and community partners. Thank you for your generosity!
VEP Students have been contributing to the VOICES Student Magazine since 2015. Click here for all current and past issues.
Phoenixville area resident and VEP student, Premisa Kerthi is coordinating upcoming issues of the magazine. Please send all submissions by email to: email@example.com.
We will forward your articles and suggestions.