Teachers can open the app, type up a message, watch it translate and send it off to parents.By Meghan Schiller

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — More than 650 families in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District speak the Nepali language at home. Many of those families are refugees.

When the coronavirus pandemic first began, the district needed to communicate rapidly changing information to non-English-speaking parents.

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“I think if the situation has taught us anything, it’s really the value of communicating with our parents. So now more than ever, we’ve seen an urgency to get messages to them,” said Dr. Holly Niemi, an ESL teacher at Baldwin High School.

This school year, the district is piloting the smartphone app Talking Points. It allows teachers to type and translate messages to send to both parents and students. The district pays for a license.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

“That number, the 650, that is just the number of students that their home language is Nepali,” said Melissa Gallagher, director of student services at Baldwin High School.

“In one of my classes right now, I have a Vietnamese student, a Bosnian student, a student from Rwanda, one from Sierra Leone,” said Dr. Niemi.

Gallagher told KDKA the district is only getting larger, and written letters are the thing of the past. The district needed to find a way to deliver daily communication, and scheduling calls with translators for hundreds of students was not feasible.

“When I came here with no English at all with my family, it was really hard for me to understand what the teacher and what the other students were saying,” said senior Ismriti Darjee.

Ismriti didn’t speak English when she moved to Baldwin from Nepal. Fast forward two years and she’s now almost fluent. Her parents are not.

“They were like, ‘Why is your school closed?’ Why are you not going to school?’”

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Ismriti is one of the hundreds of Baldwin-Whitehall students explaining the coronavirus pandemic to non-English speaking parents. She said the app really helps keep her family in the loop.

“It helps me a lot to communicate with the teacher in my own language and my parents also understand that, which is really easy for us,” she said.

Gallagher describes the reaction from parents as positive.

“The first response that we received back was, ‘This is in Nepali?'” said Gallagher. “Then there were all of these excited emojis like, ‘How is this even possible?’”

Teachers can open the app, type up a message, watch it translate and send it off to parents.

“Even just simple messages, such as a particular student had a really great day today,” said Gallagher. “Or they left their lunchbox in the cafeteria.”

The best part, Gallagher said, is that parents and students can write back and ask questions.

“This is just sort of a first step in a direction of trying to think outside of the box and just to be more current,” Gallagher said.

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The app is free to download for parents and students. The district pays to only use the app right now for the Nepali-speaking families but will consider paying more to expand to other languages.

Meghan Schiller