Families & the Community

Schools Failed English-Learners During the Shutdown. How Can They Do Better?

By Corey Mitchell — August 18, 2020 2 min read
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The national shift to distance learning this spring left many of the nation’s nearly 5 million English-learner students shut out of the learning process—without internet, without language support, and without the devices they needed to participate in online education.

The experience was tough even in places where schools found ways to connect with English-learners. Now, as schools begin to reopen, districts should redouble their efforts to make up for lost time, a new report from the Council of the Great City Schools suggests.

The report urges districts to pay close attention to how they choose and use technology and assess what skills students have learned and lost since schools shut down. It also emphasizes the importance of: family engagement for parents and other relatives who are not fluent in English; professional development that emphasizes effective teaching strategies for all educators who work with English-learners; and rethinking how schools deploy English-learner specialists to ensure that students have ample opportunity for one-on-one or small-group learning support during online-only classes.

“The reality of what many [English-learner] and immigrant families have faced during the pandemic must be incorporated ... into any planning for the reopening of schools,” the report form the council, a membership organization of the country’s large urban school systems, reads. “The failure to address the needs of these students in the reopening of schools would jeopardize the educational outcomes of a sizable portion of students.”

Nationwide, English-learners comprise about 10 percent of students in the nation’s public schools. But they represent a larger portion of the population among the districts that belong to the Council of the Great City Schools, a membership organization of the country’s large, urban school systems

But while some districts around the country are planning for English-learners to return to in-person classes first in order to make up for lost learning in the spring, the spread of coronavirus will cut off that option for others, at least at the beginning of the year. As the pandemic continues to rage in some parts of the country, many of the nation’s largest districts are starting the school year with remote learning as their lone back-to-school instructional model. The report also urges school districts to keep tabs on several groups of students, including those who had low attendance during classes in the spring and former English-learners who were reclassified as English-proficient in the weeks and months preceding school closures. The concern for both sets of students is that their English skills may have regressed since they last met face-to-face with instructors.

Advice on how to facilitate co-planning and co-teaching with English-learner educators and general education teachers and use the talents of multilingual staff to connect with families was also included in the report. Here’s a look at the document.

Photo Credit: Teachers at Menchaca Early Childhood Center pass out tablets to students, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, in San Antonio. Southside will being the year with remote teaching and has added hotspots to the school district to help students without access to the internet -- Eric Gray/Associated Press

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.