As the nation shifts to online learning during the novel coronavirus outbreak, language and access barriers may shut many of the nation’s nearly 5 million English-learner students out of the learning process.
A December 2019 report from the U.S. Department of Education found that few teachers reported assigning English-learners to use digital learning resources outside of class, in part because of concerns about students’ lack of access to technology at home.
The same report also revealed that teachers who work with English-language learners are more apt to use general digital resources rather than tools designed specifically for English-learners and that English-learner educators reported fewer hours of professional development with digital learning resources than did mainstream teachers.
Those findings suggest the spread of outbreak-related school closures could have severe consequences for the millions of students with limited access to digital devices or the internet, limited understanding of English, and limited ability to work independently without support.
“This crisis has emphasized the inequities and gaps that exist in our [education] system,” said Kristina Robertson, the English-learner program administrator for the Roseville, Minn., schools. “This is a wakeup call about the value of having technology for all.”
English-learner educators often offer tailored support for their students in class, something that is not available in many of the online programs schools have implemented, said Joseph Luft, the executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools.
The New York City-based network operates 28 high school and middle school campuses in New York city, the San Francisco Bay Area, the Washington, D.C.-area, and Minneapolis that educate more than 10,000 English-learners and newly arrived immigrant students.
The widespread closures have left teachers and administrators scrambling for ways to connect with students they may not see face-to-face again for weeks or months. In New York City, schools are closed until at least April 20, and perhaps the rest of year, Mayor Bill de Blasio said this week.
Education Week created an interactive map to track school closures across the nation: As of Wednesday, at least 39 states have closed schools to help slow the spread of coronavirus; the closures have affected more than 40 million public school students.
In some of the International Network’s New York schools, teachers spent the weekend printing paper packets for student pickup. The organization has also created a network-wide resource for teachers to share curriculum ideas and suggestions for connecting with families.
“This makes online learning a lot more difficult,” Luft said. “We’re trying to be very creative but it’s very hard to transition so quickly.”
Across the country, public schools educate about 4.9 million English-learners from hundreds of different language backgrounds. While the numbers for several other languages are on the rise, 76 percent of the nation’s English-learners speak Spanish.
Many of the nation’s largest school districts have had significant English-learner populations for years, but communication challenges even exist for many of those school systems.
In Seattle, where schools will remain closed until April 24, the district offers translations for materials in six languages: Spanish, Somali, Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese, Amharic, and Tagalog. That still leaves some families out of the loop. The district has nearly 7,000 English-learners and they speak a total of about 160 languages.
"[English-learners] who don’t speak one of the major languages have much less support,” Judie Haynes, an author and English-learner-educator consultant, wrote in an email to Education Week. “All distance learning will probably be in English or Spanish unless another language group has a big concentration.”
The state of New Jersey, where Haynes in based, has a concentration of Portuguese students and teachers that would allow their needs to be met at school, she said.
Roughly 40 percent of the 7,000 students in Robertson’s district, the Roseville schools, speak a language such as Spanish, Hmong, Karen, Somali, or Nepali at home.
The district employs 11 cultural liaisons, whose duties range from providing interpretation and translations, advising students, cultural navigation, and working to bridge the language and cultural gaps that emerge between district staff and families.
The district also plans to establish a multilingual Facebook page to communicate with families and send daily robocalls and emails in multiple languages to inform families about meals and other efforts to support families.
“Families need to have somebody they trust to communicate what they need from schools, Robertson said. “They want to their children to be safe and have learning opportunities just like everyone else.”
Colorín Colorado, a site for English-learner educators, has compiled a list of resources and suggestions for school staff and English-learner families. The guide includes tips for ensuring that families have access to information about online learning and that their district or school online-learning plans account for English-learners.
In addition to providing links to COVID-19 information in several languages, the site also offers tips on staying connected with English-learner families during the extended shutdowns by communicating with families via phone calls, texts or video chats and providing translated information whenever possible.
“We want to ensure immigrant and English-learner families aren’t left behind,” said Giselle Lundy-Ponce, an English-learner advocate with the American Federation of Teachers. “It’s going to require a monumental effort.”
In an ongoing online survey of teachers conducted by the site, respondents have reported that many of their English-learners don’t have laptops or tablets to access online lessons; in some cases, they don’t have internet access.
“We would like not to lose anything [in terms of learning progress], but that’s not very realistic,” Robertson said. “Some families are going to be left behind.”
A longtime English-as-a-second-language teacher, Haynes started #ellchat about a decade ago. On Monday, the Twitter chat focused on online learning for English-learners during the coronavirus outbreak. The exchange focused on tools that could help students access online lessons and remain in touch with teachers.
TESOL International Association, an organization for teachers who specialize in working with English-learners, has also collected resources that teachers and administrators can use to help guide their discussions with students about this pandemic.
Luft is especially concerned about a particular subset of English-learners: older students who are nearing graduation.
School districts have long struggled to meet the educational needs of these students, including refugee and immigrant students who often have gaps in their formal education. Laws allow students to enroll in traditional public schools until they reach age 21, but many times they’re pressured to leave campuses or funneled into alternative programs.
Luft fears that, with extended school closures, some of these students may leave school without graduating, unless some districts waive exam requirements or amend state laws on how many days schools must be in session.
“It’s just throwing another roadblock in their way,” Luft said. “We don’t know how long this is going to last. They’re in real danger of losing ground.”
Robertson has asked district staff, including the cultural liaisons, to monitor whether families have enough food and understand when to seek medical help during the coronavirus outbreak.
Staff in the district—which has a one-to-one computing initiative—were also pressing to get tablets to students as schools shut down Wednesday through at least March 27.
“You can digitize instruction, but education is about connections,” Luft said. “We don’t really know what this is going to look like over the next couple of weeks. I’m not looking for miracles; I’m just looking for people working to keep kids connected to school.”
Photo Credit: Students Valerie Mejia-Terry, left, and Karina Medina, right, focusing during class at Spirit Lake Elementary School in Spirit Lake, Iowa, in 2017. -- Bryon Houlgrave /The Des Moines Register
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.