With schools across the United States turning to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns are being raised about the quality of instruction that English learners—students whose English proficiency affects their ability to meaningfully participate in school—are receiving. English learners make up nearly 10 percent of all public school students in the United States and, even during normal times, face significant barriers to academic success. Those challenges are multiplied when instruction goes online.
Carrie Parker, an education researcher at the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands at EDC, studies the academic performance of English learners. In this interview, she talks about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting education for English learners, and why fostering connections between English learners and school now may be as important as any academic skill.
Q: How is the move to distance learning affecting English learners?
Parker: English learners and their teachers are definitely struggling a lot. Many of the specific strategies that teachers use with English learners don’t translate easily into an online environment. For example, kids need to be speaking English, and teachers need to provide scaffolds to support them during academic discussions. That can be very challenging to do in a large, online classroom environment.
We also know that a lot of English learners are dealing with a total lack of access to technology. Gaining reliable Internet access is complicated for families in tenuous economic circumstances or for those who are undocumented. Even companies offering free internet access require some sort of identification, and families who are undocumented may not be able to take that risk. So even if schools or districts do provide students with laptops or tablets—and not all schools or districts are able to—English learners may not be able to use these devices reliably.
District leaders also describe how many English learners are dealing with food crises and health crises in their families. So now, on top of that, they are being expected to learn from home. It’s a tough situation.
Q: With respect to the education of English learners, what worries you the most about our current predicament?
Parker: One is that existing inequities in education are going to worsen. Kids who are generally successful in school can take a three-month break from academics and still be ok when they get back to school. Kids who have not experienced success, or for whom school is difficult, will have a much harder time doing that. So those existing inequities will get much worse when we return to school.
Another thing I’m concerned about is the social and emotional health of both students and teachers. People are experiencing trauma to a degree that we don’t yet understand, and this will require rethinking how schools address those components of learning.
Many English learners may not come back to school when it resumes. Older youth are already taking care of younger siblings or have gotten jobs to contribute to the family economy. This makes it challenging for them to participate in remote learning now, and when it reopens, they may not go back.
Q: They won’t return because they’ve become used to not going to school?
Parker: Yes. The fear is that if they get disconnected enough, school will no longer seem relevant. And dropout is already a huge issue among high school English learners in the best of circumstances. Kids drop out because they feel the pressure to work. Or you have kids who are long-term English learners. They’ve been in the system for 8, 9, 10 years, and they don’t see how school will improve their future. So then they drop out. Dropout is a huge issue in the best of circumstances, and this pandemic is just going to exacerbate it.
Q: Are there any examples of districts that seem to be supporting English learners well during this time?
Parker: One community that sticks out is Brockton, Massachusetts. Brockton has a huge immigrant population, so lots of what they do as an education system is to find ways to be welcoming to immigrant families. They were doing this even before the coronavirus hit.
Brockton has expanded its team that is tasked with reaching out to families to find out what they need to help their kids participate in school. The first two weeks after schools were closed, that team was basically just making sure kids had enough food. Then the next thing was, well, let’s make sure that these kids have the technology they need to participate in distance learning. So they’re doing it in stages. And they are recognizing that for most kids and families, the important thing right now is just to get through the crisis. For people in crisis, academic learning is secondary to meeting physical and socioemotional needs.
Also, native language support is paramount, so the district is using its bilingual community relations facilitators to help families and students access counseling, nursing, technology, and academic supports. They are also employing bilingual English learner advocates to help families access Wi-Fi programs, food assistance, and medical care.
Q: What can other districts learn from that example?
Parker: The degree to which educators can maintain and deepen personal relationships with the children and with the families is essential. The more that we can stay connected with them, the more they can stay connected with the school. It’s not only good for the kids, but it’s invigorating for the people maintaining those relationships, too. Staying connected is also a way of reminding ourselves that kids are more than just the inequities that we talk about.
As parents and educators, we also have to pay attention to the personal growth and development of students. And as for academics, the pandemic is exacerbating existing inequities. Educators face a challenge and an opportunity in addressing what schools can and should be like in the future to address those inequities.
Q: What advice do you have for administrators or educators on supporting English learners’ education in this moment?
Parker: We have to emphasize the value that we’ve had for a long time, which is that all educators are educators of English learners. There is no way that you can leave English learners out of whatever kind of teaching you’re doing as a classroom teacher. So I think that’s the first piece of advice: be inclusive of all students, and individualize based on where each student is.
People are building as they go. It really varies from teacher to teacher and from community to community. We’ve put together a set of FAQs on how to support English learners. The more that teachers can experiment and figure out what works for them, then the more successful they will be. Try not to get stuck in a certain way of doing things. Just keep experimenting and trying. And continue to focus on strengths. Teachers have strengths. English learners have strengths. We’ve got to build on those to get through.