As school closures stretched from spring weeks into summer months—and with students’ in-person return dates still unclear—education leaders’ focus has begun to shift. And necessarily so: in most places, the official end of the school year offered no relief, instead simply raising the curtain on a host of pressing questions about the fall. Was the summer a moment for the traditional break, remedial instruction, or some mix of the two? When should school restart for the 2020–21 school year—and how might it strike a balance between in-person and remote instruction? And, of course: how can schools improve the quality and breadth of their instructional approaches, with an eye towards prioritizing the needs of historically underserved students and their families? How can they ensure that these approaches are as equitable as possible, even under trying circumstances?

When answering these questions, schools in almost every community should think particularly carefully about how they plan to address the needs of English-learning students (ELs). These students make up a growing share of the U.S. student body. There were over five million ELs in U.S. schools in 2017—an increase of more than one million students since 2000.

Unfortunately, there is little research on how to best serve linguistically diverse students via distance, virtual, or hybrid learning models. Worse still, there is significant evidence that these students were especially poorly served by many schools’ spring remote learning efforts. If schools fail to center these students’ needs in the fall, they risk further widening these systemic opportunity gaps. How can we do as well as possible by ELs now that schools are reopening (using various instructional models) for the fall?

Building the EL Virtual Learning Forum

In an effort to address this problem, The Century Foundation launched the EL Virtual Learning Forum this spring (with generous support from the Heising-Simons Foundation). The forum is a discussion group that connects EL-serving educators in discussions with one another, as well as with experts, so that they can ask questions and develop new ideas for supporting these students during the pandemic. As the forum grows, TCF experts will periodically publish pieces so that lessons from these discussions can be shared and disseminated throughout the public education field. (Are you an educator, administrator, advocate, or research working with ELs? Interested in joining the EL Virtual Learning Forum? Click here.)

How can schools best serve these children? Some of the key practices are generic. ELs are more likely to be growing up below the poverty line than their English-dominant peers. As such, they frequently suffer from educational inequities rooted in socioeconomic status. For example, many ELs and their families are struggling with food and housing insecurity. ELs are also likely to face digital and connectivity divides; that is, they are disproportionately likely to lack access to learning technology devices and an internet connection. For many schools, the first steps in serving ELs better requires addressing these basic opportunity gaps.

However, there are also unique, EL-specific risks for learning loss while schools are closed. While most ELs are native-born American citizens, many live in homes without native speakers of English. This “linguistic isolation” can create unique challenges for supporting and serving these students during the pandemic. Oral language development is especially important for ELs—particularly in the early years. They appear to benefit from regularly speaking and listening in English and in their home languages.

This can be challenging while schools are closed. It’s one thing for teachers to plan lessons and design academically aligned language development activities to get ELs talking when they’re surrounded by students at school. It’s quite another to replicate those activities during remote learning.

Still, there are ways for teachers to support ELs’ oral language development right now. For instance, many schools are conducting online instruction in whole-class settings. To ensure that ELs have more opportunities to talk, teachers could break their classes into pairs or smaller groups (some video call platforms allow these kinds of grouping within whole-class meetings, while others offer relatively straightforward workarounds). This would allow ELs to engage with smaller groups of peers, perhaps including those who have particularly strong oral language skills that allow them to serve as models. Teachers designing these sorts of activities should also think constructively about conversation prompts that will encourage ELs to participate.

When access to the internet remains an issue, teachers could establish rotating “phone pals” for ELs and their peers. Each student is assigned a list of several classmates to call during the week. Again, educators can provide guiding questions for the conversations. In bilingual schools—or monolingual English schools with significant bilingual populations—EL students should be encouraged to chat both with English-dominant classmates as well as peers who share their home languages. The key, remember, is to help ELs continue to practice using languages—every one that they speak.

In addition to thinking creatively about supporting ELs’ language development, educators must focus on engaging and supporting these students’ families. Adults in ELs’ families may or may not have strong English skills, so they should be encouraged to work with their children in whichever languages they speak best.

Critically, like all children, many ELs may currently feel significant stress and anxiety stemming from prolonged social isolation. School activities designed to foster children’s conversations with caregivers can include academic work, but should also help ELs’ caregivers check in with their children’s state of mind.

An intentional focus on language must not lead to segregation of ELs from any academic content. Not only would this impoverish ELs’ overall educations: it would also impoverish their language acquisition. EL students learn languages best when they’re engaging with it authentically in connection with academic content. In other words, models that pull ELs away from academic instruction “to focus on learning English” are counterproductive. Language is harder to learn in that sort of vacuum. Instead, school should design their remote learning models to ensure that ELs engage with language and academics together. In those settings, they should design lessons and activities that support ELs’ access to all academic content—by identifying and explaining key new vocabulary, and providing detailed modeling of what ELs need to do to succeed on each assignment.

To do this reflective work under the uncertainty of current health conditions, educators need extra support to navigate the uncertainty of transitioning to remote learning, and ELs are a growing share of many schools’ enrollments. Federal and state policymakers should support increased resources for ELs’ education to help schools weather the current crisis.

Preparing for the Fall

ELs need to be central to schools’ remote learning planning. Their oral language development is critical in the early years, and this spring’s experience made clear that—without a high level of intentional effort—they will be left behind. Furthermore, ELs need to be included so that their families are connected with teachers—and with ideas for how they can support children’s learning at home. Regular video calls can be a social lifeline for kids lonely in isolation from their friends, no matter which languages a given child speaks, or how fluently. And, of course, schools should avoid language-specific education solutions for ELs if they have not yet addressed these students’ basic needs.

Nearly one-quarter of U.S. school-aged children speak a non-English language at home. This diverse group of students will make up a huge portion of America’s future voters and workers. Our collective national success is inextricably linked to how well our schools serve them now.

Are you working with English learners while schools are closed? The Century Foundation hosts a free listserv for educators, researchers, and advocates working with ELs or on issues related to ELs. Click here to join!