As a former teacher, I cringed in March at the thought that so many students would have to transition to online learning. Educators, including myself, spoke out about how distance learning exacerbated inequities in our already flawed, unequal system. Falling behind would be inevitable. We tried to imagine ways to ease those few months of interruption so that our students could get back on track by the fall semester, in person. At the time, we had no idea just how long the virus would last, nor how broadly impactful it would be on society.

I still tutor many of my former high school students in Miami, and their requests for academic support increased during the pandemic. One of my students, an English learner (EL), was struggling to complete her assignments without adequate language support online, so we worked together a few times over the semester on Zoom. Just a few weeks ago, when the country was starting to recognize South Florida as the new hotspot for the pandemic, she reached out to share that both her parents (who for the early months of the pandemic were considered essential workers) were diagnosed with COVID-19. Now, as a rising eleventh grader, she is caring for her younger siblings, worrying about her parents’ health, trying to stay on track for her future, and starting an uncertain new school year.

As leading health scientists say COVID-19 is here to stay, school district leaders across the country are reconsidering their reopening plans, many choosing to remain online for the foreseeable future due to spikes in COVID-19 cases and new hot spots emerging in all corners of the country.

If this spring taught us anything, it’s that schools must center reopening plans around their most marginalized students if they don’t want to leave them behind.

COVID-19 forces us to weigh the health prospects of students and adult school staff in addition to ensuring children receive the education they deserve in the coming school year. If this spring taught us anything, it’s that schools must center reopening plans around their most marginalized students if they don’t want to leave them behind. The pandemic has already had powerful and negative long-term impacts on these students’ educational trajectories. To prevent any more of the same, educators and school administrators must pay special attention to how distance education has impacted the linguistic and academic development of English-learning students (ELs) and consider strategies that will ensure equitable access to learning for those students, whether school is conducted in-person, virtually, or through a hybrid of the two.

The Stakes: Lessons from the Spring

In early to mid-March, most U.S. schools made the unprecedented decision to close down due to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus across the country. According to EdWeek, nearly every state either ordered or recommended that schools remain closed through the end of the 2019–20 school year, a decision which impacted at least 55.1 million students in 124,000 U.S. public and private schools.

National data suggests that these school closures exacerbated educational inequities particularly for children from low-income families and from non-majority cultural and linguistic backgrounds. In fact, over 10 percent of U.S. public school students are ELs, and nearly one-quarter of U.S. children speak a non-English language at home. These students appear to have faced unique inequities during the spring.

First, schools and educators must address inequities in ELs’ access to education by providing the basic resources that grant access to educational opportunity. Many English-learner students, like other marginalized student groups, lacked access to online learning materials this past spring. In many cases, this was due to digital divides: insufficient resources available for them to log on and participate in virtual learning. While some districts scrambled to devise plans to distribute laptops or mobile devices to students who did not have them at home already and coordinated with internet conglomerates like Comcast to offer free wireless access for the spring, others made little to no effort to close these gaps.

According to data from a California Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE) survey published this summer, of 1,400 parents interviewed, 98 percent of whom were Spanish speakers across North, Central, and Southern California, one in five students did not receive the necessary equipment from their school to be able to participate in distance learning in a language that they understood. Additionally, 15 percent of the households surveyed did not have internet access at home throughout distance learning. This is where fall planning for ELs must start.

Second, and central to the concerns specific to EL students, educators and schools must shift away from English-only practices and change the narrative so that ELs’ native languages are seen as resources and assets—ensuring that those skills are never barriers for accessing educational opportunities. In its simplest form, this means offering modes of outreach in multiple languages.

Prolonged school closures will certainly have an impact on the linguistic and academic development of students; this is a given. However, English-only family engagement can also get in the way of students and families receiving pertinent announcements, support, and resources from their schools. Many districts’ family communication systems were extremely flawed and inaccessible before the pandemic. This experience is heightened for families that do not speak English, enter the school halfway through the year, and for whom the school does not have enough contact information. All of these issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The Education Trust-West conducted a poll in March that reports that a quarter of non-English home speakers said their child’s school had not provided materials in other languages. Relatedly, the California PIQE survey found that out of 1,400 parents who responded, 93 percent received information from their schools and teachers about their child’s new online classes/distance learning program, but 31 percent of those parents did not understand those instructions.

Schools need to make a greater effort to communicate with and support EL parents in the methods which those parents use themselves.

However, moving away from English-only practices must go beyond translation. Along with a difference in language, ELs’ families often use different channels and modes of communication. For example, one in three parents from the PIQE survey reported they do not have an email address that they can use to receive information from schools and teachers. If schools have no way of communicating with parents, how are they supposed to adequately support their child in this new and complicated learning system? Schools need to make a greater effort to communicate with and support EL parents in the methods which those parents use themselves. Indeed, 25 percent of non-native English speaking households in California reported that their district did not provide opportunities for them to learn how to support student education at home.

The consequences are devastating. According to a Californians Together Participant Survey, 55 percent of ELs were engaging less than half of the time in their distance learning courses or online materials.

As the spring semester has demonstrated, navigating distance learning software can be challenging, even for English-speaking families and students. Planning to support and engage non-English speakers and ELs should be a top priority as schools seek full participation in the new academic year.

Recommendations to Ensure Equity for ELs

Regardless of the instructional format districts offer in the fall, education leaders should organize all of their efforts around 1) protecting the health of our students and school faculty, and 2) ensuring equitable educational access for our students, including English-learners. Given the aforementioned additional barriers to equity for this student group, here’s how they can ensure a better semester for its members.

Recommendations for School Administrators

Schools should conduct extensive surveys (in all of the languages spoken in the region of said school) with all matriculating and returning students and families to obtain the following information:

  • Accurate contact information of parents/guardians (email, work/home/mobile phone numbers, addresses for paper mail, etc.).
  • Accurate contact information of all students (email, phone, addresses, etc.).
  • Language spoken at home.
  • Whether the household has a working computer/tablet.
  • Whether the household has internet access.
  • Whether the parent/guardian will be working away from home while the child participates in distance learning (if applicable to the district).
  • Ask families to outline children’s spring learning setting and experiences (i.e. how did the spring go, what was working, what wasn’t, etc). Schools should also ask about any summer care and learning setups.
  • Ask families to share their concerns about their children. Are there areas where they think their kids need extra attention? Any learning, linguistic, or emotional concerns they have noticed over the course of the pandemic? Any information their teachers should be aware of?

This information will give educators and administrators a starting point for developing an appropriate learning plan that works for their students. Responses should then be recorded into a database to be used 1) for communication with families that is shared with all staff and faculty, and 2) to provide the appropriate resources to families as soon as possible.

As information changes, schools need to provide teachers with the updated database of contact information for students and families, and request that teachers call EL households once per week, especially in the beginning of the year, to ensure they are receiving the resources they need and understand the instructions and assignments given.

Meanwhile, schools should continue to come up with creative and comprehensive community outreach strategies. Educators could post school/district announcements at local community centers or grocery stores—places that are open and accessible to community members even during the pandemic.

Additionally, schools need to provide teachers with the language resources they need to translate their expectations and instructions for students and parents who speak languages other than English. The school may encourage teachers to complete a professional development in EL strategies and disseminate resources for teachers to implement them, as well as culturally relevant pedagogy and visual instruction, in their daily lessons. Many teachers do this already, but it is on the school and the district to institutionalize these practices.

Recommendations for Teachers

While the onus of organization and providing resources falls on district leaders and school administrators, teachers still play a critical and more personal role in ensuring equity for ELs. Whether online or in-person, teachers should be diligent to create lessons with integrated and designated English language development (ELD).

There are a plethora of resources and chat-boards online to support teachers working with ELs:

  • Edutopia, EdWeek, and many other education publications have released articles with tips for working with ELs, in-person and online. Here is one from Edutopia from April this year.
  • In the spring, Californians Together hosted weekly virtual Communities of Practice for EL teachers across the country. Recordings of those discussions can be found here.
  • The Century Foundation compiled an EL Virtual Learning Forum for educators and families to access EL-specific resources for their students.

Teachers should choose a communication app to easily contact parents and students that is adaptable to all phone types and easily accessible by computer. Many low-income families do not have access to a computer or tablet, so a phone app is inclusive, easy, and accessible. Meanwhile, it is important to keep in mind that the student should not have to have a cell phone to communicate with you—this is especially relevant for K-5 students. There are many communication apps that exist on both platforms. Some examples that are free to students and teachers include: Talking Points; Remind; Google Classroom; Edmodo; Instagram or Facebook class page; etc.

Ms. Grier, a secondary ELA teacher in Miami, FL, offers an excellent example of what equitable distance learning practices for EL students could look like. She recognized that the majority of her high school ELs used popular social media apps such as Instagram daily. Thus, when the school district forced Miami schools online, she created a class Instagram page to communicate with her students. She posted videos of herself explaining the assignments and walking students through the online portal to access their grades and other resources. In the captions of her posts, she included translations in Spanish, French, and Haitian Creole (kreyòl) so that all of her students could understand the video. Then, she would use the Instagram “story” feature to post announcements for upcoming due dates. She translated those in the three languages as well.

Communication with students and families outside of school can be extremely difficult to navigate. However, in order to ensure full participation from English-native speakers and ELs under these new circumstances, educators need to brainstorm nuanced and thoughtful ways to interface with their students. Ultimately, the communication mode of choice should be decided upon with and for students.

Ultimately, the communication mode of choice should be decided upon with and for students.

Addressing inequity in schools is as difficult as it is critical. In this moment, when racial inequities in health and opportunity are at the fore of the public’s mind, it is especially important for educators to ensure that thoughtful provisions are made to support historically marginalized students—particularly ELs—in the classroom, whether the room is brick-and-mortar or digital.