At last count, forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have announced that public schools would remain closed for the rest of the academic year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts warn that this loss of learning time will be catastrophic for kids in historically underserved communities in the United States. Children from low-income families, for instance, are already more likely to perform worse on academic benchmarks than their more privileged counterparts. In part, this is because their schools are more likely to have the worst—and fewest—public education resources. Unfortunately, these—and other historically underserved—students are also disproportionately likely to face the most dire circumstances during the pandemic.

English-learning students (ELs) face unique, intersecting challenges during the crisis. Most ELs are children of color and their families are disproportionately low income, which is to say that they are frequently harmed by racial and socioeconomic inequities in American public education. But these children are also, by definition, continuing to develop their English language skills at school. In addition, while the majority of ELs are native-born American citizens (they’re usually second- or third-generation immigrants), many are part of families led by immigrant adults. Recent shifts in immigration policies and their enforcement have created new anxieties and uncertainty for immigrant communities and ELs’ families. And sadly, Congress has excluded undocumented immigrants and their families from some of their key pandemic relief efforts.

All of this means that education leaders should focus on their EL students during the public health crisis—and that new attention should be recognized as an opportunity. As educators, administrators, and policymakers seek ways to help ELs succeed, they should use this moment to reassess some of the most pernicious misconceptions about what these students lack and need, but more importantly, what they already have.

Reaching ELs While Schools Are Closed

The response to the COVID-19 crisis has largely focused on efforts to convert in-person schooling into a remote setting—often by moving curricula and instruction online. The loss of physical classrooms is forcing schools to think critically about teaching and learning. What elements of instruction can be conducted remotely (online or otherwise)? Which of those elements are essential? How can students engage with material given limited screen time, energy, online access, and so forth?

Above all, though, schools are learning just how much families matter. After all, many ELs have caregivers who aren’t constrained in the same ways as teachers are right now. Parents, grandparents, older siblings, and extended family members are in the same physical spaces as children, able to assist and amplify—or ignore, distract from, and undermine—teaching and learning. The more that these family members understand what EL students are doing in online sessions or homework packets, the better they’ll be able to support them.

For ELs’ linguistically diverse families, however, engagement with schools has long been a unique challenge. The American teaching force is overwhelmingly monolingual and English-dominant, while ELs usually speak a non-English language at home. The majority of ELs are enrolled in schools that conduct academic instruction exclusively in English; many educators and policymakers have assumed that this sort of total immersion in English is the best way to foster ELs’ linguistic and academic development.

But research suggests otherwise. There is significant evidence that strong development of ELs’ home language abilities promotes long-term academic success and English acquisition for these students.

First, to engage ELs’ families, schools need to find ways to bridge linguistic differences between families and educators. This starts with effective communication—ELs’ families will be best able to support teachers when they’re aware of assignments and expectations. There are a range of automated translation tools to help with this purpose.

But communication is just the first step. Meaningful engagement of linguistically and culturally diverse families is also important—but this has been a significant challenge for U.S. schools for decades. As schools reform their models to meet this new moment, therefore, they should take the opportunity to rethink how they approach ELs’ families, and shift to recognizing the significant linguistic and cultural assets that are present in ELs’ home lives.

Recognizing ELs’ Languages and Families as Assets

For too long, U.S. education policies have approached ELs almost exclusively in deficit-laden terms. For many years, the federal government referred to these students as LEPs: “Limited English Proficient” students. While the government’s current term, “English Learners,” is an improvement, it still defines these students by what they lack, rather than by the skills and knowledge that they have. What’s more, schools and educators have often built on these unhelpful foundations to marginalize ELs’ home languages and cultures—often sidelining their families in the process. Across the country and throughout U.S. history, ELs’ families routinely report educators discouraging them from using their home languages with their children.

But now that schools are relying on EL students’ families to support distance learning efforts, it’s time to take advantage of these students’ home languages and cultural resources. Practically speaking, this means encouraging families to sing, talk, read, play, and otherwise engage with their young children in whichever languages they speak best. Research on virtual and/or remote learning best practices for ELs is scarce, but there have been some promising findings from structured family engagement programs, such as ReadyRosie’s. These can provide video activities in families’ home languages and guiding tips that help caregivers understand and support children’s development.

Even better, there are a host of high-quality academic materials available online across a growing range of languages—and many of these are freely accessible because of the pandemic. Schools should identify and share multilingual resources that align with the academic content their classes are working on via distance learning. For instance, the Center for Applied Linguistics and the Government of Mexico have recently published a number of Spanish-language educational materials online, including textbooks, videos, and more. Finally, the EL Success Forum provides guidance for how educators can evaluate and improve their curricula.

Best of all, when EL students and their peers return to campus—hopefully this fall—schools will have developed some new awareness of how ELs’ home languages can contribute to these students’ success. Even after social distancing winds down, there’s no reason for schools to return to their old English-only approaches to ELs’ language development.

Are you working with English learners while schools are closed? The Century Foundation hosts a temporary listserv for educators, researchers, and advocates working with ELs or on issues related to ELs. Email [email protected] if you’d be interested in joining.


header photo: Recovering from COVID-19, Guatemalan immigrant Junior, 7, tries to log-in to his school ChromeBook  in Stamford, Connecticut. Source: John Moore/Getty Images