How can schools ensure that distance learning is equitably accessible during the pandemic? This has been a constant issue since schools closed across the country this past spring, when digital divides prevented many historically marginalized students from attending their schools’ virtual learning offerings. While there have been significant efforts to close these opportunity gaps—mass distribution of digital devices, partnerships to expand access to internet connectivity, and outreach to improve families’ capacities for using these technologies—teachers report that student access remains an ongoing challenge. Distance learning has been especially difficult for English learners (ELs). Indeed, in a recent survey, my colleague, Rosario Quiroz Villarreal, found that just 19 percent of educators working with ELs reported that most of their ELs had reliable internet access.

And yet, further conversations with EL-serving teachers this winter serve as a stark reminder that online tools—laptops, wifi, and digital literacy—are just the basic elements of ensuring that ELs can meaningfully engage with distance learning. In a series of interviews and online discussions, educators participating in The Century Foundation’s EL Virtual Learning Forum1 explained the depth and breadth of the problems they’re facing. While they shared some bright spots, most shared one persistent problem: keeping their EL students attending and engaging with distance learning during the pandemic.

An Array of Challenges

The details of each teacher’s situation varied, but nearly all have found that EL engagement during distance learning remains difficult—and for a wide range of reasons. Even after local and state efforts to expand access to digital learning materials, internet connectivity is still a challenge for many teachers, and many families still struggle to navigate the usage of these new tools. Other engagement obstacles reflect structural inequities: many ELs and their families are balancing complex work and caregiving schedules that make it hard to reliably sign in for regular live class instruction.

Some teachers report that they have EL elementary school students who struggle to manage distance learning because they are home alone during the school day and/or taking care of younger siblings, while older students routinely miss class because they have started jobs of their own to help their families navigate the economic precarity of the pandemic. “I have this wonderful student that is caring for his baby sister during the day,” said Mount Diablo Unified School District teacher Lorie Johnson in an interview, “because he’s the only one at home. As teachers we’ve all told him ‘that’s okay, that’s all right. Just, tend to your sister and do the best you can.’ But . . . he’s raising an infant while he’s going to high school.”

Several teachers report that some of their ELs struggled navigating instructional model shifts. That is, some students disengaged as schedules changed when their schools moved to hybrid (a mix of distance and in-person) instruction and then back to all-virtual instruction (or vice versa) this fall.

Nearly all teachers share concerns that many ELs are disengaging from distance learning because of the anxieties, stress, and sometimes trauma they are experiencing during the pandemic.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, nearly all teachers share concerns that many ELs are disengaging from distance learning because of the anxieties, stress, and sometimes trauma they are experiencing during the pandemic. Teachers almost universally express concerns that distance learning is not providing ELs with sufficient opportunities to use language in authentic social and academic contexts.

These concerns track early pandemic polling data from the Parent Institute for Quality Education, the Education Trust-West, and others. Social isolation is challenging for all children at this moment. Given that ELs are disproportionately likely to come from communities of color that have been particularly severely impacted by the pandemic—and considering that ELs are disproportionately likely to be growing up in poverty—many of these children are likely under uniquely difficult strain at this moment.

Important, If Imperfect, Solutions

As the pandemic enters its second year in the United States—and new, potentially more transmissible variants of the coronavirus spread across the country—case numbers remain frustratingly high. In some way, shape, or form, distance learning is likely to remain a large part of many children’s educational experiences through the end of the spring semester, and perhaps even into the fall.

Unfortunately, the inequities that plagued distance learning’s sudden rollout in the spring have persisted. Until schools can safely reopen for in-person instruction for all children, educators and policymakers need to find ways to make distance learning work better for their EL students—which means ensuring that all ELs can regularly attend their lessons and that they are as engaged with the material as possible.

Making Distance Learning Flexible

The first step toward better-engaging ELs during the pandemic is designing—in many cases, redesigning—distance learning to be more flexible to the needs of ELs and their families. Some ELs may be struggling to connect with distance learning because they—or their families—cannot reliably attend live instruction when schools make it available. To meet their needs, schools can convert elements of their distance learning into “asynchronous learning”—that is, learning experiences that students can access when it works with their schedules. Asynchronous learning can take many forms: teachers can record video lessons, share interactive presentation slides, assign online learning materials that allow students to practice new skills outside of school hours and submit work for teacher feedback. Its usage is also adjusted to suit the developmental levels of students of different ages. While older students may be able to begin learning new material via recorded videos, practice it using interactive worksheets or Google Docs, and then gather feedback from teachers via email or other messaging programs, most younger students will need more guidance. Some apps and online learning materials are tailored to supporting young ELs’ academic and linguistic development and can help educators find ways to provide these students with opportunities to learn outside of normal instructional hours.

Asynchronous activities like these can help address many of the foregoing challenges ELs are facing. It could allow young ELs to attend and engage their distance learning at times when their families are available to support them, or pause—or even rewatch—the lesson if needed. It also could allow older ELs to work on distance learning at times when they do not need to attend their own jobs or care for siblings.

Of course, there’s a catch: while a semester-long course built around a series of recorded lessons and online student practice may be flexible enough to meet some EL students’ needs, it would likely make it more difficult for teachers to build relationships with their students and support their engagement with the material.

Designing Engaging Distance Learning

Equitable distance learning can’t just center flexibility. It also needs to build student engagement. During the pandemic, this is particularly important: students need to connect with academic material, but they also need to know that they are part of a learning community with peers and adults who care about them. These relationships are key—students who feel disconnected from schools now will find it easier than ever to disengage and fall into chronic absenteeism.

Preserving and redesigning a role for live, “synchronous” virtual instruction may help address this challenge in a way that is especially useful for ELs. Live video calls provide key opportunities for teachers to deliver academic content, but they also allow ELs to hear and use language in an academic setting. Live video interactions also give them chances to see and connect with peers, building social connections despite the pressures and limitations of the pandemic. Language is, at its core, a social tool. If ELs do not regularly use it to communicate, their linguistic development will slow—and perhaps even regress.

Teachers on the EL Virtual Learning Forum (and in interviews) share a range of ideas for getting ELs to attend and participate in these live instructional sessions. Some describe persistent family outreach efforts—calling, texting, emailing, and even visiting ELs’ homes (while maintaining social distancing)—to ensure that students know how to connect with their school’s virtual learning platforms. Once students are able to regularly access their schools’ platforms, teachers have to find ways to draw them into lessons and conversations. Some say they play games to get students to turn on their web cameras and fully participate, like challenging students to answer trivia questions by writing answers on pieces of paper and holding them up for the class to see. Others build academic lessons around prompted conversations in breakout rooms, where students can discuss questions and academic material with small groups of peers. Some teachers say that they seek out ways to give their EL students chances to connect socially via school learning platforms—such as hosting informal lunch meetings, organizing small group conversations sessions, and even scheduling movie showings and subsequent class discussions.

Policies for Making Distance Learning More Equitable for ELs

The state of Connecticut stood out last fall when it released distance learning attendance data. Its early data suggest that ELs are disproportionately likely to be disengaging from distance learning—more than almost any other student group. While this is concerning, it is perhaps even more worrisome that other states have shared little comprehensive data on student engagement and attendance during the pandemic. According to an Attendance Works analysis, states define distance learning attendance in widely different ways. In Connecticut, for instance, to be counted in attendance, a student must be actively engaged in synchronous or asynchronous learning for “at least half of the instructional day.” By contrast, California’s definition is much looser: students may be counted in attendance if they or their families simply communicate with their school staff or teachers at some point in a given day. Other states leave these decisions up to local officials.

States should work to standardize their definitions of what counts as student attendance during the pandemic—and then share those data so that persistent inequities are visible to leadership and the public. In an interview, Hedy Chang, Attendance Works’ executive director and president, said that these data will be foundational for both the present and future of educational equity. “You’re going to have to think about how you’re going to do targeted re-engagement between now and the end of the year,” she said. But that’s just the beginning. “How are you going to support them in the summer, so that you expand time on learning? And then, how are you going to ensure really trauma-informed, tailored, specific supports that get you back to school in the beginning of the year?”

To better support ELs in distance and hybrid learning settings, states and districts should also set clearer and higher expectations for live, synchronous instruction. This should be as detailed and clear as possible, to ensure that all ELs have regular opportunities to engage directly with their teachers and peers. For instance, while California passed legislation in June 2020 to require schools to provide “daily live interaction” with students, it left significant room for school districts to interpret that as they chose. As a result, it appears that many California districts are not providing live, synchronous instruction to their students on a daily—or even weekly—basis.

Until all schools can safely be fully reopened for in-person instruction, states need to commit to defining the elements of equitable distance learning programs that support ELs’ success. Obviously, different distance learning models will make sense for different schools and communities, but states should be aggressive in requiring districts to provide minimum amounts of daily live, synchronous instruction as well as more flexible asynchronous learning elements.

These considerations should be at the forefront of education leaders’ minds this winter. As high COVID-19 case numbers and new variants of the novel coronavirus complicate efforts to reopen schools for in-person instruction, it appears that many students will attend some form of distance or hybrid learning for much of the remainder of the school year, and perhaps beyond. Those schools, districts, and states that fail to prioritize EL equity now will necessarily face steeper learning losses when in-person learning finally returns.

header image: Kindergarten teacher Maggie Peterson reaches around a safety shield while giving a reading test to a student at Stark Elementary School in Stamford, Connecticut. Source: John Moore/Getty Images


  1. Last March, as the pandemic shuttered schools across the country, The Century Foundation launched the EL Virtual Learning Forum. The forum is a free discussion space for teachers to share questions, resources, and ideas related to supporting English learners during the pandemic. If you are an educator working with ELs and would like to join, click here.