We have now passed the half-year mark of the United States’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, and it looks more likely than ever that lockdowns, economic restrictions, and limited access to in-person education may last until 2021. The scope and duration of the public health crisis has strained everyone in the country.
And yet, as schools scramble to prepare for the beginning of the academic year this fall—be it in-person, online, or a hybrid of the two—we must face the ugly reality that the pandemic has not affected all communities equally.
Data suggest that English learners (ELs) have been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic’s impacts in the spring. Indeed, in a recent analysis of districts’ spring distance learning efforts, my co-authors and I found that the needs of ELs were frequently disregarded in California schools. This fall, schools in California (and across the country) must better prioritize these students’ needs—after all, nearly one-quarter of U.S. children speak a non-English language at home.
COVID-19 Hurts English Learners and Their Families More
ELs face significant inequities because of how U.S. schools approach linguistic diversity. But the pandemic’s inequitable impacts on ELs are also intersectional, spanning race, class, ethnicity, and nativity. For instance, more than three-quarters of ELs come from Latinx families; and a recent poll found that 1 in 10 Latinx households includes someone who was infected with the coronavirus. It also found that 54 percent of Latinx families “lost work or income…due to the pandemic.” Furthermore, Latinx individuals are three times as likely as whites to catch the virus, and twice as likely to die from it.
In addition, while most ELs are native-born American citizens, most live in households or communities with immigrant parents, caregivers, or neighbors facing unique pressures from recent changes in federal immigration policies and enforcement. Immigrant communities are particularly vulnerable to the virus, because they 1) are disproportionately likely to work in essential, front-line jobs; 2) cannot always rely on the United States’ health care system to safely provide them with affordable treatment; and 3) face uniquely intense economic precarity in this moment. During the early stages of the pandemic lockdown, ELs’ families were more likely to report facing food insecurity.
What’s more, polling and survey data suggest that ELs were further marginalized in schools’ haphazard spring distance learning efforts as the pandemic took hold in the United States. ELs’ families appear to be disproportionately likely to lack access to key learning technologies and internet connectivity that make distance learning models possible. A number of polls found that large percentages of ELs’ families weren’t regularly able to connect with distance learning, faced linguistic barriers to accessing learning materials, and reported that their children were not receiving adequate learning support.
Stepping Up for ELs This Fall
As the school year begins, educators and policymakers must do better.
Doing so starts with taking a “whole child” approach to ELs. Many of these students faced significant stress and/or trauma during the long, lonely past half-year. Schools must commit additional time, energy, and resources towards building connections and deeper relationships with ELs. This means conducting culturally competent outreach to ELs’ families in languages they understand. As they build trust, schools must actively seek to identify and meet the basic needs of ELs’ families by connecting them with community organizations who can help. An early focus on students’ holistic well-being—mental, social, physical, and emotional—is a necessary prerequisite for supporting their linguistic and academic development this year.
To repair the damage from the spring and set ELs up for academic success, schools must first ensure that students have the digital devices, internet connectivity, and online data they need to access virtual learning options. These are the basic tools of education in our current crisis. They are non-negotiable.
Once that’s accomplished, educators need to ensure that their distance learning projects include regular opportunities for ELs to speak with their peers and teachers. This is critical to their short- and long-term language development. Additionally, they must work creatively to ensure that ELs receive the language support services they are legally entitled to under federal law. In our analysis, my co-authors and I found that four in ten school districts offered minimal or no proof that they offered these essential educational services. Critically, however, schools cannot provide ELs’ language development coursework as an alternative to other instruction—they must have access to both language development services and schools’ full slate of academic offerings.
English learners make up a large and growing share of the U.S. student population. And yet, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, too many schools did not prioritize these students’ needs. This spring, the pandemic did enormous damage to these children’s opportunities to learn. In communities across California—and the country—these children are facing an educational emergency. As summer debates over in-person schooling wind down, it’s critical that educators and policymakers prioritize the needs of these historically—and presently—marginalized children.
Are you an educator working with ELs? The Century Foundation recently launched the EL Virtual Learning Forum, a free discussion space where teachers, administrators, and EL advocates can raise questions and share ideas about how to best serve linguistically diverse students during the pandemic. Click here to join.