Districts and schools across the United States faced an abnormal and challenging set of decisions this fall: Would there be a full return to school in-person? Would instruction be strictly online, or in a hybrid format? Should certain learners, like English learners (ELs), special education students, or the youngest students be prioritized for in-person learning?

The comprehensive instability and uncertainty of our present situation haven’t changed the core responsibilities schools have for supporting ELs—a fact underscored by the educators participating in TCF’s EL virtual learning forum. In this commentary, we share some key insights from our forum members. First, EL students uniquely benefit from early, strong, and regular educator efforts to connect and engage with their families. Second, these students and their families bring diverse strengths to, and fulfill crucial needs for, their schools. Educators need to meet them and their families where they are. Third, to do this work well, teachers need adequate support.

Making Initial Connections with EL Families

Now more than ever before, schools can’t effectively support ELs without partnering with their families. This is true to some degree for all students; but research suggests that such connections are particularly important for ELs’ success. And yet, warns Dr. Christina Budde, an assistant professor in the University of Delaware’s College of Education and Human Development, teacher preparation programs do not usually teach pre-service teachers how to engage with these families. To that end, Budde encourages her teachers to engage EL families who have had several years in a school to work with new families to explain services. While new teachers may not always know who the more established families are in the community, this practice can help them make those initial connections and work with their colleagues in their school to connect with their students’ families. Dr. Budde talked about the importance of new families having another connection and ally in the community beyond just the teacher, particularly if the new family has recently immigrated to the United States.

Maya de Jong is a new teacher starting her version of that project. De Jong is in her first year as a tenth grade chemistry teacher at a public charter school in Alamo, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, in a school with a majority EL student population. She teaches once a day—a group of 100 students—including her homeroom of twenty-five students. De Jong and the other grade-level content teachers attend each other’s classes to observe and keep the students focused, but she says that it’s still challenging to get to know every student.

De Jong, who has never taught in an in-person context—the pandemic interrupted her inaugural teaching year—described herself as a “blank slate” for teaching. She has a morning meeting with her homeroom students, particularly the ones that show up (virtually) a few minutes early to chat, but notes that some of her students don’t regularly log in to join class. She also noted that the students who aren’t logging in to her class are the same ones that don’t log in to any classes. So de Jong works with her school administrators to connect to these families.

Rachel Miller, an instructional coach and former elementary ESL teacher in Salem, Massachusetts, says that many of her ELs’ families have multiple children, so their parents are navigating different schedules and relationships with several different teachers. In some cases, parents had a relationship with one of their children’s teachers, and might be getting key information from this teacher regarding technical tips for e-learning, or information on community resources, for example. Miller notes that parents who had strong relationships with their students’ teachers before the pandemic were better positioned to transition to the virtual platform because they had an established communication with the teacher when they transitioned to a virtual platform in March.

Just a few minutes before or after class to talk casually—even virtually—can help students and teachers feel connected and comfortable asking questions or getting academic support as needed.

Teachers and their school support systems including family engagement coordinators, school counselors, and administrators can work together to understand the relationships with these families and ensure that they have positive relationships and communication with school staff. This year, the school platform is different, but teachers are using creative ways to connect with their students and establish these relationships with them. Just a few minutes before or after class to talk casually—even virtually—can help students and teachers feel connected and comfortable asking questions or getting academic support as needed.

Meet Families Where They Are

But educators can’t connect and engage with families unless they figure out how to best reach them. Last spring, Miller offered the same Zoom class three times a day so her kindergarten EL students could get on at a time that worked with their families’ schedules. She also worked with the families of her first-grade students to be certain that the class schedule she was offering would work with the families’ responsibilities.

Marie Bouteillon, an education consultant and former teacher who currently supports about 250 teachers nationwide with their instructional practices, says socioeconomic status affected teachers’ efforts to reach families. For instance, it’s easier to work and engage with families in schools where learning technology access is not a problem, but lots of families do not have that privilege. Bouteillon noted that, according to her work with teachers, in many schools, families’ technology questions started with basics, including how to open an email account, search the internet, open and use cloud storage programs, save or upload a document, or pin a video.

At one school, she said, when students came to pick up lunches, parents could stop by a technology support table staffed by school personnel and get virtual learning tips on how to create an email account, or log on to devices, for example. Another example Bouteillon offered was that some teachers knew parents are well-versed in WhatsApp, so they posted virtual learning videos there. Meeting families where they are in these ways is a hallmark of effective schooling in 2020.

Supporting Teachers

But teachers shouldn’t have to conjure up effective communication lines and partnerships with ELs ad hoc, on the fly, and on their own dime. They need time and resources for this work, or instruction will suffer.

An example of a meaningful teacher support program came from Rachel Miller, who described how, in the spring, her district prioritized English as a Second Language (ESL) services for new EL students, and she did small group meetings with newcomers and grade-level teams. Her district is creating a family ambassadors program to connect hard-to-reach families with a family speaking the same native language. After a spring focused on connecting families with resources, she hopes to shift to language and academic instruction.

When pandemic closures started in March, Bouteillon noted new levels of anxiety in the teachers she supports. Teachers’ preparation time for switching to distance learning differed dramatically across the country. In Georgia, for example, where Marie lives, there was no planning time, whereas New York City established a two-week planning period. Virtual learning is challenging: teachers are often working without the classroom resources and materials on which they previously relied in order to sustain instruction. Furthermore, teachers often had limited ability to live-stream or record lessons because of limited access to technology. In some high-performing districts, teachers did not have video on their computers, but there wasn’t talk about providing them access to technology, or purchasing document readers for them.

De Jong, the new teacher in Texas, says that her school uses a complicated virtual learning platform. Her students have to log out to go to a break out room and enter a different one, and some students don’t sign back in. Schools continue to struggle to close digital divides, so some students still lack access to learning technology devices, adequate internet connectivity, and/or sufficient data. Because of the equity issues that develop from disparate access to technology, de Jong says the state education agency is pushing a return to in-person instruction. De Jong worries about rushing this return, noting that the loss of a parent would have a far greater impact on a student than the loss of instruction. Nonetheless, de Jong and her students are scheduled to return to in-person instruction on October 5.

Dr. Budde is trying to transition to virtual environments. For teachers in training, gone (for now) are in-person observations, student teaching, and planned meetings with mentors. Instead, they have to learn to navigate the classroom virtually, which brings its own challenges, but also provides an opportunity to learn how to face obstacles when things don’t go as planned. Dr. Budde described these as “teachable moments:” If you were teaching in your own classroom, what’s your backup plan when the technology doesn’t work?

Teachers deserve a range of support—time, technology, resources, and more—that help them help their ELs succeed.

Many teachers have responded to the pandemic with hard work and creativity under challenging circumstances, but effort won’t be enough this fall. Teachers deserve a range of support—time, technology, resources, and more—that help them help their ELs succeed.

The School Needs to be the Village

Indeed, teachers have taken on many roles during this pandemic. Even though Miller’s school had family engagement facilitators—with over 550 students and at least 100 EL students—teachers still found themselves becoming liaisons and the translators for families. ESL teachers like Miller wanted to help, but there are simply not enough hours in the day. Miller hopes the family connections and routines she helped create in the spring will allow her to focus on instructional goals with the students this fall.

The message for this school year is clear: teachers need systems to help them reach these families so they can focus on their relationships with students and instruction to keep these learners engaged. After all, that’s what EL students need, whatever the learning platform: teachers who can spend their energy working with them to provide the best possible education.

Editor’s note: information about the timeline for returning to in-person instruction was updated on October 22, 2020.