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How teachers are trying to reach English language learners during pandemic

Administrators at Dorchester School District Two in suburban Summerville, South Carolina, were well aware of the digital divide when they decided to give students both paper and online resources after shuttering schools because of coronavirus. But even their best efforts have some educators worried, especially those who teach English to speakers of other languages (ESOL).

Katie Crook, Newington Elementary School’s only ESOL teacher, didn’t hear back from many of the parents she texted early on. Many of her students, she said, were born in the United States and live in Spanish-speaking homes. So she tried a decidedly old-school means of communication: letter writing.

Crook began each note with a joyful “Hello!” before telling students how much she missed them. “I am so sad that school is closed and we can’t work together right now,” she wrote. “If you want, you can write me back and tell me how you are and what you have been up to. Love, Mrs. Crook.”

The veteran teacher included a self-addressed stamped envelope along with every card.

“Their lives have been totally turned upside down. There is so much goodness in school that they are missing out on. I want them to know their teachers love them and miss them and are really excited about when they get to see them again,” she said.

Crook received her first response April 9, and she was so thrilled by the correspondence that she tore it open right away.

The letter, written on a blank piece of computer paper, was just a few sentences long — it began with, “Hi Mrs. Crook, I miss you to (sic)” — but was more than enough to prove her effort was worth it.

Among the more than 55 million students forced to stay home because of coronavirus-related school closures are at least 4.9 million English-language learners (ELLs). These students made up 9.6 percent of all school-age children in the fall of 2016, the last year for which such data is available. The number has likely risen, according to experts.

By law, schools must ensure ELLs “can participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. And they must communicate with families in a language they understand.

Schools often fell short of these requirements, even before the current crisis.

Katie Crook, a teacher in Dorchester School District Two in suburban Summerville, South Carolina, wrote letters to her ELL students after she did not hear back from their parents through other means. She received her first response on the morning of April 9 and opened it immediately. Photo courtesy of Katie Crook

Tim Boals, executive director of WIDA, a group that provides educational resources for multilingual learners, worries the shutdowns will result in an even greater marginalization of those students. “I think schools are struggling now to serve all their kids, so there is no doubt in my mind that this is an issue,” he said.

READ MORE: Helping kids who are feeling isolated and anxious after schools shut down

Julie Sugarman, senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, has heard of many schools around the country having problems serving ELLs right now — sometimes even within the same district. For example, she said, one family might have materials translated into their home language while another might not.

“What I’m hearing is more along the lines of schools not having the knowledge or resources to do what they want,” she said. “It’s not neglect or forgetting these students exist.”

Even schools that manage to give all children access to devices and the internet cannot escape the fact that much of the educational software they’re using is not specific to the needs of ELL students, Sugarman said. It cannot replace the moment-to-moment adjustments teachers make every day to help these students keep up with the material.

Sandra Quiñones-Hemphill is an English as a second language specialist at the Rowland Academy, a middle school in the Harrisburg School District in Pennsylvania. She’s used Facebook and text messaging to keep in touch with her eighth graders as the district builds online resources and begins to distribute devices to those who need them. The Pennsylvania school system also has partnered with its local public television station, WITF, to offer over-the-air educational programming to children of all ages, coordinated to match what they are learning in class.

Quiñones-Hemphill likes the idea, but worries her students, many of whom live in poverty and are just starting to learn English, will only fall further behind. There is no recent historic equivalent for the current shutdowns. But if the educational loss students experience during the summer can be a guide, Quiñones-Hemphill fears this long absence will have an even bigger impact for those trying to keep up with their studies and learn a new language.

“My concern is that academically, they are already behind,” she said. “If you were to assess our entire school, we have a lot of students reading at the second grade level in the eighth grade.”

A third of the children at Skokie School District 68 in Illinois are ELLs. The district spent the last weeks of March distributing iPads and meals to students while posting fun, low-stakes assignments to its website, work that was meant to keep kids engaged while school officials developed a distance learning program.

Barbara Marler, director of English Language Services for the school system, knows her English learners, many of whom hail from Urdu-, Spanish-, Arabic- and Tagalog-speaking households, will likely backslide during the break. But she’s more worried about their mental and emotional health.

“I think it’s triggering for refugee and immigrant families,” she said. “Here they are in a new country and everything is turned upside down and restricted. I think that’s unnerving. And, so, if they were to slide a bit back in their English proficiency, I don’t know that’s necessarily bad. When things get back to normal, we can accelerate the growth as long as we take care of them right now.”

Her district will not cover all the material it normally would, but has instead developed activities that can be done at home. Grading will shift to a “pass” or “incomplete” model.

“Our intention is to do no harm in the feedback we give,” Marler said.

Ehsanullah Ehsan of Modesto, California, whose family came to the U.S. as refugees in 2015, is desperate for his youngest son to retain his English skills.

Ehsan hadn’t heard much from his child’s school when he decided in late March to give the boy an assignment of his own, asking 12-year-old Yonus to read and summarize one of his older brother’s college essays.

His father finally picked up a packet of assignments from Yonus’ school on April 3.

“It’s good material,” Ehsan said in a call from the school’s parking lot. “All we have to do as a parent is enforce it.”

He’s had less luck with the school’s online offerings.

“When I picked up the package, they said that my son should be receiving online instruction through his email account,” he said on April 8. “But now his account has been locked. He can’t log on. I called them yesterday morning and left them a voicemail but haven’t heard back from them yet.”

READ MORE: Stuck at home with young kids due to the coronavirus? Here’s what to do—and not to do

Julie Perron, director of equity and dual programs at Walla Walla Public Schools in Washington state, said her district is sensitive to the needs and fears of the immigrant community, including those who might be hesitant to reach out because of their citizenship status, among many other possible factors.

Her staff has spent weeks building an informal yet extensive phone tree meant to help maintain contact with their ELL families, who may be displaced during the pandemic. She’s expecting some kids might move in with relatives if their parents are exposed to the virus at work, or that the economic crisis could force others to relocate if they can’t afford rent.

“Our Latino families are very family-oriented,” Perron said. “Somebody knows somebody who knows somebody and we take those connections very seriously.”

If a family within the immigrant community leaves one of her staff a distraught message, she said, they’re called back almost immediately and are asked if anyone else they know shares the same concern.

Some educators who work with ELLs have been pleased to discover technology they were already using has been helpful during the school closures. Pamela Broussard, who teaches new arrivals at Cypress Falls High School in Houston, serves students who have been in the United States for less than six months. She had already worked hard to build stronger connections with families using, among other tools, the TalkingPoints app, which translates messages between sender and receiver.

“Families are used to talking to us regularly,” she said.

Two of her students who work for a cleaning company that services a local Home Depot recently sacrificed their lunch break to sit in on a lesson they accessed through their cellphones. Broussard appreciates their dedication.

She uses one of Aesop’s Fables to reinforce the notion that they should focus on their studies during the shutdown so they may be prepared for next school year.

“I talked to my kids about the grasshopper and the ant,” Broussard said, “how we are the ants, how we are going to work hard now.”

Taniuska Worsham, who teaches ELLs at Pinnacle Charter High School in Thornton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, felt ahead of the curve when schools were shuttered. She’s been using Google Classroom, an online resource meant to help teachers manage students’ coursework, since September 2018.

Ehsanullah Ehsan of Modesto, California, is desperate for his youngest son, 12-year-old Yonus, to retain his English skills — so much so that he decided in late March to give the boy an assignment of his own, asking him to read and summarize one of his older brother’s college essays. Yonus, who passed his initial weeks at home playing video games, promises to tackle the work that has come since. Photo courtesy of Ehsanullah Ehsan

Worsham, who teaches mostly Spanish speakers, held her first online meeting two weeks after her district was shuttered. Nine of 12 students in the class logged on. Worsham tried hard not to cry when she heard their voices in what was their first official day of school since the closures. “I felt a little of my family was back,” she said.

Her students were just wrapping up the graphic novel “Maus” when school closed. Worsham asked them to finish the book and to identify some of the Holocaust story’s themes, easing students into the lesson by using a far simpler tale as an example.

“Let’s use ‘The Three Little Pigs,’” said Worsham, sitting in front of a map of the United States on what was her students first day of online class, her ears covered by oversized headphones. “What comes to mind when you think of that?”

“Friendship,” one of her students said.

“What else can I think of when I think of ‘The Three Little Pigs’?” Worsham pushed.

“The wolf?” another student offered.

“Yes, of course!” Worsham said.

She explained that the theme is also about working, family and patience, and how the pigs turned to one another for help when they were in danger much like we are turning to our own loved ones in response to the global crisis.

“The theme is the message of the story,” Worsham said. “But it’s bigger than the story because I can apply it to my life.”

In addition to her lesson, Worsham reminded students to let her know if they need food or have trouble accessing computers or the internet. “Don’t feel shy about any of that stuff,” she said, adding, with a laugh, “I’m like your online mom now.”

This story about ELL students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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