Pandemic has compounded challenges for English learners 

Technology has helped to make remote instruction work for newcomers  

TWELVE WEEKS INTO our school year, I received notification that I would have a new student in my virtual ESL classroom. Amira, a fifth grader, was from Morocco and spoke French and Arabic. Over the next few days, many Google-translated emails and text messages later, I was still trying my best to communicate schedules and Zoom log-ons to Amira and her family in their native language.  

Once she was able to join my class, the challenges continued. With most of my students speaking Spanish and Portuguese, I am still figuring out what is the most effective way to communicate with my new student.  

Remote and virtual learning has been difficult for everyone. Students across the country are grappling with a larger workload, and teachers are struggling to ensure instruction is high-quality and rigorous in this environment. And while all students are adversely impacted by these new educational practices, they pose a unique challenge to our newcomer and low-level English language learners.  

Like many schools, my district transitioned to complete, remote learning last March. While many districts across the state returned to school in September using a hybrid model, my district decided to continue in a virtual-only environment. The original plan to return November 16 has recently been scrapped due to high COVID cases, and we have been notified that we will continue to teach remotely until further notice.  

While the decision is best for the safety and security of our community, I am concerned about the long-term impact on our students, particularly those who are in the early stages of acquiring English language skills. The COVID-19 pandemic has been disproportionately impacting students and families of color and those who live in low-income communities. This is mirrored in the communities that have been identified as “highest-risk” surrounding Boston, such as Everett, Chelsea, Revere, Lowell, and Lawrence. 

We also know that an achievement and opportunity gap already existed for these students before the onset of the pandemic. Many researchers and districts have cited the inevitability of the COVID slide. It’s time we question how these challenges will exacerbate these gaps even more, especially for our ELL students.  

There is no denying that the pandemic has changed education as we know it. One silver lining is that many districts have now been catapulted into the 21st century, making the necessary technological advances needed to provide effective remote instruction. More than ever, teachers, schools, and districts have had to be creative and adaptive in the way that they communicate and engage with students and parents.  

There are many great ideas on the table. Among these are the strong policies and resources that my district in Everett has created to support our English learning families and students. For example, our district made the decision to purchase LionBridge, a translation application that can be used to make parent phone calls and messages. This service provides live translation in over 350 languages. Although we have parent liaisons at the school to translate, a service like this allows teachers like me to communicate with families that speak less popular languages, like Amira and her parents.  

Our district also purchased Raz-Plus for all English language learner and general education teachers. This program has specific English language learner-leveled reader sets and lesson plans to assist with reading instruction and improve reading comprehension for students. Students can work at their own pace, and newcomers, like Amira, can continue to practice their English acquisition after school hours and on days off.  

Lastly, we have continuously distributed technology, such as Chromebooks, iPads, and WiFi hotspots to students and families. Many families like Amira’s, who are moving to the United States, may not have technology on the top of their packing list. Making sure all students have the technology and WiFi access they need is the baseline necessity for online learning.  

Meet the Author
Amira is making great progress and has quickly adapted to the online learning environment. We continue to regularly connect and communicate with her family to support them with their difficult transition. It is critical that all school districts adopt policies and utilize resources to ensure that all students like Amira are successful during this unique time of online learning.  

Kayla Scholl is a fifth-grade teacher in the Everett Public Schools and is a senior Teach Plus teaching policy fellow.