Virtual schooling poses extra challenges for English-language learners

The World
Hossanna Pacheco, bottom left; her mother Mireya Pacheco, top left; sister Mireyari Pacheco; and sister Nefthali Pacheco at their home in Los Angeles.

On a warm morning back in June, Hossanna Pacheco stared excitedly at her computer screen. The Los Angeles 11-year-old was achieving her first educational milestone — graduating 5th grade — and she was doing it over Zoom. 

This week, like hundreds of thousands of students across Los Angeles, she started school from a Chromebook in her living room. 

Hossanna is excited to be in middle school. But her mom, Mireya Pacheco, is not as excited.

“I’m worried,” Pacheco said. “I don’t know how we will do it.”

Virtual learning was a challenge in the spring, and more so for students learning English as a second language. In the upheaval of the pandemic, many of these students did not receive the required language services to help them achieve English proficiency.

“As a mom, I was so frustrated,” Pacheco said. The family speaks Spanish at home. Two of the Pacheco girls, Mireyari, 17, and Nefthali, 9, have both achieved English proficiency, but Hossanna has not. Pacheco struggled to help her daughter with schoolwork in English and didn’t get much support from her school.

Pacheco immigrated from Mexico 19 years ago, and her three US-born daughters are enrolled in LA public schools. The family has many challenges. When the pandemic hit, their income disappeared. Pacheco’s husband lost his job at a local car wash where he worked full-time. The family scrambled to get up-to-date devices so the girls could participate in school, and their Wi-Fi couldn’t sustain three students using Zoom simultaneously. 

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The Pachecos were not alone. Many California students did not have the same tech access to participate in online learning as they would in a physical classroom. 

Technology is one hurdle for the Pacheco family. Another is sorting out how to help the kids with their classwork. Mireya Pacheco and her husband, don’t speak much English, though Pacheco supervises the school day. It falls to 17-year-old Mireyari to help Hossanna with reading and writing in English.

“It’s difficult for her to learn English,” Mireyari said. 

There are an estimated 5 million school-aged English-language learners (ELL) nationwide, and California is home to over 1 million. Under federal law, schools are supposed to provide special instruction so they learn English faster. Much is at stake if a student falls behind due to limited English proficiency: It can affect school performance, college attendance and job opportunities. But the pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for schools providing that instruction — and the burden has fallen on parents who often don’t have the language skills to help their children.

English-language learners are a diverse group. In California, about 44% of children speak a language other than English at home, and some don’t have anyone at home with whom to speak English at all. Others, like Hossanna, speak English but struggle to read and write it. 

“[I] mostly need help with math and English,” Hossanna said. “I have my sisters to help me.”

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Eventually, ELL students are expected to have learned enough that they can stop receiving extra help. Hossanna’s mother, Mireya Pacheco, said her daughter was almost at that point when the pandemic hit. 

“My daughter was receiving tutoring before the pandemic from a very good teacher [at school]. But after COVID[-19], she didn’t get a single service to help her with English.”

Mireya Pacheco, mother

“My daughter was receiving tutoring before the pandemic from a very good teacher [at school]. But after COVID[-19], she didn’t get a single service to help her with English,” Pacheco said. 

In the upheaval of the pandemic, many parents in California reported their children did not receive the English-language tutoring to help them keep up, according to Education Trust-West, a California-based education research and advocacy nonprofit. 

In another survey of 300 families by Los Angeles parent advocacy organization Families in Schools, 70% responded they didn’t feel this spring’s virtual classes addressed the needs of ELL students, said Sandy Mendoza, director of advocacy.  

In LA schools, more than 90% of ELL students come from Spanish-speaking families. Many parents are trying hard to advocate for their children during the pandemic, Mendoza said.

“Parents were trying to bring forward some of the concerns and a lot of that doesn’t feel like it was heard because they weren’t included in the conversation,” she said. 

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It’s not the first time California has left its ELL students behind. In 2013, schools in California admitted they did not properly serve 20,000 English-language learners, and the California Department of Education failed to take action, said civil rights attorney Anurima Bhargava, then-chief of the Justice Department’s educational opportunities section during the Obama administration.

The 1974 Equal Educational Opportunities Act, which requires public schools to “take appropriate steps to help English learner students overcome language barriers and participate meaningfully and equally in school,” Bhargava said. Under the law, schools have a number of obligations to ELL students, Bhargava added. 

Now she worries these students may be forgotten again, this time due to the distance-learning environment. 

“When a population of students like English learners doesn’t have the opportunity to participate meaningfully and equally in school, it is a civil rights issue.”

Anurima Bhargava, civil rights attorney

“When a population of students like English learners doesn’t have the opportunity to participate meaningfully and equally in school, it is a civil rights issue,” she said.

Though there are plenty of challenges to distance learning, there are some pluses, too, said Veronica Aguila, who runs the English Learner Support Division at the California Department of Education. For one thing, students can access online translation in real-time. Also, Zoom lets a teacher split kids into groups based on educational areas they need help. 

“If you’ve seen a classroom where there is math teaching and you have students but a few of them are English learners, you have the ability in Zoom where you can have that one-to-one with a student, or small group instruction,” Aguila said. 

At Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, the Los Angeles charter school where Hossanna attended, director of the upper grades, Karen Muehlberger, was honest: “The spring really knocked everyone for a loop.” 

Her staff spent the summer preparing, and Muehlberger said her ELL students will be receiving targeted teacher attention, daily, over Zoom.

“We will be having 40 minutes of face-to-face learning, direct instruction,” she said. 

Mireya Pacheco hopes that school officials will follow through and prioritize students like her daughter Hossanna. 

“The truth is I feel frustrated,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like schools are not really giving students what they need. They focus more on the kids who are doing much better, and I don’t think that is fair.”

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