Children in pink and maroon jackets applaud in their classroom

A year of pandemic schooling highlights education gaps for English-language learners

Remote learning has been especially hard on students for whom English is a second language. Educators are now trying to support them and their families.

Veronica Alzaga remembers the difficult weeks her 12-year-old daughter, Marcela Gonzalez Alzaga, had during virtual learning last year. She was about to finish 5th grade in Rogers, Arkansas, when the pandemic hit, forcing her to adapt learning from home.

Teachers taught her daughter mostly via Zoom, Veronica Alzaga says, so it wasn’t a difficult transition. But that changed in middle school, where most classes were self-taught through webinars.  

“Marcela would get headaches and cry through it all.”

Veronica Alzaga, mother of 12-year-old student

“There was a point where we were up until two in the morning trying to figure out how to complete the assignments,” says Veronica Alzaga, whose primary language is Spanish. “Marcela would get headaches and cry through it all, it was tough. I didn’t know how to help her.” 

Veronica Alzaga says the school didn’t provide her with support — like tutoring or translation services — so she could help her daughter with schoolwork. 

Across the US, a growing number of children in public schools are considered English language learners — or ELL students — like Marcela Gonzalez Alzaga. These are students who speak a language other than English at home — and many are born in the US.

According to 2017 estimates, about 5 million students fall under this category, and about 3 million of them speak Spanish at home.

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Now, more than a year into the pandemic, bilingual educators and schools are rethinking their approach when it comes to how to help these students and their families.

Even before the pandemic, ELL students could face an uphill battle at school with language and cultural barriers, said Christy Moreno, the Midwest representative for the National Parents Union, a nationwide network of education advocates.

The pandemic just made the academic gap worse, she said.

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“It’s been very challenging — the communications with schools, with teachers. Now, [add to that the] layer [of] parents who speak more than one language, or who are limited English proficient parents and families.”

It’s still early to tell just how much the pandemic set students like Marcela Gonzalez Alzaga behind academically, Moreno said. But as schools return to in-person learning, Moreno wants a reckoning. 

“My hope is that we do not go back to normal, that we actually learn from our experience … because we should have been already prepared.”

Christy Moreno, Midwest representative, National Parents Union

“My hope is that we do not go back to normal, that we actually learn from our experience throughout this year and that we become better and that we prepare ourselves, because we should have been already prepared,” she said. 

But some schools did adapt and saw new ways to help non-English speaking parents, too. 

Talia Halfon is a community liaison specialist at Kansas City International Academy — an elementary school. Once the school set up laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots for students at home, teachers there saw an opportunity to offer parents more resources — like online English classes for the entire family.

“It wasn’t even a thought that we would be able to have virtual classes for families where we didn’t have to worry about child care and how we’re going to provide transportation for all of these families,” says Halfon. 

When it came to learning English, some barriers that parents faced in the past were gone. 

Halfon also did more home visits — far more than she did before the pandemic. She says the visits paid off. She could spot when families who were new to the country needed a hand. For example, she says one family did not know about changing smoke detector batteries. Halfon started carrying spare batteries in her car.  

“So, I think building these relationships has fostered a different type of communication between the school and families in a way that could potentially transform education in a really positive way,” she said.

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The key is to make sure that communication exists in the first place, said Daniel Velazquez. He’s the English learner program manager and family and community liaison at  Ewing Marion Kauffman School, also in Kansas City, Missouri. His role as family and community liaison was born out of the needs stemming from the pandemic.

“I think the pandemic has made me reflect that families are very powerful.”

Daniel Velazquez, English learner program manager and family and community liaison, Ewing Marion Kauffman School

“I think the pandemic has made me reflect that families are very powerful, families can offer a lot of support, as long as you are communicating with them in their home language,” he said.  

“So it starts with giving them a lot of information and asking a lot of questions about their needs, not making assumptions of how they can support their kids just because they don’t know English, and start from there.”

But in Arkansas, Veronica Alzaga and her daughter had a very different experience.

There wasn’t any outreach — at least not in Spanish — to parents like her. No home visits. Without that support, Veronica Alzaga said, she felt in the dark. So, when the school gave parents the option to send their children back to in-person instruction, Veronica Alzaga said she felt she had no option. She sent her daughter back to campus in October — despite the risks of COVID-19. That was tough, she said.

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But, she said that the change was worth it for her daughter.

“I saw her change completely. She’s back to smiling again.”

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