A Spanish speaker originally from Mexico, Luna uses Google Translate on her phone and, when she gets stuck, asks her daughter to translate instructions and emails from teachers. “To be honest with you, it has been difficult for me because of the language more than anything,” said Luna, whose daughters attend a school in North Las Vegas, Nevada. “My husband does speak the language a little more, and when he comes home from work, he is the one who gives me the most support with the girls, but since I have not worked and have only been at home, I do not speak the language as well."
The shift to distance learning has created unique challenges for English language learners and their parents, who are tasked with keeping them on track despite their own struggles and lack of familiarity with the educational system.
There were more than 4.8 million English language learner students in public schools in 2016, nearly a tenth of total enrollment, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Education statistics. While some teachers are taking extra measures to help them, there is concern these students will be left behind the longer schools are closed during the pandemic.
Obed Acosta, a 10th grade student in Baltimore, has only lived in the U.S. for a year and is now trying to figure out assignments on his own since his high school closed. An after-school program organized by an advocacy group for Latinos and immigrants provides some assistance, but his parents are not in a position to help.
“They would like to help us with our studies, but it is very difficult for them because of the language," Obed said. "They can maybe understand it speaking it, but if they have to read something, they don’t understand it perfectly well.”
At home, he watches movies with Spanish subtitles to improve his English. And despite his own limited skills with English, he helps his younger brother and sister understand their assignments. Compared to teachers of mainstream students, more teachers of English language learners had already cited students' lack of home internet access as a barrier to using technology, according to a 2019 U.S. Education Department report. And in some cases, programs designed for English language learners are not even available through online instruction.
Still, teachers have devised some strategies to overcome language barriers. Sofia Halpin, a language arts teacher at a Denver school serving a large immigrant student population, joined a new program this year that pairs English-speaking teachers with co-teachers who ensure lessons are available in Spanish. As the school prepares to launch online learning on April 7, Halpin and her co-teacher are planning assignments in both languages — for her students, and for their parents.
“A lot of my students are totally fluent in English, but their parents aren’t and their parents might be the people that they want to go to for help with assignments,” Halpin said. “So they need to be able to understand what that work is, too.”
But Halpin knows the challenges won’t end there for families learning their way around the school system, especially those whose time at home is limited by work in service-area jobs considered essential.
“I imagine that communication between teachers is going to be rough for some of these families," she said. “They may not feel comfortable reaching out to teachers who haven't made themselves available already in a language that they're more comfortable with or teachers who they aren’t already familiar with.”
The school closures threaten to worsen the phenomenon known as “summer slide,” in which students lose academic ground while away from school. Research shows language acquisition also can slip if English language learners spend the summer speaking a language other than English at home, said Joshua Lawrence, an educational researcher who studied the trajectories while at the University of California, Irvine in 2012. He said the findings are concerning for students now facing extended time away from school.
On a recent morning, George Barcenas looked out his office window in Santa Rosa, California, in time to see students arriving to pick up breakfast and lunch to take home. The technology director for the Bellevue Union School District, Barcenas said the immediate goal has been meeting students’ basic needs while the district works on a long-term plan to continue learning.
In the meantime, students in the district where 91% are people of color — the majority, Hispanic — went home with packets of work. Barcenas took to social media to spread the word about the Google Translate app, which uses the phone camera to scan text and displays an onscreen translation, to help students and parents who may be struggling with the provided schoolwork.
“We’ve (typically) done a pretty good job of having everything translated,” Barcenas said. “But at the point that we’re at right now, we’re handing out packets and we have to find a way to help them. So this is a quicker way for them to be able to understand, ‘This is what’s going on. This is what the teacher is asking for.’”
Garcia Cano reported from Washington. Thompson reported from Buffalo, New York.
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