Twenty-one months have passed since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency. With a new school year underway, the United States (U.S.) public school system has not returned to its pre-pandemic baseline. Educational disparities and inequities that existed prior to the pandemic have only worsened. Especially hard-hit were low-income first and second-generation English Learners (ELs).
These students disproportionately lived with caregivers who were employed in sectors where remote work was not an option and the risk of exposure to the COVID-19 was higher. The financial limitations resulted in decreased access to reliable internet, higher absenteeism, unreliable technology to access schooling, and limited opportunities to receive tutoring to help supplement last learning. The achievement gap between ELs and their peers, which had been making slow but steady progress prior to the pandemic, widened and ultimately reversed the gains that were made during the crisis.
The full impact of the pandemic-induced learning loss is not immediately known, given that testing was suspended in 2020 and results for 2021 are still pending. Projections, however, indicate “substantial learning loss” for ELs in the lower elementary grades in English Language Arts (ELA) and Math. But even with the school year underway, stakeholders and educators must include a post-pandemic re-integration of ELs. It is time, as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona challenged educators, to “reimagine” a post-pandemic education.
Reimagining education for ELs must be aggressive and equity-driven if we hope to make gains. There is much we can do. The following supports should be considered:
- Mental Health Support. School systems should ensure that structures are in place to provide mental health supports for ELs. These students were more likely to come from homes that were directly impacted by pandemic-related deaths and experienced increased financial hardships and home displacements. Support for students should be culturally responsive and trauma-informed. Communication in the child’s primary language and cultural understanding should be part of the treatment to better communicate with the student and family.
- Accelerated Learning (Academic and English Language Development). Learning should be accelerated and focused on recouping and gaining new knowledge and skills in a short period of time. Educators should leverage technology and create opportunities for small group instruction, collaboration with general education and English Language Development (ELD) programs during content-based lessons, cross-district collaboration, and content “previews” prior to class to prepare for the introduction of new lectures. These accelerated learning opportunities will help students learn more material in less time.
- Flexible School Options. Low-income ELs disproportionality live with caregivers that work in industries where remote working is not possible. Thus, some students may have to provide care for younger siblings during school hours rather than attending distance learning sessions. Schools should provide flexible schooling options during non-traditional school hours. For example, late afternoon or evening lessons, weekend schooling, recorded lessons, and self-paced courses should be considered to accommodate students that are unable to log on durineg normal school hours.
- Access to Reliable Internet and Technology. Known as the “digital divide,” pandemic era teaching revealed that children from low-income homes lacked access to broadband internet service and were more reliant on smartphones and tablets to access their classrooms. However, such technology proved insufficient when accessing their schooling from home. Schools should ensure that all these students have access to broadband internet and reliable technology to access their academic lessons.
- Tutoring and Support. Evidence-based tutoring and support should be made available to help students access missed lessons and make gains on new content. Tutors should be able to leverage the student’s primary language, grouping with ELs with English proficient peers to practice second language skills, and developing academic vocabulary to access course content.
- Assessment and Progress Monitoring. Teachers must engage in continuous assessment and progress monitoring. Assessment with valid and reliable assessments will help teachers to determine the effectiveness of instruction. If the assessments indicate a lack of progress, curriculum adjustments can then be made In addition, regular assessment can also inform the teacher of the students that may require more intensive support like Special Education.
Though not exhaustive, the abovementioned supports should be part of the discussion regarding post-pandemic education for ELs. The pandemic’s effects on the educational system have disproportionately affected low-income Latino ELs. A conversation concerning a “new normal” in school systems for ELs must occur to help reverse the learning loss that occurred this past year.