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Pandemic brings unique challenges for ESL students, families

The transition to virtual learning during the pandemic has posed challenges for English learners both young and old. In public school, private ESL programs and public English classes, both adult and K-12 ESL students are struggling with their education.

mckinley middle school in boston
McKinley Middle School. Children and adults learning English at public institutions have struggled to keep up with their language classes in a virtual format. KATHERINE FEUERMAN/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Younger students in particular have difficulties adjusting to the in-home learning environment because of the distractions and lack of social interaction that help promote language learning, said Erin Chubb, ESL instructor and associate director of education services at Rian Immigrant Center.

“Technology difficulties, internet interruptions, lack of motivation,” Chubb said. “I think the children feel really isolated because they aren’t in person in the classroom.”

Diana Santiago, a senior attorney at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, works with non-English speaking parents of students with disabilities in the Latinx community, whom she said have disproportionately felt the negative effects of virtual learning.

“Latinx communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID and as a result, there are more children who are learning from home in those communities,” Santiago said. “The barriers are extensive.”

Parents of ESL students have generally had a difficult time connecting with teachers and school officials. Santiago said school districts often lag in parent engagement efforts.

“In a lot of school districts, there’s not a lot of diversity of life experiences among the staff, who are under a great deal of pressure to address the needs of students,” Santiago said. “It often leads to a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of cases where their efforts to engage with families is, in some cases, punitive.”

When it comes to adults with limited English proficiency, parent involvement in their children’s education requires document translation and interpretation at team meetings, Santiago said. When these needs aren’t met, it leaves a lot of parents “in the dark.”

Alyssa Bacon, ESL program coordinator at Action for Boston Community Development’s Parker Hill-Fenway Office, which serves English-learners over 16, said language barriers make it difficult for her adult students to help their own children navigate Boston Public Schools.

“They’re not able to help their children with homework, they’re not able to communicate with their children’s teachers,” Bacon said. “That’s definitely gotten worse as we’ve all gone remote and all been dealing with this pandemic.”

Hiring more bilingual staff and employing new strategies for reaching out to non-English speaking parents could help reduce language barriers and build trust in the virtual age, Santiago said.

“I think a lot of districts have come to recognize the value … of hiring bilingual staff for parent engagement and also for working with students who are ELs transitioning back into school,” Santiago said. “The opportunity to have people at school communicating with students in their home language could be a real protective factor against trauma.”

Bacon said family literacy is “super, super, super important” to a child’s literacy.

“I think that a lot of times, adult education kind of gets left out,” Bacon said. “If there was a little bit more attention paid to the adult education sector, it would create a more complete learning environment for the children.”

Beyond the language barrier, technology access is a major challenge across K-12 and adult education, according to Bacon.

“We’re finding too that a lot of the families that said that they had access to a device, they only have one,” Bacon said. “So now all the kids are home, the parents are home and everybody’s competing for this one device.”

Even if access isn’t an issue, lack of familiarity with technology or internet programs like Zoom are a threat to online ESL learning, according to Jenna Young, an ESL instructor at Boston Public Library.

“Someone who’s more a beginner student who hasn’t really mastered English is more likely to not have the tech skills,” Young said. “I see that more often with some of the lower-level folks who are not necessarily in an older age group.”

Santiago said at-home learning isn’t an option for some families and a lack of targeted information surrounding the coronavirus and pandemic measures has made some parents reluctant to send their kids back to school.

“It’s definitely those communities that have been hardest hit by COVID where school districts haven’t provided as many opportunities for in-person learning,” Santiago said. “Families are fearful of sending their children to school where they don’t necessarily have the connection with the school district to be able to trust … that their children are going to be safe from COVID.”

Young said the transition to virtual learning has increased attendance in BPL English classes. Bacon added that she has seen an increase in the diversity of attendees.

“There are these really amazing, amazing people out there that have so much to offer, and the only thing that’s holding them back is their language skills,” Bacon said. “If we’re able to support our immigrant population and our non-English speaking population, then we’re really supporting the community overall.”


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