Teachers and education experts in Connecticut are using a variety of methods to reach out to English language learners and their families, who have experienced extra challenges with remote learning.
Maribel Oliviero, the director of bilingual, ESOL and world programs at the New London Public Schools, said that when the schools were forced to go online in March, English learners, and particularly those in high school, were one of the least engaged populations.
The reasons were varied. Some students didn’t have a reliable internet connection, or their families had changed residences and weren’t receiving messages from the schools. Olivero estimates that out of 400 high school English learners in New London, about 100 were not participating consistently.
This lack of participation is not only a result of COVID. State data going back to 2014 shows that English learners, which makeup 8.3 percent of all students in Connecticut, have rates of chronic absenteeism that are 5 to 7 percent higher than absenteeism among other students.
During the early months of the pandemic, the New London district started making a greater effort to communicate with the parents of New London’s then 850 non-English speakers. Olivero would translate superintendent’s messages and powerpoints into Spanish, which is the most prevalent language among English learners in New London, followed by Haitian Creole.
The teachers tried to contact the students and their families, even stopping by their homes, and the school sent portable wifi hotspots to students who needed them. Oliviero said that since the district began the hybrid model, she hasn’t heard of any students not being present.
Yet challenges remain. In the current hybrid model, students connect with their bilingual tutors both in-person and online on the days they are not in school. For students attending the dual language elementary school, lessons in both languages are presented via Zoom.
However, Oliviero admits that the students probably aren’t getting as much time with the tutors as they would in a normal, in-person model simply because of the technical challenges. Students often have trouble logging in to the platform, she said, especially the newer students who come from countries where they have not had access to technology.
Amity Goss, director of instruction at the Old Saybrook schools, agreed that one of the biggest problems her English language learners have faced is figuring out the online platform. Students and parents forget the steps to log on, and the language barrier makes it difficult for them to navigate. Piper Deltenre, one of the ESL teachers at Old Saybrook, said she has spent a lot of time helping parents sign up for free or reduced lunch, which now has to be done online.
Deltenre said she guides parents and students through online tasks by taking pictures of each step of the process with her phone. She and her fellow ESL teacher Melissa Vasquez McCoy spent hours reaching out to the families of the 70 English learners in Old Saybrook to make sure they were engaging throughout the school shut down in the spring.
With the hybrid model, Deltenre and McCoy go from class to class to work with the students who are in-person on any given day. They also spend time working online with the students learning from home.
Deltenre said that some of her students have difficulty following lessons and keeping focused on the Zoom platform. Part of the problem is that the lesson is completely oral; where the teacher would normally write on the blackboard while speaking, the Zoom places the blackboard very far away from the student’s vision.
Yet technology, for all its difficulties, has also presented opportunities, in the form of computer-based on-demand translation. Oliviero said that New London uses CSOFT, a multilingual translation software, as well as the features on Microsoft Teams.
Goss also said that one of their teachers had been recording lessons in Screencastify videos, which can be particularly helpful for English learners who can go back and re-listen to the lesson multiple times.
Even on the in-person days, learning a second language in a pandemic presents some challenges. It’s hard to teach pronunciation when your face is covered by a mask, said Vasquez McCoy.
Oliviero said that New London is starting out the year focusing on social/emotional learning rather than academics, in order to help students cope with the stress of recent months. However, she said there have been some concerns about students falling behind. She says there are “definitely gaps” and re-teaching that will have to happen to get students up to speed from the previous year.
Gladys Labas, director of Equity and Language at the Department of Education, said that even if parents are unable to assist their children with English, they should take time to read with the child in their native language. This teaches the child syntax and vocabulary that will transfer over when the student is working on his or her English.
Labas says the pandemic has been a learning experience for the districts and teachers to see what strategies do and don’t work with English language learners. Megan Alubicki Flick, English language consultant at the Department of Education, said that teachers are collaborating more, and students are being stretched and encouraged to learn more on their own.
“They see it as an opportunity,” said Labas.