Report examines how well schools served English learners during spring closures

Californians Together released a report in September examining the quality of instruction provided to English learners in the state’s schools during the spring when schools were suddenly shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization reviewed 79 school districts’ COVID-19 Operation Written Reports to help local educational agencies with mid- and long-term planning based on what did and didn’t work in the spring. CSBA President Xilonin Cruz-Gonzalez, who is also deputy director for Californians Together, contributed to the report.

“It is so important for us to all take a step back and analyze the actions taken in the spring to educate all students, especially those that need extra supports such as English learners, in an emergency situation,” Cruz-Gonzalez said. “By reviewing what went right and what areas need improvement from the spring, we can build a better plan for distance learning that serves all students.”

The report, School Closures and English Learners: A review of COVID-19 Operations Written Reports, looked at six key indicators to measure how well schools were serving ELs when campuses closed. Districts were chosen based on their total number of ELs, percentage of ELs, the achievement of ELs in the 2018–19 CAASPP assessment in English language arts or mathematics (includes both high-achieving and low-achieving districts), and included a mix of small, medium and large districts.

The six indicators

Designated and integrated English Language Development: California law requires that schools provide all ELs with Designated and Integrated ELD. Evaluators looked at how well each local COVID-19 report explained the district’s plans to offer ELD services.

The analysis found that 33 percent of plans included detailed accounts of how educators offered integrated and designated ELD, but 39 percent of plans offered minimal or no explanation about providing ELs with these services.

Live interactive instruction: ELs thrive when they have frequent opportunities to develop their language skills through conversations with peers and teachers. This emerging oral language proficiency serves as a foundation for their development of written and academic language proficiencies.

“Live interactive instruction is very important for English learners,” said Manuel Buenrostro, policy associate for Californians Together, and contributor to the report. “We want to make sure that they’re getting a guaranteed amount of time of live instruction from their teachers, especially because they need that live instruction to develop language and also model language.”

More than half (56 percent) of districts’ COVID-19 written reports revealed little to no evidence that schools regularly delivered live instruction to their students. Meanwhile, 85 percent of districts offered no evidence that they provided a guaranteed minimum number of minutes of live instruction for their students each day or week. Only 12 out of 79 districts guaranteed daily live interaction in the spring.

Bridging the digital divide: Evaluators examined how well districts outlined efforts to ensure that all students had access to devices and reliable internet connectivity. In the analysis, 97 percent of districts at least mentioned addressing access to devices and internet. However, just half included following up with students to confirm access, and only one in four described a comprehensive, sustained effort to ensure access for all students.

Family collaboration: Families are critical to ELs’ success during normal times, and that engagement is heightened during the pandemic, when students are no longer in the classroom with teachers. Californians Together looked at how well each local COVID-19 report described efforts not only to communicate, but also to partner, with families in the learning process.

They found that 28 percent of districts offered no evidence that they translated communications with ELs’ families. Thirty percent mentioned translating communications, but offered no evidence of further engagement, and 65 percent did not provide evidence of engaging families in decision-making.

Social-emotional support: Many children have struggled with anxiety and stress during the pandemic and others have experienced significant trauma. Isolation and other factors that might affect students make it critical that schools focus on building relationships and supporting students’ social-emotional development.

“We were also looking at how districts provide SEL,” Buenrostro said. “It’s one thing to have a hotline available; it’s another thing to have strategies to make sure that students that need that hotline or that need that telehealth service are getting that service. We want to make sure that districts are active at getting these services out to students. We also looked to whether they mentioned any strategies for how they were integrating SEL into instruction.”

Unfortunately, the analysis found that nearly three-quarters of districts made minimal or no reference to social-emotional supports in their COVID-19 written reports.

Early childhood education: Early childhood learning opportunities were also looked at and evaluated on how well the COVID-19 report explained how educators would make early learning accessible during the pandemic. Research suggests that young ELs, known as dual language learners, uniquely benefit from access to early childhood learning. The analysis found that 41 percent of districts did not mention early childhood learning. Only four of the 66 districts mentioned early childhood learning and dual language learners together.