Schools must keep needs of English learners in mind when crafting reopening plans

The disruption in learning due to COVID-19 school closures has impacted all students, but when the 2020–21 academic year begins, there are undoubtedly certain students who will need additional help and resources to catch up and stay on track.

Experts and practitioners who gathered virtually for a June 9 Californians Together webinar, “Communities of Practice: Centering English Learners in the Pivot to Reopening Schools” agreed that, despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic in providing instruction, supporting English learners must remain a top priority as local educational agencies develop plans to reopen campuses in the fall.

“There’s no question that schools this fall are going to be dealing with a lot — keeping everybody healthy and safe, responding to the disruptions in learning from the spring and summer and being flexible in response to the unpredictability of the virus,” said Californians Together President, Laurie Olsen. “In the midst of all of that change and need for flexibility, the question is, how do we keep our focus on English learners and what does it really mean to centralize their needs? As we develop our reopening plans and approaches, we need to stay grounded in and committed to using the research and guiding principles of the English Learner Roadmap and use that as our anchor.”

The California English Learner Roadmap was adopted by the California State Board of Education in 2017. Unlike the state’s 1998 English Learner policy stemming from Proposition 227, which required English-only instruction for ELs in public schools, the roadmap views the education of ELs as a systemwide responsibility and recognizes the need to provide the state’s more than 1.2 million EL students with a rich and challenging curriculum. Perhaps most importantly, the policy respects the value of English learners’ primary language and culture.

Four principles provide the foundation for the roadmap — the first of which, Assets-Oriented and Needs-Responsive Schools, calls upon educators and administrators to value and build strong family and school partnerships. That first step is especially important as districts eye the likelihood of continuing distance learning at least in come capacity in the coming school year, Olsen said.

A recent survey of 1,400 families conducted by the San Diego-based Parent Institute for Quality Education found that language barriers and illiteracy were significant barriers in deciphering school messages and updates after campuses closed in March. Inadequate digital literacy skills also worsened the ability of parents to support their children in distance learning.

To foster student learning, “we have to support families as the partners we’re relying upon them to be,” Olsen said. “Parents have to be the arbiters of schedules, the supporters around using technology — and that’s a big lift for any family. But for English learner families, facing the language barrier (and) a disproportionate digital gap in access and experience with technology, this is really daunting. The success of our using distance learning and relying on online and digital technology requires that our schools mount significant support for families to play their role.”

Also crucial when developing plans to reopen school sites will be ensuring that the challenges around providing high-quality EL instruction don’t lead to the narrowing or watering down of curriculum. Olsen reminded attendees that cutting back on social studies, science and the arts in order to focus solely on core math and reading curriculum is not the way to deal with students receiving less face-to-face time with teachers. Though it will likely be difficult for schools, continuing to offer a wide range of subjects will ultimately be beneficial to children’s English language acquisition and overall achievement.

It will also be vital in the coming year that schools resist the “temptation to go with the ease of worksheets” that harken back to the days of “decontextualized skill work drills.” Such practices are not helpful to English learners, Olsen explained.

“Reopening plans should clarify, ‘students in this district, in this school, in this classroom will receive the full curriculum,’” she said. “Reopening plans also need to speak to how you’re going to track, monitor and respond to data on progress toward English proficiency, academic progress and participation (in online learning). None of this can work without adequate support for teachers and staff. That is an absolutely essential part to be planned for.”

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