May 26, 2021
After the year-long experiment of virtual learning, many California schools are commencing in-person instruction. Throughout this imperative period, there has been intense focus on tackling equity gaps that have hindered the opportunity to learn for some of the most vulnerable students such as foster youth, low-income pupils, students with disabilities, and English Learners (ELs). And now as schools slowly welcome students back, local leaders face a new challenge: ensuring these same students, particularly ELs, actually return.
California’s immigrant communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Research indicates that Latinos are 8.1 times more likely to live in households facing higher exposure risks than White Californians (23.6 percent versus 2.9 percent), and are more than three times as likely to be infected with COVID-19. As a result, English Learner families have shown reluctance to send their children back to in-person schooling, often opting to keep their children enrolled in virtual learning rather than risk exposure. Due to the community health concerns that many immigrants are facing, educators have tapped into a time-tested strategy to prioritize re-enrolling English learners—family engagement.
When the Davis Joint Unified School District board voted to return to in-person instruction for 5 days a week, parents voiced concern with the decision. Many English Learners come from multigenerational Latino communities that were hit the hardest during the pandemic. “Families got really ill, some students lost loved ones - so it was a very real concern for them to return in person,” says Ricardo Perez, Director of English Learner Immersion & World Language Programs for the district.
Perez’s district addressed concerns by working with community liaisons and teachers to engage in meaningful family outreach. Even before the recent transition, Perez says staff was out talking to families in person, all while following safety protocol and masking up. “We conducted in-person re-enrollment, brought Chromebooks, materials, and hot spots for students,” he states. This allowed school staff to build trusting relationships with families, especially those from migrant backgrounds.
Like other school districts in California, Davis Joint Unified took measures to vaccinate their staff and coordinate transportation for families who lived in migrant communities farther away from the school. And while a majority of students and families have chosen to return for in-person classes, schools have also allowed the option of continuing remotely. “We made sure they understood all the facts and resources and made their decision as a family,” says Perez, who emphasized the importance of supporting students regardless of their choice.
Although some districts only recently resumed in-person learning, others have had more time to adjust to modified schedules that cater to heightened safety concerns. In early September 2020 for example, several districts set up ‘learning hubs’ on-site with safety measures in place. Organized by cities and school administrators, and often in partnership with local community organizations, learning hubs offered students an alternative to remote education by providing safe on-site assistance with virtual coursework.
Principal Cecilia Perez from Bahia Vista Elementary School—a San Rafael district school— says the learning hubs were an essential component of making sure that students were being given additional support. “When we first started creating the learning hubs we identified highest priority kids, those with no access to the internet and students who were having issues with (virtual) attendance.” Many of these students were English Learners. In San Rafael, district leadership also partnered with community centers and the YMCA to distribute resources to students and families most negatively impacted by the pandemic, many of whom come from migrant backgrounds.
Now that schools have more fully reopened, ELs are being provided extra in-class support and tutoring after school from their teachers. Director of Elementary Education at San Rafael City Schools, Stephanie Kloos, says educators remain committed to research-based best practices that have proven to be effective. “We prioritize small group instruction and strategies for oral language development,” she says, referring to the approach they’ve established as they return to in-person instruction.
Kloos also refers to the language-rich SEAL strategies and tools many teachers and coaches have utilized throughout the pandemic as they have transitioned from remote to hybrid, and now to a modified full day of in-person instruction. According to Kloos, it is imperative to have “connective classrooms,’ — learning spaces that provide culturally competent instruction, as well as ones that value family partnerships. Teachers are striving to create socio-emotionally supportive classrooms that engage students in hands-on learning as they return to school for the first time in over a year.
Leveraging family partnerships has always been critical to creating inclusive, linguistically and culturally affirming classroom communities. Now, more than ever, those relationships are ensuring that educators can provide the resources English Learners require to succeed. School-appointed community liaisons and social workers have spent numerous hours responding to student's needs and socio-emotional health.
As in-person instruction commences, additional classroom support for English Learners remains central to their transition back to school. Fortunately, local leaders have shown that collaboration between teachers, district leadership, and families is possible and can lay a strong foundation for the long-term successful re-integration of English Learners into the classroom.
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