Federal COVID-19 Guidance on ELs: Better Late than Never?

Federal guidance for ELs clarifies policy mandates but lacks ideas to help shape EL instruction during the coronavirus pandemic.
Blog Post
May 28, 2020

For the first three weeks that Alba Avila delivered virtual Zoom lessons, only four out of her 15 of English learner (EL) students had the technology needed to participate—the rest got hard copy packets. When her district finally purchased and distributed Chromebooks for families in need, Avila, a fourth grade dual language teacher in San Antonio, was tasked with getting students online. She scheduled phone calls, often around busy work schedules, to walk families and students through the basics: how to turn on and plug in devices, how to find the volume button, and how to access applications.

Like Avila, teachers and school leaders across the country made the herculean move to remote learning in response to COVID-19 with no time to prepare and little federal guidance. Published two months after this frantic transition, new guidance from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) aims to clarify what schools and teachers should be doing to fulfill their responsibility to the country's nearly five million EL students during school closures.

Federal officials say schools and educators must provide “meaningful access” to remote learning during school closures, but they give schools the flexibility to determine how to provide access to these learning opportunities. If learning cannot happen online, officials call for offering “equally effective” alternatives. ED advises using hard copy packets, teacher check-ins, or tutorials. Here, their guidance is thin on details: officials do not explain what counts as “meaningful access” to remote learning, nor do they share best practice guidance for delivering instruction in an online or offline environment.

Officials also remind schools and educators that ELs, including those with disabilities, must continue to receive the supports, language services, and accommodations they received before school closures “to the greatest extent possible.” ED guidance acknowledges that these services may be different when offered remotely and suggests adjustments such as extending the time for assignments, using videos with captioning or embedded interpreting, or adopting technological solutions. Unfortunately, advocates are concerned that the wide discretion schools have to offer services to ELs during school closures will make it all the more difficult to ensure they are complying with their legal obligation to ELs and their families.

When it comes to EL testing, ED approved waivers from all states to nix ESSA-required English proficiency exam requirements for the 2019-2020 school year. Officials leave it up to states to decide if schools should test ELs in the fall. English proficiency exams, which measure ELs’ speaking, listening, writing, and reading skills, typically provide critical information that helps schools identify ELs, place them in appropriate courses, and “exit” them from EL services.

ED has temporarily waived the requirement that schools must use an English proficiency screener to identify new students who may qualify for EL services. Until they are able to deliver the formal assessment, schools are allowed to deliver a version of the assessment online or use a home language survey coupled with conversations with parents and students to determine whether these students should receive EL services provisionally.

To make decisions about where to place ELs in the fall, schools that did not complete English proficiency exams can use other performance data, while schools that did complete English language assessments may use ELs’ scores as the sole criteria. Less flexibility is offered for exiting ELs from services: ED guidance is firm that ELs cannot be reclassified as English proficient unless they have demonstrated proficiency “on a valid and reliable assessment that includes the four domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.” This guidance comes after states, such as Tennessee, passed emergency laws to allow alternative methods for reclassifying ELs.

While not required to conduct English proficiency assessments in the fall, ED guidance does stress that schools should be mindful that ELs’ performance may be negatively impacted by extended remote learning. Students who were close to being classified as proficient may now need additional support, and ELs who “tested out” of language services this spring before the pandemic hit might have to be closely monitored or even re-classified as ELs if their performance stalls significantly.

Classroom challenges

Avila shares concerns about learning loss. In her dual language classroom, students learn academic content in English and Spanish. Under normal circumstances, her students have plenty of daily opportunities to practice the four domains of language learning gauged by English proficiency exams. But supporting all four of these skills from a distance has been challenging. “So much of language development involves listening and speaking,” Avila told me. “But I feel like right now during virtual learning, so much of the focus has been on the reading and writing.”

Part of the issue is time: Avila’s district recommends that fourth grade students spend no more than 45 minutes daily participating in synchronous learning, or instruction that happens in real-time. Within this limited frame, she facilitates class discussions that give students opportunities to interact in both English and Spanish. For example, she might have students discuss the best strategy for answering a math problem. The whiteboard feature on Zoom allows her to invite students to solve these problems in written form on a shared screen as they explain their thinking. “When we are having our Zoom call, my students are not just listening to me, they’re listening to each other,” she said.

Avila’s students spend an additional two to three hours a day doing asynchronous, or independent, learning. In her classroom, asynchronous learning consists of students completing self-paced lessons through NearPod, an application that allows teachers to create presentations that integrate images, videos, quizzes, and web content. Students also use SeeSaw and Flipgrid, applications that allow them to respond to prompts or texts in video form. While these applications are helping students practice speaking, using these apps is not without challenges. Namely, because her students had not been using some of these tools with consistency before distance learning, it has been difficult to troubleshoot their use from a distance.

A prominent concern across the country is that the time ELs are spending on synchronous and asynchronous learning does not add up to enough exposure to English. Avila’s dual language classroom is a one-way program made up entirely of ELs who speak Spanish at home. While students may get Spanish input from their families, many rely on their teacher’s instruction and interactions with peers to strengthen their English.

The road ahead

While many uncertainties remain, there are a few things to consider to limit the impact of today’s coronavirus emergency on EL students. First, ELs and their families must have access to online learning. ELs disproportionately lack access to technological tools and broadband internet. While ED guidance says that hard copy packets could be “equally effective” alternatives to deliver curriculum, there is yet little guidance or research that shows how to best teach remotely without access to technology. The best approach is to ensure that ELs are not prevented from learning online alongside their peers. ED guidance states that Title III funds can be used to buy hardware and software specifically designed for ELs but not other tools and broadband. Therefore, leaders should look to provide additional funding, braid existing resources, and forge multi-sector partnerships to get ELs the computers and internet access they need.

Additionally, a school's distance learning plan should ensure that ELs are receiving the language services and support they are entitled to. ELs need well-prepared teachers, paraeducators, and specialized teachers who can offer such services in distance and blended learning models. As states move to cover funding shortfalls caused by the COVID-19 emergency, reducing access to educators should be a last resort. For ELs who fall behind, smaller class sizes and more hands-on attention will be vital.

One last critical action to consider is devising a plan to closely track ELs’ language skills and academic development. When possible, schools should assess ELs’ English proficiency in the fall in order to make informed decisions about instruction, proper course placement, and reclassification of ELs. Additional attention should be paid to ELs who have recently been reclassified as English proficient but may need to continue receiving services to make up for lost learning during school closures. All told, teachers and school leaders should aim to have a clear picture of ELs’ learning loss and robust plans to help them get back on track.

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