How can State Leaders Support English Learners During COVID-19 and Beyond?

Blog Post
Oct. 26, 2020

Seven months into the coronavirus pandemic, research and reporting continue to paint a grim picture of what English Learners (ELs) are experiencing during school closures. Despite their best efforts, schools are still struggling to reach these students and their families, expand access to devices and internet connectivity, and offer ELs enough face time with teachers. To turn the corner, schools and districts will need more guidance and resources from state leaders.

Since schools suddenly closed in the spring, states have put out reopening guidance with varying degrees of focus on ELs. A 50-state review of these documents by New America found that a few states (e.g., Colorado and Washington) have shared detailed information and useful resources to help educators serve ELs and their families during remote learning, including how districts should identify and reclassify ELs remotely, best practices for supporting language development from a distance, and where to find digital tools to support ELs’ ongoing learning. But by and large, states left districts and schools to their own devices on these matters. For example, Georgia reiterated schools’ legal obligations to ELs, but provided no useful information for how they should meet them. Worse, seven states made no mention of ELs in their reopening plans at all.

These findings point to the need for states to do more. Indeed, a new report by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) stresses that states should play a “coordinating role for their school districts and ensure that they have the capacity, pedagogical support, and resources to address the needs of ELs.” Drawing from the report’s insights, here are three areas where state leaders can do more to support ELs today and lay the foundation for more equitable systems in the future:

Ensure that ELs receive equitable access to federal, state, and local funding. While the federal government still has the biggest role to play in helping schools stave off budget shortfalls that may result from the pandemic, there are a number actions states can take to target new and existing funds to support ELs and other vulnerable students. To begin with, MPI recommends that state and local EL administrators be included in budget conversations to ensure ELs are prioritized. If Congress provides relief funds to states, state leaders should use those dollars to shield high-poverty districts, where ELs are more likely to enroll, from the deepest cuts.

To further target federal relief funds to ELs, MPI suggests that states disperse dollars based on the number of special populations in a given district, if they are given the flexibility to do so. For instance, Colorado directed $510 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to districts based on their populations and offered twice the per student allotment for ELs. The state also reserved two-thirds of their Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) funds to competitive projects, with priority given to projects to support students such as ELs who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

In addition to what MPI recommends, states are also well poised to guide districts to make spending decisions that benefit ELs. For example, states should strongly encourage districts to use relief funds to increase access to wifi-enabled devices, EL specialists, planning time for EL teachers, and supplementary learning materials for ELs among other needed resources. State leaders can also coordinate resources by leveraging partnerships, such as those with technology providers to bring in devices and connectivity for ELs.

Coordinate resources and guidance to support EL instruction in all learning settings. When schools abruptly moved to remote instruction last spring, many EL teachers struggled to identify appropriate learning resources and adapt their instruction to online environments. States such as West Virginia have since shared lists of digital tools educators can use to support ELs, but it is unclear the extent to which recommended resources have been vetted for quality. Moving forward, states can lend support by vetting, curating, and disseminating a selection of digital and non-digital learning resources that support language development and content areas in all learning settings. With the input of educators, they can purchase supplementary materials to support ELs as they learn at home. Where resources are lacking, state leaders are well-poised to prompt software developers to upgrade their products and develop new ones in ways that benefit ELs.

Building on these recommendations, our work suggests that states can play a role in identifying professional development providers that can offer high-quality training on topics such as teaching and collaborating in remote settings. In coordination with other stakeholders, we suggest that state leaders develop resources that help educators continue to deploy bilingual education models in remote settings. In Ohio, state leaders collaborated with the Ohio Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages group to develop the Support Guide for Teachers of English Learners, which describes instructional strategies that teachers can implement remotely. The guide also provides suggestions for collaborating with colleagues virtually, a list of helpful technology tools, and translation services among other resources.

When it comes to determining when ELs should transition to in-person instruction, states can also do more. To date, most states have not weighed in on whether schools should re-open in person and few are actively supporting districts’ transition to in-person instruction. But states can recommend that schools prioritize ELs and other vulnerable students when they phase-in in-person instruction when it is safe.

Share guidance and tools related to EL entry, exit, and assessment procedures. Due to immense disparities in accessing remote learning, there are significant concerns that ELs are at risk of losing ground in both content and language readiness. Accordingly, states have the responsibility to share tools and guidance to help districts and schools collect critical information about ELs’ progress during school closures. MPI recommends that states share processes for closely monitoring ELs who were reclassified in spring 2020 to ensure they receive additional services if they regress in their English development as a result of school closures. In addition, procedures for EL identification and reclassification (e.g. exiting EL services) should be widely available. States should make it clear that new ELs who are provisionally identified during school closures should receive language services and be monitored until they can be formally identified under the EL label.

When it comes to year-end content area and language assessments, the federal government has stated that it will not offer exceptions this school year. States should provide direction to help local districts and schools deploy assessments safely but, perhaps most importantly, states need to explain how local districts and schools should use these and other formative assessments to make sense of ELs’ progress and determine which students will need additional resources to get back on track. In particular, MPI points out that states will need to decide how to interpret and use 2020 English Language Proficiency (ELP) test data and how to evaluate ELP results over the next few years. MPI points to California as a place where leaders have provided districts with detailed guidance on how to leverage diagnostic and formative assessments to informally learn more about ELs’ language development throughout the school year. Beyond language and content mastery, our work suggests that states should encourage districts and schools to gauge ELs’ social-emotional needs, attendance, and family engagement.

While many local teachers, school, and district leaders have gone to great lengths to meet the needs of ELs and their families during the coronavirus pandemic, they cannot do it alone. State leaders are well positioned to support districts and schools in ensuring that all schools have the resources, tools, and guidance they need to keep ELs on track.

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Related Topics
English Learners State Legislation State Funding