Reflecting on the Diverse Experiences of Latinx Students During COVID

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New America / Fabian Ponce Garcia on Shutterstock
Sept. 16, 2022

In the early days of the pandemic, one viral image caught the attention of the nation: two little girls sitting in a Taco Bell parking lot in Salinas, California, with laptops perched on their knees. Their family lacked internet access and so the girls had to use the restaurant’s Wi-Fi in order to participate in remote learning activities.

By now we know that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted certain groups of students, especially Black and Latinx children, English learners (ELs), and students with disabilities. Nationally, ELs make up 10 percent of the K-12 student population, and of these students, 77 percent identify as Latinx. These diverse students are enrolled in every state in the country, and although Latinx students have made significant progress over the last 30 years, the impact of COVID-19 is threatening to undo much of those gains.

Earlier this year, we released a report that captures the complexity of learning conditions for English learners during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through conversations with 20 EL education leaders, the report reveals that while remote learning posed significant challenges to EL education and services, many educators improvised, collaborated, and continued to innovate throughout the pandemic to support their linguistically diverse students and families.

For example, as the digital divide between these students and their non-EL peers became clear, school leaders and educators raced to close the gap, loaning out devices, creating hotspots, and troubleshooting from wherever necessary. Beyond technological access, school staff worked diligently to provide assistance to students and families in navigating remote learning systems and technology. Teachers provided direct support to students and spent class time helping them learn how to use the technology. And many districts even utilized bilingual home-school liaisons to help families get connected and become familiar with the various learning platforms.

Once online, however, EL students still faced challenges in receiving the full scope of language instruction services. Many schools and districts lacked the necessary curricular and instructional infrastructure to provide ELs with integrated language and academic support in a remote setting. As one EL program director told us, “[It] was really hard for us to maintain the integrity of all of our programming.” Among EL students, younger learners’ educational experiences were hindered because the platforms used for remote learning were not developmentally appropriate for their age group, while older students had to balance going to school while working. Some school systems responded by adopting flexible scheduling for older ELs and prioritizing young ELs for in-person instruction.

District and school leaders shared strategies for ensuring that federal recovery funds benefited EL students, such as investing in social-emotional programs, tutoring, developing materials in different languages, and hiring bilingual staff.

There are more than 13 million Latinx students in the United States who come from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Moving forward, education leaders on all levels must acknowledge both the struggle and perseverance that shaped the educational experiences of these students during the pandemic. Latinx students, whether they are ELs or not, have considerable linguistic and cultural assets to offer our education system and hold education in high regard. Education leaders must ensure these communities are not left behind as we continue to rebuild our education system.

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Educating English Learners During the Pandemic (Education Policy, 2022): To capture the complexity of learning conditions for the English learner (EL) student population during the COVID-19 pandemic we interviewed 20 EL education leaders.

English Learner Accountability Hub (Education Policy, 2021): The English Learner Accountability Hub provides an overview of key English learner information in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

A Federal Policy Agenda for English Learner Education (Education Policy, 2022): English learners are often sidelined in federal education policy discussions, and at present an uneven approach has yielded sharp differences in ELs’ educational experiences.

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