The Intersection

Homeroom with Education Leaders Webinar Recap: Supporting English Language Learners During Distance Learning

September 14, 2020

“English language learners are particularity vulnerable right now, but there are positive responses at the local level – districts, community-based organizations, and states are going beyond their usual efforts to train teachers to do distance learning for English language learners.”

-Delia Pompa, Senior Fellow for Education Policy, Migration Policy Institute


Over the past six months, policymakers, researchers, stakeholders, and practitioners have labored to understand the immediate and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on all areas of the education continuum. Education stakeholders also recognize that many of these challenges existed prior to the pandemic and have simply been brought to the forefront during this time.

States and localities have seen the burden the pandemic has placed on students and families, a burden of which has also been disproportionately placed on marginalized communities. Understanding these impacts is critical in diagnosing challenges, and an important piece in that diagnosis is communicating critical information and bringing a diverse set of perspectives to the table to grasp how individuals, communities, and sectors are affected. The Hunt Institute has worked to create those spaces for open dialogue to share ideas and develop solutions. This week, in the ninth installment of Homeroom with Education Leaders, The Institute sat down with Delia Pompa of the Migration Policy Institute, Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green of Rhode Island, State Superintendent Karen Salmon of Maryland, and State Superintendent Hanseul Kang of Washington D.C. to discuss how states and localities are supporting English Language Learners (ELLs) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

State and National Landscapes: The Impact of COVID-19 on English Language Learners


“We want schools to include ELL students in their vision for success. In DC we have some helpful legislation that requires all documents are translated into the most common languages which include Spanish, Amharic, Vietnamese, and French.”

-Hanseul Kang, State Superintendent of Education, District of Columbia


Early in the discussion, the panelists focused specifically on how the pandemic has impacted ELLs, not only academically but socially and emotionally. Opening this segment was Delia Pompa, outlining what she has witnessed from a national perspective. Pompa noted that the pandemic has impacted ELLs in a multitude of ways, as it has exacerbated academic and language loss, impacted the abilities of teachers to provide services to ELLs, and had a social-emotional impact on students and families in ELL communities. Despite these impacts, states and localities are working to serve ELLs, including prioritizing them for in-person learning. This has been seen in several districts throughout the country, including Albemarle County, Virginia.

Following Pompa’s national landscape, state education leaders discussed their states’ strategies for supporting ELL students both now and in the long-term. In Rhode Island, where 16 percent of the student population is multi-lingual, Commissioner Infante-Green noted that the state, historically-speaking, has not supported ELLs. Under the leadership of Infante-Green, the Rhode Island Department of Education has issued home-language identification surveys, established a 24-hour bilingual helpline, and required that districts prioritize bringing ELL students back to the classroom in their reopening plans. By taking these steps, the Rhode Island Department of Education hopes to gauge the learning and existing supports for ELL students, provide WiFi and devices for ELL households in need, and ensure that local education agencies (LEAs) identifying and attending to the needs of ELLs in the immediate- and long-term.

In DC, Superintendent Kang’s office is aiming to ensure that ELLs have equitable access to academic programs included within the district. Kang, serving an ELL population speaking more than 80 languages, discussed how ELLs fit into the principles her office has outlined to guide their work. The District’s primary strategies for supporting English learners are:

  • Creating continuous education guiding principles;
  • Increasing family engagement;
  • Clear policy guidance; and
  • Rigorous and meaningful professional development.


Kang spoke in-depth about core principles created in her office that can apply to both remote and in-person instructional settings – high expectations, equity in access, and family engagement. Kang noted that these principles have informed her office’s approach to serving ELL students and families, as education agencies in D.C. have worked to ensure that ELL students and families can receive the services they need without delay.

In Maryland, Superintendent Salmon discussed her state’s approach to working with ELL teachers, students, and families. Each week, Salmon’s office has been meeting with ELL coordinators from all 24 districts in the state, discussing strategies and communicating how they can best offer each other support. Additionally, the Maryland Department of Education is providing professional development on trauma-informed practices and working to incorporate community-building activities. Importantly, the Maryland Department of Education and local education agencies have done significant work in providing timely and accessible information for ELL students and families. For example, Carroll County Public Schools provided family engagement bags for ELL students and families early in the pandemic.


“We have a family engagement division because we think it is important to have people working on just this issue. We provide professional development to share things that work.”

-Karen Salmon, State Superintendent of Schools, Maryland

Solutions: How States are Helping


Delia Pompa spoke about long-term strategies moving forward, including the need to narrow the technology gap, help ELL adults improve their digital literacy skills, establish partnerships between community-based organizations and schools serving ELL communities, collect quality data on ELLs, and provide diagnostic assessments for ELLs.

Commissioner Infante-Green encourages fostering collaborative environments, noting that states and localities must get to know ELL families, provide resources in the home language, collaborate with ELL teachers to identify areas to provide the necessary supports, and ensure that learning, whether it be synchronous or asynchronous, is accessible for all ELL students.


“Teachers are collaborating throughout the state. Any curriculum needs to cater to the ELL population. Having the parent as an integral part & using teachers in different content areas as a bridge has been helpful. It’s important for our kids.”

-Angélica Infante-Green, Commissioner of Education, Rhode Island


Superintendent Salmon spoke about the importance of parental engagement, talking about how the Maryland Department of Education has a Family Engagement Division established specifically for this matter. The Family Engagement Division provides professional development to LEAs concerning parental engagement, supplying research-based programs and methods that are effective in this space.

Superintendent Kang discussed how the District of Columbia is supporting ELLs in the current political climate, emphasizing the need to create spaces for ELL students and families so they feel comfortable in sharing their lived experiences. Additionally, Kang stated that her office recommends training for educators on culturally-responsive methods to work with ELLs.

Looking Ahead: Holding Lessons Close to Heart


“It’s most important to see people as people and through relationships you begin to see underlying challenges. A lot of self-awareness training teaches people about their own feelings about race and ethnicity.”

-Delia Pompa, Senior Fellow for Education Policy, Migration Policy Institute


Towards the end of the discussion, we asked the panelists about the goals, ideas and practices that give everyone hope for the future. Delia Pompa is hopeful about how people have responded to the onset of the pandemic; Pompa is also hopeful that states and localities hold the lessons being learned during the pandemic close to heart in the long-term. Superintendent Salmon is hopeful that Maryland can get more students back in the school building sooner rather than later. Superintendent Kang hopes that the deeper connections that have been formed among educators and families can remain when in-person instruction and activities resume.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to bear a great weight on the nation, optimism and holding onto lessons learned will be key to opening the gates to a prosperous future for all. To achieve such, policymakers and stakeholders must take the lessons they have learned during this time, use them as guidance for future work, and build on those lessons in the long-term so that all student populations can be served well and have the resources and connections necessary to thrive.

Watch the full webinar below.

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