The Intersection

Supporting English Language Learners

October 12, 2020

The Challenge

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted an unprecedented crisis in educational equity across the nation. Policymakers and education leaders worked to quickly implement remote learning during the spring of 2020, but the challenges and obstacles in doing so equitably were immense. Now, as students begin a new academic year, educators are working to meet the many unique needs of students following a prolonged closure of schools and ongoing effects from the pandemic.

In addition to concerns about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 broadly on immigrant communities in the United States, there are concerns that the rapid shift to remote instruction has left the nation’s English Language learners in a precarious position. With nearly five million English learners enrolled in public schools in the United States, English learners are one of the fastest-growing demographics in the United States. This student subgroup is incredibly diverse and has a broad range of educational needs, with 90 percent of English learners enrolled in language instructional programs.

There are a number of challenges facing English learners, and it is imperative that state and district officials ensure general academic content and specialized instruction are appropriate and accessible. Home language differences may limit the ability of families of English learners to engage in and support remote learning. Additionally, remote learning brings challenges in administering standardized assessments which are used to determine the level of English language mastery among English learners and recommended frequency and model of delivery of direct English Language intervention.

Federal Guidance

On May 18, 2020, the US Department of Education published new guidance for schools serving the nation’s English learners during the coronavirus pandemic. This high-level guidance requires schools to provide English language support “to the greatest extent possible,” and allow English learners to  “participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs.”  However, schools have often fallen short of these requirements, even before the COVID crisis. This high-level guidance provides an opportunity for states and districts to develop policies, procedures, and processes to ensure that the needs of English learners are met through remote learning and accommodated in-person learning.

Policy Considerations

To address and support the unique needs of English learners and their families, policymakers must engage with school and district leaders to ensure there is equitable access to high quality instruction.


English language proficiency assessments guide instructional decisions and provide benchmarks for the evaluation of school programs and the distribution of school funding. Given the challenges that exist in administering tests via remote instruction, states should consider how to interpret and use 2020 English language proficiency assessment data and how to fairly evaluate results that drive decision-making regarding provision of services for English learners.

Due to large gaps in information and access to technology, many English learners have already fallen behind during this period of remote learning. Evidence suggests that if in-class instruction does not resume until January 2021, students are likely to lose three to four months of learning if they receive average remote instruction, or seven to 11 months with lower-quality remote instruction. Given the additional challenges faced by English learner students, they are likely to lose far more. In addition to summative assessments, increased formative assessment, and data collection during these unprecedented times are necessary to better understand which specific services best support learning for English learners, and what gaps in academic knowledge may require direct intervention.

Barriers to Access and Instruction

Evidence suggests that English learners are more likely to need technological devices and internet access. State policymakers should consider making investments to ensure all students have access to devices and internet connectivity, and ensure that English learners are specifically engaged in device distribution. Additionally, multilingual families might face technical issues due to a digital literacy divide that affects many immigrant and low-income communities. Hotline and drive-up technical support in various languages can be implemented to provide multilingual families with a reliable support system for students. Investments in digital resources would provide English learners with online learning tools to benefit their academic learning, however, districts should also push for the distribution of technology-free learning tools such as books, learning packets, and educational games which can be distributed through the mail.

As schools shut down in the spring, many lacked the ability to provide adequate remote learning for English Learners. Given the prolonged closure of schools coupled with the unique challenges English learners face, this student group should be prioritized by investing in assistive technology, providing live teaching as much as possible, and ensuring that English Language educators and general educators have time to jointly plan ways to support English learners during regular education classes. In a virtual learning environment, districts should prioritize professional development opportunities for staff that include a focus on English learners. Professional development would present educators with resources to support clear communication and academic instruction for English learners.

Communicating and Connecting

English learners, like their peers, have lost a large portion of instructional time due to the rapid shift to online learning caused by COVID-19. However, data indicates that the digital divide amongst underserved students, including English learners, has led to a large loss of contact with many of these students. English learners should be prioritized for communications and outreach to ensure engagement in school and that adequate resources to ensure a family’s basic needs are being provided. Investments in digital resources would provide English learners with online learning tools to benefit their academic learning. Various resources are being offered to English learners and immigrant families to facilitate engagement.

Additionally, districts should ensure school communication materials are provided in all major languages spoken by English learners via platforms most accessible to parents and students. English learners are likely to speak a different language at home, with limited resources to interact with English speakers. With families playing a larger role in supporting learning at home, districts should draw on existing resources to create outreach plans to improve contact  and facilitate strong communication with the families of English learners. Partnerships with trusted family liaisons, community partners, teachers who provide instruction to English learners, and school/district translators can serve as bridges to connect students.

← Click to access The Hunt Institute COVID-19 Resources & Policy Considerations Page


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