May 08, 2021

COVID presents challenges to ESL students

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Whether they are receiving their education at home through technology or physically present in the classroom, many students learning English as a second language are facing more challenges while learning during the COVID-19 pandemic than their peers whose first language is English.

Some English language learners already are working on adapting to a new culture and new people after arriving here through immigration. Some have parents who speak only their native language, and others are adapting to using technology for the first time.

Sandra Almazan, bilingual teacher at M.J. Cunningham Elementary in Joliet Public Schools District 86, said the transition to remote learning was a little overwhelming at first.

One problem was difficulty understanding students online. Almazan said that when she has trouble understanding a student’s question, she will ask the student to type it in a chat room.

“I think this is really working,” she said. “They are problem-solving their way through this.”

When the district begins in-person learning in January, she said it might take some getting used to, especially for the ELL students to hear the distinct sounds of the English language through a mask. Some teachers might be able to wear clear shields, she said, which will make it easier for the students to see their teachers’ mouths moving.

Almost half of Cunningham’s students are ELL – predominately Spanish speakers, but also Portuguese speakers – and things are going well, Principal Luis Gonzalez said. The teachers even take time after school to address their students’ needs, and their office staff has been doing a good job of fielding technology questions from the parents.

“We have a phenomenal office staff,” he said, “and I’m confident to say that our parents are in a great place in terms of remote learning.”

Marie Stover, director of special services at Morris Elementary School District 54, said the biggest challenges for her school’s younger ELL students has been learning to use the computers and education software.

“Our youngest learners also have the shortest attention spans, and presenting lessons virtually can be difficult,” she said.

The challenge for some of the school’s older ELL students involves keeping up with navigating the expectations of remote learning.

The district’s students currently are learning either in a fully remote setting or in a hybrid of remote and in-person schooling. About 120 students are in the school’s ELL program.

Stover said that at times, the families can be overwhelmed with learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the staff members are working diligently to meet their needs.

“[The staff members in] our ELL department are rock stars,” she said. “We are very fortunate to have two ELL instructors as well as four bilingual assistants to support the students and families.” They also check in with their students and families in person, paying special attention to the stresses they might be under. It’s important to make sure they are as mentally safe and healthy as possible, she said.

“Our No. 1 priority is dealing with the stress that they are feeling,” Stover said.

According to an article in the June 19 edition of Education Week, a news organization that covers K-12 education, “In the current climate, it is critical that ELLs continue to make academic progress and receive social-emotional support from their teachers, along with their English-only peers.”

The Morris school allows opportunities during the day for “brain breaks,” and students are able to have nice peer-to-peer interaction then, Stover said.

District 54 ELL teacher Linda Larson said they hold groups or individual sessions in the afternoons for those who need additional help or to answer questions.

“We are taking it one day at a time,” Stover said. “Everything has changed so quickly. ... We are making sure we have access to the best resources and support that we have for them.”

Minooka Community High School has about 13 students who use the ELL services the district offers, said Jeff Easthon, a Spanish teacher and chairman of the World Languages, Art and Music department.

Easthon said some of those students face extra challenges during this time and need support.

The district’s two schools have been operating remotely and are starting a hybrid setup this week.

“If their parents don’t speak English at home, then it’s going to be much more of a challenge,” Easthon said.

He said they have a good team of guidance counselors and an ELL teacher who keep an eye on the students’ grades. The district has begun an in-building pilot program for those who are struggling at home.

ELL students who return to the classroom are probably going to need a bit more consideration from their teachers, he said, especially when the teachers are wearing masks.

Easthon also said the district is going to do its due diligence to reach out to its ELL students who are learning at home to make sure they get what they need.