Over the course of two months (from April to May 2020), Californians Together asked over 650 teachers and administrators to provide details about their schools’ distance learning plans, focusing particularly on how they served English learners (ELs). This survey reveals the limits of that patchwork response to the emergency — and indicates key lessons for schools’ reopening this fall.
By Jorge Cuevas-Antillón, San Diego County Office of Education
Assumptions about distance learning as a means for learning need tempering, per the reality of inequities that exist across the country and within Californian communities. Even before the pandemic forced schooling at home, about one in seven students did not have a high speed internet connection. In the state's suburban and urban high poverty neighborhoods and in most rural areas, distance learning is either unreliable, at times inaccessible, or even completely impossible for far too many families.
Due to the confluence of poverty and language learner status, often English learner students find themselves outside the loop of educational support offered by schools and districts during the COVID-19 crisis. Even within the same zip code or neighborhood otherwise showing a high percentage of distance learning participation, English learners may have dropped out of the monitoring of their schools, especially students who are additionally homeless. Consequently, teachers and administrators should take steps to ensure more equity among families which may have less access to resources for distance learning.
- Call often to offer listening and caring
- Refer families to low cost or sometimes free (family-safe) internet options and computers, such as Internet for All Now and Computers for Classrooms
- If it comes up, share phone numbers and physical addresses of organizations offering resources for:
- Immigrant and refugee assistance, such as this guide from the State of California, this one from the California Department of Public Health and this guide about Public Charge from Protecting Immigrant Families.
- Meals and food pantry distribution location, such as this one.
- Check in with your local district office or county office of education for other referral information for families in crisis, such as this guide from CDE, this and this resource from San Diego County Office of Education.
Distance Learning Access Support
- Map out wifi hotspots but recognize the viability and limitation of them
- Consider tapping WhatsApp for lessons, such as using recorded audio to teach vocabulary
- Create transcripts of otherwise video-only content, such as utilizing Google Docs “Voice Typing” to record, enabling student audio access and transcript reading access, rather than replying on video
- Build around content available from public television stations or local newspapers, or partner with them to develop ideas, like vocabulary bingo or articles for the day
- Tap DVDs, where such resources still exist, or sound recording technology along with audio playing devices can be sent home, perhaps wrapped around books and articles
Create Low Tech/No Tech Lessons
- Reply on a smartphone, but at a time which makes sense to support the family schedule
- If the only access is the conventional phone, ensure packets of materials sent home and books can clearly be referred to and found, with pagination, clear labeling, color, etc.
- If even phone access is intermittent, consider using postal mail with self-addressed postage-enabled envelopes for returning assignments and creative tasks
- Develop “Take Home Learning Boxes” with hands-on activities for craft creations with clay, glue sticks and other materials for creative designs, adding simple instructions and a photo or illustration as a model, encouraging students to draw or send a photo of their final product
- Encourage students and families to engage in language activities at home with resources such as:
- ELD Activities for Language Practice at Home
- Units of Student for Interactive Home learning
- Alas y Voz
- Print and distribute free use books with accompanying conversational questions for families with someone at home who can read in Spanish or English with the students at websites such as:
To explore the sources of many of these ideas and other similar recommendations, visit:
Join us for a collaborative discussion about centering English learners in school reopening planning. Currently, local school districts are pivoting to planning for the upcoming school year. During this session, examples will be shared of how educators can ensure that reopening conversations and plans are equity-focused and prioritize the needs of English learners. Attendees will learn from lessons gathered and information shared through our Communities of Practice series and educator survey and from educators engaged in reopening planning conversations in their schools and districts. Breakout sessions will also provide all attendees with an opportunity to share how they are continuing the focus on serving English learners in their own context.
As you are well aware, Californians Together simply wouldn’t be what it is today were it not for our amazing and deeply loved Executive Director Shelly Spiegel-Coleman. It is with her vision, sublime sense of strategy and diplomacy, ability to build relationships, skillful organizing and power to inspire and mobilize people to action that have been the driving force of our success. Read more..
With the ending of the school year and the uncertainty about the reopening in the fall, now is the time to develop plans to address the needs of immigrant and refugee students and their families with focused and sensitive attention. Below are three guiding principles for school and district leaders to consider to ensure that immigrant and refugee students and their families receive support and equitable access to educational opportunities during this unprecedented time.
Put First Things First
It is important that we consider the immediate physiological, social and emotional needs of immigrant students and families so that we can meet them where they are to provide appropriate support. This means that school communities, from the teacher to office staff to the superintendent and everyone in between, need to have appropriate protocols and procedures in place to:
- Provide all staff with a foundation in social-emotional wellbeing, instructional practices and the impact that the current crisis is having on immigrant students and families.
- Train all staff (teachers, classified personnel, administrators, district office personnel) in the use of protocols like this one from Anaheim Union High School District to identify needs and notice signs of distress to help match students and families with appropriate support.
- Allow for checking-in with students about their feelings and needs as a part of synchronous and one-on-one sessions. For older students, make this approach a part of their writing assignments, projects and language development sessions such as this example from from Tulare County Office of Education.
- Identify local resources in your city or county to help families who are in need of food, shelter, medical or mental health, or cash assistance and include which resources are available regardless of immigration status by region such as this list from Legal Aid at Work or this one from the California Immigrant Resilience Fund.
- Fight fear with facts using multilingual fact sheets and hotlines bilingually staffed informing parents about accessibility of health care, legal protections, and public charge such as these from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in English and Spanish or this one created by Protecting Immigrant Families.
Consider Your Students & Families
Consider students’ experiences prior to immigrating to the US as well current conditions where families live, work and gather in your community to tailor your response. The following are some common themes that can impact immigrant and refugee students:
- Unlike other students in California who may be experiencing separation anxiety for the first time as a result of school closures, immigrant and refugee students may have already experienced interrupted schooling, family separations, and this experience may trigger new episodes of anxiety but may also make them more resilient during this pandemic.
- Undocumented families may already have had self-imposed limitations on travel, to avoid the risk of being stopped when traveling outside their locale so current stay-at-home orders and restrictions on travel may raise even more fears.
- Many have experienced trauma as they have had to leave their homes and loved ones to immigrate to the United States fleeing from violence, war, or extreme poverty in their home countries. Any experiences involving food insecurity, isolation, or mask-wearing could bring back traumatic memories.
- The parents/guardians of immigrant students often work in agriculture, food service, or healthcare facilities as ‘essential workers’, so children may be left at home under the care of older siblings or unsupervised as parents are working throughout the pandemic. Parents working outside of the home may not be in a position to support the distance learning sessions and assignments.
- Students and families have reported increases in incidents of racism in their communities because of their ethnicity or home origin.
In light of these additional impacts, consider systems of support within the community and school district to meet the needs of your students and families:
- To meet dietary restrictions of some immigrant populations, team up with community leaders and local organizations to identify local sources for school supplied meals and supplemental food sources for families, such as PandemicEBT cards.
- Post important information or link to a resource page, like this one from Glendale Unified School District, in a prominent location at the top of your websites for families to access (in multiple languages). Ensure that the website design is phone friendly as many parents access the internet through their phones.
- If using online registration to enroll students for the new school year, continue to offer an in-person option. Ensure that both options are immigrant and refugee-friendly (following AB 699 guidelines).
- Develop additional supports for parents to facilitate their children’s engagement in synchronous and asynchronous distance learning with directions provided in the family’s home language as this one available in multiple languages which explains how to use Google Classroom.
- Share information about support networks available for undocumented youth such as Wellness Gatherings from Immigrants Rising.
Communicate with Persistence: Build on Systems Already in Place
Teachers, schools and school districts which have the most success connecting with immigrant students and families have utilized structures and relationships that were already in place before the crisis.
- Elicit support of school site staff to make personal calls to parents/guardians, utilizing emergency numbers available in existing databases or on emergency cards with persistence until all students and families are connected.
- Use existing communication methods and platforms to push out information to students and families in multiple languages. When internet connectivity is not available, sending home printed information by mail or with meal pickups is an option.
- Maintain bilingual staff to answer school phone lines with friendly voices of staff who the families know and trust to give them direction and support.
- Include and identify important correspondence (in home languages) or other materials in meal pickups.
- Utilize teams of existing bilingual site or district personnel to translate all communications in home languages of the families and assist with personal phone calls, or staff hotlines.
- Utilize teams of existing mental health professionals (counselors, therapists, psychologists) to assist with outreach to students currently on their caseloads or newly identified students in need of support.