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As the winter turns to spring and pandemic learning reaches its one-year mark, something like a return to normal, in-person schooling is becoming a reality in communities across the country. While a striking amount of uncertainty remains, experts largely agree on one thing: Pandemic education has exacted the greatest tolls from the children of historically marginalized groups. It also appears that English learners are being particularly adversely impacted by Covid-era schooling.

And yet, as the founder of The Century Foundation’s EL Virtual Learning Forum, a discussion board for English learner-serving educators, I know that the full English learner pandemic story is much more complicated. As bad as things are right now, educators across the country — sometimes off the record, often with a grimace — say they have found that the pandemic brings, if not new opportunities, at least some newfound clarity about the equity issues these children routinely faced in pre-pandemic public schools. For English learners, the pandemic is both a crisis and a revelation: a brutal moment that has pulled back the curtain on long-standing structural issues and inequities that English learners face in U.S. schools.

Predictably, these start with language. American schools are overwhelmingly English-only environments — and too often, this can make them hostile spaces for English learners and their families. Martha Hernández, the executive director of the English learner advocacy group Californians Together, puts it this way: “Despite the many tragedies of the pandemic, one silver lining for English learners has been that many are spending additional time at home, immersed in safe, linguistically and culturally affirming spaces — rather than marginalizing English-only environments at school.”

Not only do U.S. schools frequently marginalize these students’ languages and cultures, but they tend to host ineffective educational approaches. For years, in many schools across the country, English learners have regularly been pulled out of mainstream academic courses in order to receive segregated, English-only language instruction away from their English-dominant peers. Meanwhile, research suggests that, for English learners, English-only instruction is not as successful as bilingual models like dual-language immersion.

In other words, while distance learning may not be meeting all of English learners’ needs, we shouldn’t overestimate the effectiveness of the in-person instruction these children are presently missing — nor should we underestimate the value of the linguistic and cultural assets they gain from this additional time with their families.

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This hints at another pandemic lesson: Now, more than ever, schools need to engage and communicate effectively with students’ families. Until in-person learning can fully resume, family members are the only adults who regularly work with students on distance learning assignments. This issue is particularly important for English learners and their families, given that many U.S. schools continue to fail to make their community communications multilingual and culturally responsive. In a spring survey in California, nearly one-third of Spanish-speaking families said that they could not understand the distance learning information sent home by their children’s schools. And in a summer analysis of California school districts’ pandemic learning plans we prepared for Californians Together, my co-authors and I found similarly discouraging data: nearly one-third of districts did not appear to be translating communications they sent to families, and another one-third of districts offered little family engagement effort beyond basic translations.

For English learners, the pandemic is both a crisis and a revelation

Schools’ struggles to engage English learners’ families during the pandemic partly stem from another pre-pandemic inequity — gaps in access to digital learning devices and the internet. A 2019 Department of Education report found evidence that English learners suffered from these divides before the pandemic; the crisis has only made them more consequential. In our California research, although my co-authors and I found that 97% of school districts reported distributing some learning technologies to students —far fewer reported any further efforts to support families’ usage of the devices.

It’s critical that we attend to the full range of lessons the pandemic offers. The pandemic should force educators, administrators and policymakers to confront and address the ways that schools weren’t serving English learners well before the pandemic. This will start with expanding English learners’ access to bilingual educational settings and — when that is not possible — looking for ways to support these students’ native languages as the valuable assets that they are. If schools aren’t sure how to begin, they should work harder to connect with English learners’ families — in linguistically and culturally competent ways. Finally, they should build on the efforts to close digital divides during the pandemic to ensure that English learners can access and effectively use all the learning technologies they need to succeed at school.

By and large, English learners aren’t thriving under distance learning. But the answer isn’t simply to return to the common standard of in-person education that these students received before the pandemic.

Dr. Conor P. Williams (@ConorPWilliams) is a fellow at The Century Foundation and the founder of its EL Virtual Learning Forum. If you are an educator working with English learners during the pandemic and would like to join the Forum’s discussions, email him at williams@tcf.org.

This story about English learners and the pandemic was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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