The Learning Curve: Distance Learning Poses More Challenges for English-Learners | Voice of San Diego


The Learning Curve: Distance Learning Poses More Challenges for English-Learners

English-learners’ unique learning needs make them less likely to be served well by online school, experts say.

Parents protested outside of San Diego Unified’s headquarters to demand that district officials offer in-person classes for students. Natalia Briggs (right) said she cannot help her daughter learn proper English because she is an immigrant and is still learning English herself. She said she needs schools to open so her daughter can learn properly. / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

On Tuesday, a small, select group of San Diego Unified’s most vulnerable students will be eligible to be come back to school for appointment-based, in-person learning.

The group includes special education students and those who have fallen behind in their learning. One group it doesn’t specifically include: English-language learners.

English-learners are students with a different home language, who are not yet proficient in English. They make up nearly 20 percent of the roughly 500,000 students in San Diego County. Their unique learning needs make them less likely to be served well by online school, experts say.

And in fairness to San Diego Unified, the district could end up identifying a high percentage of English-learners when trying to identify students who have fallen behind the most.

But it still leaves an open question: Can school districts provide for English-learners unique needs with an online education?

“There are very special supports that are even more challenging to provide [for English-learners] than for the rest of the student population,” Gloria Corral, president of Parent Institute for Quality Education, told me. PIQE, as it is usually called, was founded in 1987 in San Diego to help support Latino families in the public school system.

It’s very important, for instance, for English-learners to be able to see a teacher’s mouth move when they are talking, said Corral. With a stilted internet connection, this can become impossible.

It’s also important for teachers to model – a practice in which a teacher teaches a concept through a real world example – for English-learners to gain language skills. Small group language practice is also important. Both of these are more difficult in online teaching.

Another hurdle has been English-learners’ ability to access their work online, said Corral. Some have not had access to computers or the internet. Most of those problems have been solved by districts, said Corral, but many parents still have no idea how to help parents log their children on. PIQE has been engaged in parent trainings to help close this divide.

The state Department of Education has mandated no minimum amount of live online teaching for English-learners, according to EdSource.

According to a survey administered by PIQE in April, a full 45 percent of English-learner parents said their children were not getting the language support they needed online.

“I’m hopeful it’s gotten better since then,” said Corral.

Still, Corral said there is absolutely no doubt English-learners will fall further behind than other students as online school drags on.

“The more important question is: How are we going to respond to that?” she said. “Our budgets and policies need to reflect this as a priority.”

Corral suggested summer school enrichment programs, money for more small group instruction and highly focused engagement for English-learner parents as just a few options.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber has been among some state leaders willing to support more money to help children catch up who’ve fallen behind. But for the moment, state and school leaders can barely keep track of the immediate problems in front of them. Whether they find the will and the money to invest in the state’s most vulnerable children will be a question that’s likely to get answered (or ignored) in the coming months, but it’s one we should all start paying attention to now.

What We’re Writing

  • A small number of students will be able to return to San Diego Unified schools starting next Tuesday, Oct. 13. It’s unclear right now how many students will be able to return – but officials say they want schools to bring students back who have experienced learning loss. This group obviously might include higher percentages of English-learners.
  • A form for special education students has generated controversy among families in San Diego Unified. The form asks parents consent to their children receiving telehealth services. Some parents perceived the form as a waiver, signing away their rights. Several lawyers said the reality is more complicated, but did caution families that signing the form might not be advisable.
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