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COVID-19’s Disruptions to In-Person Instruction Deal a Particularly Harsh Blow to English Learners, Whose Losses Could Linger for Years; New Brief Explores Solutions for Educators
Press Release
Tuesday, September 22, 2020

COVID-19’s Disruptions to In-Person Instruction Deal a Particularly Harsh Blow to English Learners, Whose Losses Could Linger for Years; New Brief Explores Solutions for Educators

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic has hit schools, students and families across the United States hard as a result of the shift to remote learning in March 2020. Yet its effects have been particularly pronounced on English Learners (ELs) and children from immigrant families, given that many of these households are lower-income and these students are more likely to attend under-resourced schools that struggle to provide high-quality instruction and necessary academic supports.

Amid an enormously uneven response by states and school districts, the intersecting education and public-health crises are likely to result in a widening of already significant opportunity and achievement gaps for immigrant-background students as compared with their peers. And the losses these students have—and are continuing to experience—in their English language development could linger for years to come.

A new policy brief from the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, Educating English Learners during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Policy Ideas for States and School Districts, traces the particularly devastating effects that have occurred in the shift from in-person to distance learning.

As schools closed their physical classrooms in response to the pandemic, educators across the United States reported that ELs, immigrant students and students in low-income families were particularly difficult to reach with online instruction despite significant effort by educators. In some school districts serving the most ELs, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, fewer than half of these students were believed to be logging on for online instruction during the spring.

Among the most notable barriers? Lack of access to digital devices and broadband, school–family communication gaps, parents’ limited capacity to support home learning and inadequate remote learning resources and training for teachers on how to use them effectively.

With the new school year having just gotten underway, and many schools continuing to operate entirely remotely or in a hybrid model, this policy brief takes stock of the impact schools’ response to the pandemic is having on ELs and immigrant-background students. It identifies key challenges states and school districts must overcome, and outlines policy recommendations to help them ensure these students are adequately supported in this academic year and beyond. Among the recommendations:

  • prioritizing ELs for in-person instruction when schools buildings begin to reopen,
  • professional development on digital instruction that includes a focus on working with ELs,
  • strategies for strengthening parental engagement and these adults’ digital literacy and systems knowledge so they can be effective partners for their children and
  • funding mechanisms to shield high-needs students from the brunt of expected budget cuts. 

The brief’s authors, MPI analysts Julie Sugarman and Melissa Lazarín, note that educators’ focus on this student population set back significantly by COVID-19 will need to continue long after schools reopen their doors to in-person instruction. “It is unclear how long it will be before schooling can return to normal,” they write. “Once it does, schools will feel the full weight of the heightened academic, linguistic and socioemotional needs students are experiencing. They will also likely have fewer resources to draw on to support students and mitigate the effects of learning loss.”

The brief is available here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/english-learners-covid-19-pandemic-policy-ideas.

For the Center’s collection of work on English Learners and ESSA, visit: www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/nciip-english-learners-and-every-student-succeeds-act-essa.

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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. MPI’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy is a crossroads for elected officials, researchers, state and local agency managers, grassroots leaders, local service providers and others who seek to understand and respond to the challenges and opportunities today’s high rates of immigration create in local communities.