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COVID-19 Spotlights the Inequities Facing English Learner Students, as Nonprofit Organizations Seek to Mitigate Challenges
June 2020

COVID-19 Spotlights the Inequities Facing English Learner Students, as Nonprofit Organizations Seek to Mitigate Challenges

StudentRoom Flickr JamieHenderson
Jamie Henderson

Instead of the typical three-month hiatus from school that most children relish during the summer months, the closures stemming from the coronavirus pandemic mean nearly half a year or more may pass before many students go back to their brick-and-mortar schools. The transition to remote learning, which began in March in many school districts across the United States, has not been seamless or even adequate for most families. But the challenge has proven even greater for families of English Learners (ELs) and immigrant students who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s effects. Well-known equity gaps due to language, income, and immigration status have come into greater focus and are at risk of widening in the months ahead, especially as states face budget shortfalls and consider cuts to education spending. Teachers and schools across the country have been reporting that students—especially low-income students and ELs—are not showing up online, and that schooling has essentially come to a halt for many ELs. Without computers and other technologies as well as school staff who can communicate in languages other than English, the shift to home learning has left many ELs behind. Exacerbating the problem, the pandemic has triggered new or more serious economic and food insecurities that are likely contributing to disruptions in ELs’ home learning.

Recently released federal guidance reminds schools that they must continue to provide supports for ELs and their parents even as schooling has moved online. As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stimulus (CARES) Act, states and school districts are receiving roughly $13 billion to support elementary and secondary students through the initial impact of the pandemic. As they identify strategies and investments to support ELs through this stay-at-home period, states and districts would be wise to partner with immigrant-serving nonprofit organizations that have demonstrated experience in supporting EL students and their families. These nonprofits can be important partners in mitigating the effects of school closures and the pandemic’s broader effects on ELs and other immigrant students.

The Significance of Nonprofit-School Partnerships in the COVID-19 Era and Beyond

Funds from the CARES Act will help schools address some of the most immediate challenges in the pandemic’s aftermath. But it is already apparent that additional federal investments targeted to education and students most at risk of falling behind due to school closures is necessary. Some experts estimate that students will lose 30 percent of their annual reading gains and up to 50 percent of their math gains due to the so-called COVID slide. Past research on the impact summer breaks have on academic learning would indicate that ELs are among those who are likely to be at the greatest disadvantage. How successful schools and educators will be in ensuring that educational gaps do not further widen for ELs will rely, in part, on the strength of schools’ partnerships with nonprofit organizations that have existing relationships and supports for immigrant students and their families.

The closing of schools has reinforced their significance both as centers of learning and in supporting the health and wellbeing of communities. However, the closures have also exposed the limited reach and capacity that schools have in effectively serving ELs without targeted investments and community partnerships. School districts, which are positioned to receive 90 percent of the CARES Act funds for K-12 education, have broad latitude in how to spend their allotment. Given the disparities and enormous challenges facing ELs, school districts should consider prioritizing CARES Act funds and any future federal relief dollars toward strategies that effectively support ELs. Partnerships with nonprofit and community-based organizations that work with immigrant communities must be part of their efforts and investments. And as the examples below show, some nonprofit organizations are playing a pivotal role in the wake of COVID-19 to support students’ learning at home, meet families’ basic living needs, and serve as a trusted source of information through the public-health crisis.

Partners in Distance Learning

When learning largely went online in March and most parents began juggling homeschooling with Zoom meetings, several immigrant-serving organizations, familiar with the scale of the digital divide, quickly mobilized efforts to get more ELs online. Often unequipped with computers or dependable internet connectivity, many immigrant households are relying on their mobile phones and data plans for remote learning. The Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) in Texas and the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Michigan, for example, worked to obtain free or low-cost digital connectivity for families as a result.

The shift to remote learning prompted other EL-focused organizations to pivot their work in other ways. Californians Together, a statewide advocacy coalition of organizations that promotes educational equity for ELs, ramped up virtual trainings for educators of EL students. Even pre-COVID, most digital resources—especially those used in mainstream classes—had not been designed with the supports ELs need to understand instruction in English. And many teachers, including EL specialists, have received little training on using digital resources in the classroom with ELs. Recognizing these needs, Californians Together began hosting weekly virtual communities of practice with EL teachers. In recent sessions, teachers, grouped by grade span, have focused on engaging students in language development through distance learning. Other sessions include meeting the social emotional needs of students, supporting immigrant and refugee students and parent engagement, and early childhood education.

Keeping Some Immigrant Families Afloat

Some nonprofits are offering immigrant families, some of whom have thus far been overlooked by federal economic relief efforts, a lifeline as they weather these uncertain times. School closures have disrupted more than learning for some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations. Food security and mental-health supports have been interrupted or disappeared altogether. And with their parents disproportionately represented in occupations that are critical to the nation’s response to the pandemic, some immigrant youth have had to juggle both their school work and care of their younger siblings as schools and child-care facilities have closed.

The Spring Institute, a provider of intercultural learning programs and services in Colorado, has partnered with the Denver Public Schools to distribute meals in refugee communities. Michigan-based ACCESS had served nearly 10,000 prepared meals as of mid-April to students in Dearborn and Detroit, raised nearly $70,000 to provide food and basic-needs support to families, and provided virtual therapy and support services to victims of substance abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault.

Other organizations are providing or facilitating direct financial assistance. A Tennessee statewide organization, Conexión Américas, is providing direct economic assistance to immigrant families with support from the Greater Nashville’s Covid-19 Response Fund. And in Minnesota, the Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL) established a fund to support organizations serving the most affected members of the state’s Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community.

A Trusted Source of One-Stop Information and Support for Families

Nonprofit groups have become essential during the pandemic in communicating important information to immigrant families who speak a language other than English. Some organizations have synthesized and translated resources for families who are seeking information about medical assistance, financial help, child-care availability, immigration enforcement, and home-schooling resources.

Many nonprofits are also working with a variety of public agencies at the local and state level to ensure that critical information is reaching immigrant families. For example, the New York Immigration Coalition’s education collaborative of more than 30 multiethnic groups has called on the New York City Department of Education to prioritize outreach to EL families and ensure important information is available in multiple languages. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, CAAL is working with public school systems in Saint Paul and Minneapolis to conduct outreach to families of ELs in their home language.

Finally, many of these organizations are serving as critical voices for immigrant communities at a time when reports of discrimination, particularly against AAPI communities, have spiked as a result of the virus’s first known outbreak in China. CAAL has united leaders in Minnesota to denounce hate speech, discrimination, and violence. Meanwhile Californians Together has worked with the state’s Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus to amplify their efforts urging Governor Gavin Newsom to address the xenophobia that surfaced in connection with the public-health crisis.

As school districts emerge from the pandemic’s fallout and consider reopening their doors, they face a tough budget environment and a long to-do list. Their work must begin by prioritizing ELs and other students who are at risk of permanently disconnecting from school. Nonprofits that are most familiar with these students are well positioned to support their efforts.

The nonprofit organizations cited here are among the service provider and policy organizations in nine states that the Migration Policy Institute’s (MPI) National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy (NCIIP) partners with to improve education policies and practices for Dual Language Learners (DLLs), ELs, and immigrant students.