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Educating English Learners during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Policy Ideas for States and School Districts
Policy Briefs
September 2020

Educating English Learners during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Policy Ideas for States and School Districts

As schools closed their physical classrooms in March 2020 due to COVID-19, educators across the United States reported that English Learners (ELs), immigrant students, and students in low-income families were particularly difficult to reach with online instruction. The pandemic and the sudden, forced transition to remote learning have brought into sharp relief the inequities that many of these students face in often under-resourced schools.

Despite significant effort on the part of educators to support their students’ continued learning through Spring 2020, these efforts fell short for many ELs and students in immigrant families. Among the most notable barriers: a 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 2020–21 school year underway, and many schools continuing to operate partly or entirely remotely, 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. These include 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 funding mechanisms to shield high-needs students from the brunt of expected budget cuts. 

As the authors note, “depending on how states and districts adapt in the coming year, schools could emerge from this crisis having built stronger and more resilient systems on a foundation of equity for ELs and immigrant-background students.”

Table of Contents 

1  Introduction

2  Demographic Context

3  COVID-19’s Impacts on English Learners and Immigrant Students
A. English Language Development
B. Academic Gains, or Losses
C. Socioemotional Impacts

4  Key Policy Recommendations for States and School Districts
A. Deciding When and How to Restart In-Person Instruction
B. Improving Remote Learning for ELs
C. Navigating a Difficult Funding Environment
D. Strengthening Language Access and Parent Engagement
E. Exploring Strategies to Meet Students’ Nonacademic Needs
F. Identifying and Assessing ELs in the Remote Learning Context

5  Conclusions