There are around half a million students enrolled in Nevada public schools, and more than 14 percent of them are considered English-language learners.
With schools around the country relying on distance learning to help mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, it is unclear how the transition from in-person to online instruction affected those students.
Washoe County School District educators shared what they have learned so far from teaching English learners remotely.
What it means to be an English learner student
When students register for school, their parents fill out a survey which asks if there is a time when their child speaks another language other than English.
If there is, the student takes an English language screening test. Students who score below a certain level are considered “English Learners.” When they gain enough proficiency, they exit the English learner program and are considered bilingual.
The Washoe County School District says there are close to 9,800 English learner students in the district, making up about 16 percent of students.
Janeen Kelly, the director of the English Language Development department for WCSD, said about 97 percent of those students are Spanish speakers, with the other 3 percent being speakers of 79 other languages. There are also students who speak English and are bilingual, though their parents do not speak English.
The transition to distance learning
Teachers say distance learning takes longer and is more complex for English learners. A school interpreter or language teacher is often involved with communicating assignments and answering students’ questions.
The district delivered English packets to English learners’ homes, which supplemented the core curriculum packets all students received for remote learning. Teachers say these English packets were successful because the material was adapted to each student’s ability level.
Nancy Carroll teaches English learners at Wooster High School and said the past semester of remote learning brought some additional challenges.
“Almost a third of our EL students, I believe, are also certified special education,” she said. “We have students who were struggling with reading, comprehension and language and now we’re asking them basically to be responsible for their own learning.”
The English learner staff at Wooster High school pointed out that many students there also face socioeconomic challenges. Some were essential workers during this last semester, and the only member in their family working.
For the lower grades in elementary school, more conversation happens between school faculty and parents, as the students are too young to navigate online learning platforms and complete assignments by themselves.
At schools like Echo Loder Elementary, during a typical school year, classroom assistants rotate through different lower grade classes, working with English Learner students, most of them Spanish speakers. They also interpret during parent-teacher conferences.
When the pandemic hit, these classroom assistants became liaisons between teachers and Spanish-speaking parents. At the beginning of distance learning, these interpreters each took around 50 phone calls a day.
There was so much need for interpretation in Spanish that other bilingual staff, including the school’s clinical aide, made these calls too. Once families adjusted to remote learning, the volume of calls decreased.
However, these assistants are still key in interpreting and communicating the different personal situations of each family to the school.
These classroom assistant positions are 35 hours per week, funded by a state grant called Zoom. With uncertainty about the state’s budget for this coming fiscal year, schools do not know if or how these positions will be funded. When asked about the status of this grant, the Nevada Department of Education said that it is too early in the budgeting process to know what funding for this grant looks like next school year.
At the high school level, most students usually talk or message directly with their teachers. However, there are high school English Learner students, some newly arrived from other countries.
Paul Nolan works with this population at Hug High School. He said these students did well with their English learning packets, which were adapted to their needs, but the general coursework was a challenge.
“When it comes to their core courses, like mathematics and science, that material was sent out and made with the average student in mind, not a language learner,” he said. “It’s hard for the teachers to tutor them because some of our students need the explanation in their language.”
As an example, for one French-speaking student, Hug staff worked out three-way calls between the students, her class teacher, and a French teacher who interpreted. So distance learning has been a challenge, but it has also inspired some creativity.
The question now becomes: Is it sustainable to operate and educate this way?