Graphic by Briana Mendez-Padilla.
With thousands of schools closed across the country, students have had to adapt to online learning. This type of learning is a drastic change from in-person instruction and has brought about new challenges in itself. As students struggle to find ways to understand and adjust to this new environment, some like Lisbeth Hernandez, a Long Beach Poly junior and English Language Learner (ELL), are facing an added challenge: a language barrier.
ELL students are currently receiving all their assignments in English and facing the loss of some of their support systems, making online learning a difficult task.
“I haven’t adapted well,” said Hernandez in her native Spanish, “it’s somewhat complicated because in some classes I have teachers who don’t speak Spanish.”
At Long Beach Unified School District, there are currently 12,381 English Language Learning students throughout kindergarten to grade 12, according to the California Department of Education. In Long Beach Polytechnic High School there are 454 ELL students, of which 88.11% are Spanish speakers.
LBUSD moved to Home Learning Opportunities on March 27. That is the district’s master website for all student online learning with parent and technical resources, and with learning opportunities by subject and instructions on how to join a “Google Classroom.”
The transition proved to be a challenge for ELL students who are unfamiliar with the format. It eliminated help from peers these students came to rely on during classes, including translating assignments during lectures.
“It is quite difficult for me to do [the assignments] because it takes a long time to translate them,” said Wendy Molina, an ELL junior at Poly, in Spanish. She resorts to Google translate for help “and then I still have to analyze what I’m supposed to do!”
She spent the first weeks before spring break working on extra credit assignments and practicing her English by watching videos.
Molina is currently living with her dad, who does not speak English and struggles with technology, so is therefore unable to assist her. Not being close to any of her neighbors, and without stable internet, it has been up to her, and her alone, to face these difficulties.
Advocates and some teachers worry that ELL students may fall most behind.
Lisbeth Hernandez, Long Beach Poly junior, poses in front of her laptop.
“Online learning is very difficult for all of my students but I think for my ELL and Special Needs students, it’s been really, really hard and they feel very lost,” said Mieko Harrington, U.S History, World History and AP Human Geography teacher at Poly. “I also feel very lost because I often need another person to help me translate or explain it differently and I don’t have that.”
Harrington prefers working in the classroom as it makes talking about topics, translating some words, and working out the directions much easier and quicker.
Prior to COVID-19 school closings, Poly offered an English Language Development (ELD) class which taught English as a second language. Regardless of their proficiency, ELL students were still mostly placed in classes taught in English.
Another resource available for ELL students that began in January was bilingual tutoring afterschool. The pilot program consisted of a cohort of paid student tutors who assisted students with their homework or practicing their English. As of May 20, tutoring resumed via Zoom with seven ELL students, including Hernandez.
As the entire district of 73,221 students hurried to adapt to distance learning, these direct supports temporarily vanished. Some have yet to return.
“The support of tutoring helped me a lot,” said Hernandez. “But now I’m trying to put more of my part and work with the help of others around me.”
Regardless of the lack of resources, Hernandez continues to stay positive and do as much as she can to ensure she continues learning. She has been practicing her English by chatting with her cousins, who are fluent in English and are able to correct her, as well as by reading books in English. Her most effective tactic has been watching Netflix with subtitles to learn the proper pronunciation.
Amid the scramble from the pandemic, district officials said they continue to provide opportunities for ELL students to keep up.
“…teachers have multiple resources to provide high-quality instruction to our most vulnerable students for whom language proficiency is an additional challenge,” stated Chris Eftychiou, Public Information Director for LBUSD, via email when asked about what measures the district has taken to ensure quality learning for ELL students from home.
In his responses, Eftychiou listed various resources for ELL students, including a “central bank of translators” connecting families and teachers, a homework help line (562-437-2897), online resources for English learners such as Khan Academy and Lexia Core5, and more.
To see the district’s full response, go here.
Khan Academy is a non-profit educational organization that produces short video lessons to educate students on a range of topics such as math, science, history, economics, programming and more. Similarly, Lexia Core5 is an educational reading website for grades k-5 that offers “personalized learning.” Both platforms offer their courses in a variety of languages including Spanish.
“Any student, parent, or teacher may request the assistance of a district translator for assignment translation, as needed,” said Eftychiou.
The Home Learning Opportunities launched by the district offers videos and contact information in English and Spanish, for parents to help support their students, added Eftychiou. A Spanish-speaking coordinator is also working with newcomer families (via phone and home visits) to ensure they are included in the distance learning program.
Students however, are unaware of some of these resources. Neither Hernandez or Molina have heard about the central bank of translators or the homework helpline, although, they said, they do sound helpful, if only they knew how to access them.
As the school year comes to end on June 11 and the 2020-2021 school year approaches (beginning on September 1), worries of those who have struggled with online learning increase. Hernandez fears having to start from zero once more.
“I don’t know how these classes will work,” said Hernandez, “and I’m scared because I still don’t know English.”