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Meet the Reyes Acosta family. 

Gabriela Acosta and her husband, Rodrigo Reyes, moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, from Central Mexico in 2013. Before a pandemic burst onto the scene, life was hard enough: Six kids. Navigating a world whose dominant language isn’t theirs.

Now, Gabriela isn’t working. Her husband’s job is unstable. Add to that a new complication to maneuver: An unexpectedly online school system.

Though the effect is hard to quantify, experts and educators say that distance learning likely worsened existing educational disparities. They worry that the country’s already disadvantaged students, including those who are learning to speak English, have fallen further behind.

To Gabriela Acosta, 29, the campus closures and the financial stress “felt like a sudden, overwhelming loss of control,” she said in Spanish.

But the Reyes Acostas were lucky: They had a school system that quickly overshot its budget on live translation. Teachers and social workers focused on communicating often and helping them. And district educators aimed to affirm the value of students’ native languages while trying to help them learn English.

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Schooling solutions amid COVID-19

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

Like the Reyes Acostas, any of the 134,000 public-school English learners here in Washington face logistical challenges. Reports suggest that English learners across the U.S. have struggled to connect with their remote classrooms, too. 

But this pattern isn’t necessarily fixed in stone. And as the country’s nearly 5 million English learners continue treading in yet another disrupted semester, the factors that helped those school systems avoid failing them could teach Washington’s school leaders valuable lessons.

As The Seattle Times reported in July, schools in agricultural regions such as Yakima faced confusion over or limited the access to technology; many students began working or caring for relatives once the pandemic hit. 

And now, the Reyes Acostas are worried, as are their counterparts across Washington. The ongoing crisis has had an “added social-emotional impact for our multilingual English learners,” said Veronica Gallardo, Washington’s director of migrant and bilingual education.

Early signs show that teacher planning, support for families outside the classroom and an investment in translation are helping families like the Reyes Acostas — and could make a difference in any district that teaches English learners. In Tulsa, support for English learners ranges from the academic to the practical — from breakout virtual classrooms for language support to backpacks brimming with underwear and socks.

In Tulsa Public Schools, nearly a quarter of students are English learners, most of them Spanish speakers. TPS data indicate the district’s current and former English learners engaged with virtual schooling over the spring at higher rates than did other student groups. So far this fall, current and former English learners are engaging at the same rate, according to Laura Grisso, TPS’ executive director of language and cultural Services.

The circumstances — including a pause on standardized testing — make it hard to further quantify the impact of these efforts. But early evidence, supported by interviews with roughly 20 educators, parents, scholars and advocates, suggest Tulsa’s strategies are starting to bear fruit.

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Poor Americans and people of color — who together account for the vast majority of English learners — have endured the brunt of COVID-19’s devastation. Most of Tulsa’s predominantly Latino English learners fall in this category.

Visceral stressors like hunger and fear, chaos and grief can make it all but impossible for a child to learn. So one of Tulsa’s first steps was to get kids fed. 

That step became standard practice in high-needs districts. In Tulsa, the 40 or so meal sites evolved into crucial touchpoints for under-resourced immigrant parents like Acosta. Parents could also pick up hard-copy teaching packets, classroom supplies and Chromebooks. Seattle Public Schools, too, used meal sites as pickup points for books and other resources.

Tulsa, which is spending the first nine weeks of the fall semester with virtual learning, distributed 21,000 laptops in the spring and another 14,000 in early September. 

“Everything they’ve given us has been a miracle,” Acosta said. 

By “they,” Acosta meant the various individuals who support them, in and out of the school district. A Spanish-speaking Latina social worker has been valuable. She regularly checks on the Reyes Acostas to provide emotional support, clothing, food and other basic necessities.

The family connected with the social worker through Family & Children’s Services (F&CS), a mental-health clinic that’s long worked with Tulsa schools. And a recent analysis by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) suggests such partnerships play an especially critical role in English learners’ pandemic-era education. 

Organizations such as F&CS “are considered a trusted resource for a community that may not have reason to give a lot of trust,” said Melissa Lazarin, a senior MPI adviser who authored the analysis.

Another source of support: fellow parents. Magaly Gomez, a 43-year-old mother of three from Mexico City, said immigrant parents like her often feel “‘uncomfortable” or “frustrated” when interacting with educators because of communication problems. Sometimes they give up.

Gomez works with the district’s English Learner Parent Advisory Committee, which seeks to forge stronger connections between schools and families like hers. “We are a team — schools, parents kids,” she said in Spanish. 

Then there were the teachers who have been collaborating incessantly since the pandemic started. They spent just as much time communicating with parents, to fill them in on homework expectations and make sure they were hanging in there. A federal report published before the pandemic showed that English learners nationwide struggled with limited at-home access to digital learning materials.

“I’ve never been so excited to say to my bosses, ‘Hey, I’m so sorry, but I ran out of money,’” Grisso said. 

Educators who serve English learners often rely on LanguageLine, a service that connects callers with real-time interpreters. Pre-pandemic, the district’s monthly LanguageLine bill averaged about $2,500, said Grisso, who oversees language and cultural services for TPS. In April, charges shot up to more than $15,000. 

“I’ve never been so excited to say to my bosses, ‘Hey, I’m so sorry, but I ran out of money,’” Grisso said. 

The communication made at-home schooling far more manageable, parents said — and a body of research indicates that such connections can pay dividends. “It means the teachers are truly interested in the kids’ education,” Acosta said of those interactions. “They didn’t just say, ‘OK, the kids are not in school physically now, so it’s no longer my problem.’”

English learners are more likely to succeed when their content is grade-level appropriate but adapted to accommodate their English proficiency, said Tim Boals, who cofounded and directs WIDA, a University of Wisconsin-based resource hub for teachers who work with multilingual learners. 

These added layers explain why teaching these students remotely can be especially tricky.

But as Rebecca Adrian, an elementary level English-language development educator in Tulsa, explained, home-based learning enables teachers to encourage students’ literacy in their native language — which research shows is another key component in success. 

“If you can read in your first language, not only can you stay connected with your family, but you can also develop a whole new range of information, of interests, that you didn’t know you had,” Adrian said. 

Remote learning in the spring also forced teachers to improvise. Educators cited a litany of tools: Visual aids to assist with reading passages and Rewordify.com to simplify a complicated English text. Nearpod for interactive slide shows with polls and Edpuzzle for interactive video lessons with quizzes. Adrian said she’s been experimenting with “Choose Your Own Adventure” story-writing exercises using Google Suite products.

Flipgrid, a video-sharing app, has been particularly effective in Tulsa’s English-language development classes, said Grisso. Students record themselves discussing prompts in Snapchat-esque clips that they upload to their virtual classroom. A teacher might ask, What was confusing about today’s lesson? or Where would you travel if you could go anywhere? She might instruct them to Teach your peers a phrase from your native language

Regardless of the particular tool, Tulsa teachers stressed that bilingualism — and English learners’ home language — is an asset. Mastering literacy and vocabulary in one’s native tongue can help a student develop those skills in English, research shows

And this mindset, experts including Washington’s Gallardo contend, is especially critical as remote learning continues. 

“We’re still learning; they’re still learning,” said Valeria, a sophomore and former English learner. “It’s kind of just all over the place.”

For one, instructional strategies aimed at elevating children’s home languages can instill confidence when anxiety and insecurity are skyrocketing. 

For another, students are better equipped to engage with and benefit from their instruction when it’s relevant to their lives, according to research by a team of scholars at Michigan’s Hope College. And a 2016 study published in the Journal of Educational Research found that kids who feel empowered at school are more likely than those who don’t to attend class, get good grades and set high educational expectations. 

Such supports can help to affirm their personal contexts, too. And for children who are spending more time at home and communicating in their native languages, it helps to know their teachers value their identities. 

Tulsa has faced obstacles, of course. Valeria Linares Gomez, Gomez’s 15-year-old daughter, says school has been “very stressful” in part because many teachers struggled to adapt to the technology, making communication and homework assignments difficult. “We’re still learning; they’re still learning,” said Valeria, a sophomore and former English learner. “It’s kind of just all over the place.”

Then there’s the challenge of maintaining relationships. “What I want to get back to is the personal feeling with your teachers or classmates,” Valeria said. She misses the simple advantage of having a seating partner whom she can ask questions if she’s lost. She and some of her friends convene for a virtual lunch every day. Distance learning, she concluded, is “so — I don’t know how to say it — inhuman.”

Connectivity also remains a major challenge, with 1 in 3 of the district’s students lacking reliable internet at home. Acosta said she had to upgrade to an unlimited data plan for fall so her children can log onto their platforms simultaneously. And while the Gomez family has a solid internet plan, it doesn’t always suffice, Valeria said, adding that she struggles to access classwork with her younger brother playing Fortnite and her older sister in meetings. 

The district says it’s committed to filling those gaps. As classes resumed, the Tulsa district delivered 10,000 hot spots to schools. Community organizations such as YWCA Tulsa also say they’ll set aside spaces on their properties for ad hoc study lounges, each replete with Wi-Fi and socially distanced furniture. 

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Before the pandemic, Gabriela Acosta attended English as a Second Language classes in the mornings and cleaned houses in the afternoons; her husband worked in construction. 

But construction work waned once COVID-19 broke out. Acosta gave up her job and classes so she could tend to the children full-time. The kids didn’t have computers or reliable internet.

The struggles continue, but Tulsa’s outreach has helped keep her family on track. 

And districts that have applied similar strategies — from Colorado’s Aurora Public Schools to the Chicago area’s Aptakisic-Tripp School District — increased student engagement, according to local educators. 

Here in Washington, Gallardo credited the successes of districts such as Highline in Burien, Wahluke in rural Grant County, and Selah, near Yakima, with identifying students who weren’t able to get online and getting them help.

In Yakima, teachers are monitoring English learners in small groups for roughly half an hour at a time. The resulting data allows schools to track students’ growth. “The small groups are what’s going to really close the gap for students — not the technology,” said Tally Garcia, the district’s director of multilingual education.  

Moving forward, Bree Dusseault, a practitioner-in-residence at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, suggested that schools experiment with new ways to organize students in their breakout English-development classes, bringing together students who attend different schools, for example. 

Elevating English learners will continue to be tough as thousands of districts proceed with virtual or blended instruction. But if Tulsa’s experience is any indication, pandemic-era schooling doesn’t have to set back English learners anywhere. 

“It’s been really difficult, and I’ve felt very helpless,” Acosta said. But, she added, she and her family “know these trying times will pass. … Everything will improve.”