Abstract: How Did Schools Support English Language Learners during COVID-19 Pandemic? (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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How Did Schools Support English Language Learners during COVID-19 Pandemic?

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Camelback B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Habiba Ibrahim, PhD, Assistant Professor, College of Saint Catherine, St. Paul, MN
Theresa Thiel, BA, Student, Saint Louis University, MO
Andrew Diemer, MEd, Doctoral Candidate, Saint Louis University, MO
Kristi Donaldson, PhD, Partner Relations Manager, The Learning Partnership, USA, Chicago, IL
Background: English language learners (ELLs) are a diverse and rapidly growing group of students who constitute a substantial part of the nation’s K-12 public school population. Currently, one in four U.S. children under the age of 18 is a child of an immigrant and about 26% of public-school students are from immigrants’ households.

All students faced learning challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, but certain groups of students are more vulnerable to additional challenges than others. These groups include students with special needs, limited English proficiency or ELL, and those from low-income families. This study focuses on ELL students to answer these two questions:

  1. How has COVID-19 impacted ELL students?
  2. How inclusive were school reopening plans to ELL students in the 2020-21 school year?

Methods: This study used content analysis data of Fall 2020 school reopening plans for a sample of Missouri districts. The data was collected by Policy Research in Missouri Education (PRiME) Center. The total analytic sample included 191 school districts that serve nearly 598,000 students. The content analysis captures district plans for instruction, health & safety, vulnerable student populations, and access to student support services during COVID-19. This data was supplemented with district level demographic data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) for the 2018-19.

Results: ELLs were often forgotten in Fall 2020-21 district reopening plans. Over 60% of the sampled district served ELL, but only 30% of ELL mentioned ELLs, and less than 10% provided detailed plans for ELLs. We characterize plans as being detailed if they include information regarding the specific delivery of services, separate from other student subgroups.

Nearly half (47%) of ELLs began the year in fully distanced education. ELL-serving districts were more likely than the overall state average to use distanced education for their students (30% opposed to 21%). Student level comparisons show that ELLs were substantially more likely to receive fully distanced education (47 opposed to 28%).

Assessing learning Loss: Although ELL are at a higher risk of learning loss during virtual learning, less than15% of ELL districts planned to assess and address learning loss.

Conclusions: English Language Learners have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and, as a result, these students are at increased risk of falling behind in school. Despite the increased risks, many districts overlooked ELLs as a part of their reopening plans. Moreover, a large portion of ELLs began the school year in distanced education, which has been thought to be especially detrimental to ELLs’ educational progress.

Our results showed that the majority of districts did not share written plans for ELLs to receive services during the pandemic. Providing instructional and language supports for ELLs may be pivotal in reducing the learning loss expected from the interruption to in-person learning. Prioritizing the delivery of supports and resources to ELLs can help to alleviate some of the increased challenges these students face and allow them to be successful in their learning. Without that attention, ELLs may be set back for years to come.