By Christine Montecillo Leider, Johanna Tigert, and Michaela Colombo
As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered public schools this spring, educators mounted a Herculean effort to move instruction and assessment online. Reflecting back on the spring of remote learning – and anticipating its continuation in the fall – as educators we need to ask ourselves: How can we prioritize the needs of multilingual learners during remote instruction? While the pandemic changed the schooling experience for all students, the onset of distance learning exacerbated existing inequities in education and ignited long overdue conversations about historically marginalized students in public schools. As teacher educators working with multilingual students, we worry that these and other inequities have hit this student population especially hard.
Multilingual learners, in general, are among the most vulnerable of our students. As such, health, safety, and well-being should always be at the forefront – and many schools and school systems responded to these needs. Assuming basic needs are met to the best of their ability, schools can turn their efforts to curriculum and instruction, which also present challenges. Multilingual learners and families can face communication barriers due to language as well as access issues related to the digital divide. For the nearly 5 million classified English Learners (ELs) in U.S. public schools, however, distance education is not just about having access to technology or translation services, it’s about access to language and content.
Specifically in Massachusetts, multilingual students who are ELs are entitled to receive both English instruction delivered by an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, and content instruction delivered by Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) endorsed teachers. Both forms of instruction are crucial as they provide support for developing academic English and access to the general curriculum. However, conversations about remote learning have largely ignored these issues and instead, focused on students’ access to technology. As a response, the education world churned out myriad resource lists and instructional suggestions for teaching online. These resources are useful, but their narrow focus on instructional technology has masked the ever-present issues of educational parity for multilingual learners, especially those who are classified as ELs. Those of us who work with this population of students know that even in the best of times content teachers lack training to work with ELs, there are simply not enough ESL teachers to bridge the gap, and instructional technologies most often used with these students are not designed with them in mind.
We’ve seen these same inequities play out during the pandemic: few of the resources published over the spring address multilingual learners’ needs specifically, and guidance for teachers has come too little, too late. It took until May 18th for a guidance document on serving ELs to be added to the US Department of Education resource page for remote/distance learning. Until then, the only guidance at the federal level appeared in the March 16th DoE fact sheet on protecting students’ civil rights, which mainly discussed services for students with disabilities. (News flash: like special education, specialized instruction for ELs is a civil right mandated by federal law). Unfortunately, this does not come as a surprise: too often, we have seen EL education treated as an “add-on” in the physical school building and it has also appeared to be merely an afterthought in the world of remote instruction.
Multilingual students need instruction that addresses both content learning and English language development. The bigger problem here is that most teachers were not prepared to do this even before the pandemic. Strategies such as differentiation, scaffolding, and sheltering are effective when enacted by well-trained teachers – even in an online environment. As schools and districts begin to make decisions on instructional delivery for the fall, let’s focus on improving teachers’ readiness to meet the needs of multilingual learners in any environment. Teacher preparedness is the key to offering multilingual students opportunities to participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs as their civil rights demand.
Christine Montecillo Leider is Clinical Assistant Professor of Language Education and Program Director of Bilingual Education and TESOL-Licensure at the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University.
Johanna Tigert is an Assistant Professor of Education at the College of Education at UMass Lowell.
Michaela Colombo is Professor Emeritus in the College of Education at UMass Lowell.
Drs. Leider, Tigert, and Colombo co-lead the MATSOL Teacher Educators SIG.