Pandemic poses challenges for students learning English

Seti Irankunda, left, and Osvaldo Hernandez are learning English as a second language. The do better when school buildings are open than when they work only online.

Learning English online has been difficult for Osvaldo Hernandez. The 14-year-old, who attends Hillside Junior High School in Boise, is not only responsible for his own learning, he also is tasked with helping his two younger sisters with their online learning. 

“For me it is hard because I don’t understand what to do for them or sometimes for myself,” Hernandez said.

Hybrid and online learning have been difficult for students across the country, but the online system poses a particular challenge to students learning English as a second language with little help at home to navigate the system. 

Lisa Sterling

“This type of teaching really is best in person,” said Lisa Sterling, an English language development teacher at Hillside. “It is all about learning language, and there is so much of it that is lost when you are online.”

Sterling said she has watched her students overcome immense barriers, such as technology complications and responsibilities at home that make doing school online difficult.

This is the case for Seti Irankunda, 15, who also attends Hillside Junior High. He said when he is learning from home, “my parents are always asking me to do chores.”

Irankunda’s family immigrated from Uganda, a country in East Africa. He has four sisters and two brothers, all expected to learn from home a few days each week. With so many students at home, Irankunda said it’s hard to stay focused on his own work.

Hernandez, like many students learning English as a second language, has immigrant parents who do not speak English, leaving him to try to understand online and hybrid learning all by himself. 

Hernandez’s family immigrated to Idaho from Zacatecas, Mexico, and his parents speak only Spanish. Hernandez’s mother does nails and his father works in construction; neither are able to work from home or help their children with school work. 

The five-member family also got sick with COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic, in the spring, Hernandez said. 

“I just had headaches, but I didn’t lose taste or smell,” he said. “My mom had it and it was worse for her, she lost taste and smell. She had headaches and she couldn’t move.”

Hernandez said it was also bad for the family because neither of his parents could work for more than two weeks. 

Irankunda’s family is really worried about COVID-19. His mother works at a restaurant in downtown Boise, where she is exposed to people eating indoors and co-workers.

More than 1,700 students in the Boise School District are learning English as a second language. Statewide, in the 2016-17 school year, 16,777 students qualified as English learners.

The Caldwell School District found a lot of the district’s English language learning students had little or no access to the Internet or didn’t have Wi-Fi at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the Caldwell School District, there are 1,064 English language learners, 702 in elementary schools, 200 in middle schools and 162 in high schools.

The district distributed hotspots to students and set up seven Wi-Fi hotspots at Farmway Village in Caldwell, where many families with English language learning students reside, said Shani Cummins, the Caldwell School District English learner program coordinator.

Cummins said the district also set up hotspots at each school, and several days she saw students outside the schools, working on their Google Chromebooks, which were also distributed by the district. 

Hernandez and Irankunda both said school has gotten a little better since the Boise School District moved into a hybrid model with students coming to school on an A/B schedule and learning online half the time. He is now able to ask his teachers for help when he is learning in-person.

The Caldwell School District also is in a hybrid model of learning, but when it was fully online, the district invited a group of about 30 English-learning students to attend in person one day each week. In a hybrid model, high school students learning English can attend school in-person on Wednesdays to get extra help and can work with the district’s bilingual graduation specialist.

Cummins said secondary English language learners have been difficult to keep engaged in online work. 

“There are challenges in getting them to do their online work and to join Google Meets,” Cummins said. 

The thought that students are falling behind this year because of the pandemic is something that bothers all teachers, Cummins said, even those who don’t teach English to second-language learners. 

“Our English language students are a concern,” Cummins said. “Their teachers don’t have the same time with the students and they feel there are attendance issues both online and in-person. Attendance is better at the elementary level, but going back into hybrid has improved attendance.” 

Sterling shares that concern in Boise.

“We all share that concern that not all students are getting an education,” she said. “I think teachers are stepping up, and we are having to learn so many new things and teachers are trying so hard, but not having that face-to-face time, it is going to cause them to fall further behind. We are going to probably see the effects of this for years to come. “

But, Sterling sees the resilience of her students. 

“We are asking a lot of them and it is so new to them, and they have so many responsibilities,” she said. “With all of that, they are trying so hard. They are doing their best.”



Rachel Spacek

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday