In March of this year, schools began to transition from in-person to virtual instruction district by district, state by state. Emergency teaching plans were designed and put into place, with many believing that if we could just get through the end of the school year, education would be all right come fall. However, we now know that to not be true. COVID-19 is still here, and education might remain virtual for a bit longer.
One group in particular, English Learners (ELs), has been hit extremely hard. There have been numerous stories about the struggles teachers have faced while trying to work with a population that has been heavily hit by COVID-19, as well as oftentimes suffering from a lack of equity in virtual learning. States and school districts planning out a return to school need a strategy that will be safe, but equitable.
Administrators, those persons in between the federal- and state-level leaders and the teachers, have been tasked with the unenviable job of translating mandates and guidelines to the everyday practical aspects of how to make education work during a pandemic. It is these people who must come up with a plan to help our ELs overcome obstacles. In response to this, VATESOL asked some administrators from Virginia, as well as outside this state, to give us their perspective of the decision-making process specifically in regards to our ELs.
(A quick note to our readers: It was agreed between VATESOL and the administrators that the responses would be kept anonymous and published in a blog format. The contributors were shown a copy of the final blog and agreed that VATESOL had done its best to portray their responses as written.)
To begin, it should be noted that when asked if the COVID-19 pandemic had changed their role as administrators, all responses were affirmative. Administrators noted that they needed to:
increase their flexibility
be as transparent as possible with others
provide clear communication, which can be especially tricky in a virtual setting
focus on underrepresented groups to ensure that their voices are heard
In thinking about reopening schools face-to-face versus in a virtual environment, administrators have been confronted with some difficult decisions. The administrators we spoke with listed the following as their top priorities in the decision-making process:
Student and teacher safety
Following the guidelines set forth by local governments and school districts
Ensuring that teachers have the tools they need in order to provide quality instruction that is equitable for all students
Specific considerations for ELs and their families must be taken into consideration, but the debate still remains whether it would be better for them to be back in person or virtual. Part of this decision may be dependent upon the student’s proficiency level and educational background. The voice of the family is also very important. While in some districts EL families have been invited to work on task forces that are a part of the return-to-school plans, most administrators agree that family input has been limited overall, but that the final decision on whether ELs will return will be dictated by the family.
There is no question that we are currently faced with an historically difficult time in regards to public health and education. How administrators will balance student and staff safety with meeting the educational needs of special populations such as English learners may look different in each division across the state. VDOE’s guidance related to English learners and distance learning can be found on the English Learner page of its website.