COVID-19Feature StoriesNews & Opinion

English Learners at CMS Feel Disconnected During Virtual Schooling

Non-English-speaking students face fresh obstacles during pandemic

Ruby Orduna knew the 2020-21 school year would be difficult for her two sons, both enrolled in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS). As native Spanish speakers and English Learners (EL) in CMS, the two boys learn the language best through play, experience and social interaction. After March 13, those key learning components came to a halt as CMS and public schools across the state transitioned to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon, Orduna’s 9- and 11-year-old sons began learning from home, where their family speaks little English. 

While she was aware of the obvious challenges of remote learning, like finding space at home for both of her sons to study comfortably, she was unaware of the challenge remote learning presented to her family. 

The Orduna family, like many others in CMS, struggled with finding a stable internet connection to log in to daily classes. She said her family did not have internet service, and the modem provided by CMS was very slow, so she had to sign a contract with an internet provider, an unexpected cost for the Ordunas.

English Learners at CMS
Ruby Orduna and her sons (far left and far right) with friends. (Photo courtesy of Ruby Orduna)

Ruby’s sons are part of ourBRIDGE, an after-school program for immigrant and refugee students from kindergarten to 7th grade. The program helps students learn English and aims to close the communication gap between schools and families by translating documents, providing language resources and support for teachers and schools while organizing literacy nights and cultural events for families. 

Sil Ganzo, executive director at ourBRIDGE, said Orduna is not the only parent of English Language Learners in CMS who has struggled amidst the chaos remote learning has presented for CMS students. 

She said that, despite the efforts of the CMS English Learners Services (ELS) department, which is focused on providing resources for students and their families, ourBRIDGE families are still struggling.

CMS English Learners struggle to connect

According to Ganzo, 145 out of 150 ourBRIDGE for Kids students are enrolled in CMS schools. About 90% of ourBRIDGE students’ families do not speak English at home and very few can communicate with their parents in English. Half of the program’s students speak Spanish, while the other half speak a variety of other languages, including Nepali, Burmese, Tigrinya, Amharic, Arabic and French. All of these students and their families have felt the impact of remote learning, Ganzo said.

During an ordinary CMS school year, English Language Learners and their families face many different challenges, from cultural differences to a lack of support for students who speak languages other than Spanish, that ourBRIDGE aims to help resolve, said Ganzo. Now that learning is fully online, those challenges have been amplified, and other factors, like the lack of hotspots for students and parents’ technological illiteracy, have presented new challenges for English Language Learners’ families. 

English Learners at CMS
Orduna’s two sons have struggled due to poor internet connection and language barriers. (Photo by Ruby Orduna)

While ourBRIDGE is a CMS partner and Ganzo admires the efforts of schools and teachers, she said she is disappointed some families aren’t getting all of the help they need.

“It’s been tough,” Ganzo said. “We’ve known about this issue since March, and all of the nonprofits and programs are trying to adjust to what CMS needs. We are here to support.” 

The biggest challenge, and one of the issues that has affected many CMS students, has been the lack of hotspots. Ganzo said many of the families in ourBRIDGE did not have internet connection at the start of remote learning. As a result, they began using hotspots on their phones. When data ran out, they had to pay hundreds of dollars for internet connectivity, Ganzo said. For the 80% of families in ourBRIDGE who lost a source of income in the pandemic, access to their children’s education became a financial burden.

Rumors and misbeliefs spread through the community

Ganzo heard from several ourBRIDGE families that CMS employees were warning them that their children would be reported to the Department of Social Services for truancy if they missed eight days of school. Ganzo said this scared many parents who were unable to connect to a hotspot.

“We had a secretary from a school tell us that she was told by her principal that she needed to tell that to parents, and we know that’s not true,” Ganzo said. “I spoke to one of the [CMS] board members and she said that was never the case and was never discussed. But it’s still being used at the school level.”

The nature of online learning and the digital environment has also been a challenge for CMS English Language Learners. Ganzo has seen children expected to take on the tasks of uploading images and converting documents into PDFs, and their parents can’t help them if they aren’t familiar with apps and technology.

“They’re struggling to understand the system,” Ganzo said. “A lot of families come from very rural areas where the use of a computer is not as natural as it is for people who have been around it for a very long time.”

Other challenges have included finding spaces to learn and keeping children fed and happy throughout the day. While resources are available, Ganzo does not feel they are being used to their full potential to help families.

“Every resource that’s out there for our parents is not there 100%,” Ganzo said. “The food bundles are amazing and it’s a great program, but the system to get to them is very confusing, and it’s only in English. The resources are there, it’s just so hard to access them. That has been a pattern.”

All students are feeling the impact most when it comes to their lack of routine and socialization, Ganzo said, but for English Language Learners, those missing pieces play a key role in grasping English.

“Kids learn better when they’re in their element: playing, touching, interacting and experiencing,” Ganzo said. “That’s how we learned our first language. It’s not by worksheets and a computer. You learn by playing and interacting and living.”

To help support this, Ganzo is working to reopen ourBRIDGE, which closed in March and transitioned to a food-delivery program for local immigrant and refugee families. With every safety protocol in place, Ganzo hopes students will be able to learn, play outside and disconnect from their screens, where they have spent the last six months. 

Organizers with ourBRIDGE for KIDS and the Migrant Assistance Project hand out food in east Charlotte in April. (Photo by Lisa Stockton Howell)

Still, she believes all students’ academic progress will be heavily affected by the changes already brought about by the pandemic and remote learning.

“It’s going to be challenging for the kids to get back into a routine,” Ganzo said. “Summer reading loss is really real, and our kids have basically been away from school since March 13. It’s going to take a long time and a lot of effort from them and the entire system to help them up. The most important part is for the [EL] kids to not feel left out and have access to the things that they have to have.”

CMS launches summer programs for English Learners

When COVID-19 forced CMS to shift to remote instruction, ELS staffers knew they had their work cut out for them.

With more than 24,000 English Language Learners in all CMS schools representing countries around the world as of Oct. 2019, the department put together various resources to support its English Learners in response to the pandemic, said Amanda Aycoth, the department’s digital integration curriculum specialist.  

From the beginning, ELS distributed learning packets to help students practice their English, which was especially important for newly enrolled students. The department also supported CMS efforts to develop videos as supplemental resources for the content students were learning in class, Aycoth said. 

ELS also launched a three-week summer learning academy for rising 2nd- through 12th-grade English Learners. Aycoth said the program looked at what students would learn in the first quarter of the year and aimed to bridge the gap between the spring and fall so students could be successful upon returning to school.

“We made sure students would be able to come, engage in class and enter learning spaces like breakout rooms,” EL Director Aenoy Phommavongsay said. “Students that participated in the program had a step above the other kids, and they enjoyed the synchronous learning with the teachers.”

The program also allowed the department to start making connections with families.

“It felt good to see that [connection] come from the summer and transition to the fall,” Aycoth said.

In addition to the summer learning academy for students, ELS offered a voluntary summer institute for professional learning for CMS teachers, who learned how to implement different strategies, use the new software programs and help English Learners feel more confident in their language development. Teachers were given stipends provided by Title III upon completion of the institute.

At the high school level, ELS Director Heidi Campbell said more programs were utilized over the summer to ensure students did not fall behind. Learners are expected to keep up with topics and tests at the grade level, so the department worked to prepare learners to use resources, foundational vocabulary and text interaction to make sure students can understand the complex text they are given, Campbell said. She added that students are also given more time and additional support during this school year as needed.

‘Communication is even more important now’

ELS Director Bill King said CMS also implemented the Language Instruction Education Program (LIEP), which helps schools and teachers develop to best serve its English Learners at every school. King said the program has an additional goal to keep families connected by focusing on community and family engagement. 

“Communication is even more important now,” King said. 

To increase communication, King said the department relied on the district’s bilingual staff to support its international center and language assistance line, which is being used by every CMS school. 

ELS also developed a family community engagement website and has hosted virtual office hours with parents and bilingual staff members, King said. Some sessions have been general, while others have focused on topics like technology support. These have been successful, according to King, with more than 900 parents over four sessions. 

Campbell added that parents are not always the first ones reaching out to complain, as their language barriers can be as much a hindrance as their children’s, so the district is constantly asking for feedback from all involved who may have ideas to improve the remote-learning experience for English Language, including teachers and school administrators. 

English Learners at CMS
Students sometimes feel left on their own due to language barriers between parents and teachers. (AdobeStock)

Aycoth admitted the department “didn’t get everything right out of the gate,” and there is still work to be done when it comes to supporting teachers and giving guidance on what is working and what should be adjusted.

Nadja Terez, executive director of CMS Learning and Language Acquisition, which runs ELS, said the department is revising its plans based on parent feedback and brainstorming new ways to support English Learners and their parents. For example, she said, the department hopes to offer English classes to help families connect with their children’s education, and provide extra tutoring sessions. However, she hopes to connect with more families to address their needs.

As Trez is a first generation immigrant, she said she understands the struggles families are facing with language barriers.

“My heart is with our families,” Trez said. 

Despite the programs in place, Sil Ganzo feels there is nothing to celebrate as she continues to see the problems with remote learning that ourBRIDGE students and their families face on a daily basis.

Moving forward as schools prepare to reopen

CMS students will soon return to school in phases in accordance with North Carolina’s Plan B guidelines for reopening schools. Students will learn in person in small groups for one week and continue learning virtually for the following two weeks.

Ruby Orduna believes the return to school in person will be essential for her sons.

“I would like for them to go back to school,” Orduna wrote to Ganzo in an email*. “I know there is a lot of concern, but I know they need professional help from a teacher in person and to be with their friends.”

Ganzo also believes learning in the classroom would be beneficial to CMS English Language Learners, but knows there is still more to be done to support them virtually and in person.

The first thing that should be done, she said, is build a better structure for learning in advance. Ganzo would like to see leadership be more proactive in preparing for challenges rather than figuring it out on the spot. She will continue to support the district, but believes CMS needed to partner with ourBRIDGE and other nonprofits long before to mitigate these issues.

“We knew these problems were there,” Ganzo said. “I don’t understand why we have waited so long to solve them.”

Ultimately, she believes it comes down to looking inward at the system that has been put in place. But creating a better system cannot lie in the hands of nonprofits and other partners.

“The teachers and the community are all working around the clock to help families as much as we can, but the system, as long as they don’t adjust themselves to support families, it’s going to be hard,” Ganzo said. “We’re always going to be trying to fill in the gap, when we actually need to erase those gaps. Stakeholders and families and nonprofits and people involved in community partnerships, we’re all trying to solve all of the problems, but in reality, the problems are in the entire system.”

*Email was translated from Spanish by Sil Ganzo

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