Young English language learners among those hit hardest by Colorado’s shift to remote learning

When Vanessa Baca wraps up her full-time housekeeping job, there are only a few hours left on the clock. But the work day has just begun.

The Adams County single mother must cook, clean and tend to her children’s needs, but emails from her kindergartener’s teacher alerting her to which assignments the 6-year-old has yet to complete weigh on her.

Baca was grateful Welby Community School provided her child with a tablet when school buildings were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, freeing up the family computer for her college-aged son. However, her little one struggled to make the tablet’s electronic pencil write and draw what he had in his head. His mom needed to sit next to him the entire time, helping him use the technology.

Maybe printing out the lessons would be easier, Baca thought.

Then the printer broke.

In such uncertain economic times, Baca couldn’t justify spending money on a printer for her kindergartner’s school work. She instead painstakingly copied her son’s assignments by hand on pieces of paper for him to complete.

Yet Baca considers herself lucky. Although she wishes there were more hours in the day, Baca knows basic English and technology skills — advantages, she said, many don’t have.

More than 125,000 of Colorado’s approximately 911,000 K-12 students were English language learners in the 2018-2019 academic year, according to the Colorado Department of Education. The rapid switch to remote learning amid the pandemic has been an unwanted disruption for many Colorado students, teachers and families, but educators are seeing firsthand how the state’s most vulnerable students — including those learning English — are at risk of falling even further behind.

“My English is not the best, but at least I can read and talk the basics,” Baca said. “That helps a lot. But there are a lot of people I know who have never touched a computer before. They don’t have internet. They have never had email. They don’t know how to click a link to set up an account. I can’t imagine how those people are doing.”

In Colorado, the children in households lacking internet are disproportionately Hispanic, younger and from lower income families, according to a study issued this week by Colorado State University’s Futures Center.

“I think what this pandemic has really highlighted, not just in DPS but globally, is the difference between the haves and the have-nots,” said Nadia Madan Morrow, executive director of Denver Public Schools’ Department of English Language Acquisition. “If I just think about my own two DPS students, the amount of privilege they have right now. We’re all healthy. I have the ability to work from home and bring home a salary. We have multiple devices in our home, internet, enough bandwidth. They have a mom who is an educator who can help them. Typically, families of English learners fall into the have-not categories. This has just really, really shown the difference.”

Surprising data

The CSU study, which analyzed 2018 census data for its findings, estimated 54,000 students in Colorado don’t have internet access at home, making the basic logistics of remote learning a nightmare. Of those children, the study found more than 40,000 of them were Hispanic.

“We certainly expected a portion, but for almost two-thirds to be Hispanic was a bit surprising,” said Phyllis Resnick, executive director and lead economist at CSU’s Colorado Futures Center.

For all regions in the state except the central mountains, there are more Hispanic school-aged children without internet access than with it, the report found.

Fifty-two percent of children without internet live in households earning less than $50,000, the report said. Twenty-five percent live in households earning less than $25,000.

One in four of these households is headed by a single parent. Nearly 60% have at least one parent working in an essential industry.

Almost half of the state’s kids lacking internet access are elementary-aged.

“If those children go back to school — hopefully — in the fall without any formal education for six months, they are going to be at a pretty significant gap,” Resnick said. “These young children going through these circumstances now could have that gap for the rest of their lives because of this pandemic.”

Teaching and troubleshooting

Madan Morrow’s waking existence is spent trying to ensure that doesn’t happen.

The DPS employee is grateful her district prioritized feeding families and distributing technology and internet connections so she could focus on instruction for English language learners.

“Daily English language development lessons are being provided for teachers,” Madan Morrow said. “My department did many, many sessions training teachers on the lessons they’re providing.”

Madan Morrow and the educators working with English language learners have had to troubleshoot how to teach language at a distance by embedding videos of themselves or examples found online into their remote learning lessons.

“If I don’t speak very much English, I may not be able to read the directions on the page, so we have taken video recordings of our staff members reading the directions and walking kids through what they’re supposed to do because kids don’t have that one-on-one support they might be used to,” Madan Morrow said.

Normally, Madan Morrow said DPS strives for 50% of English language learner lessons to consist of students speaking.

“That has been difficult in a remote setting,” Madan Morrow said.

When technology is available, students can record themselves talking, and teachers can give feedback later.

According to the CSU study, school-age children in Colorado living in households reporting no internet access live in higher numbers in southwest Colorado and the metro Denver region.

For DPS students still without internet access, Madan Morrow said the district will be mailing paper lesson packets next week.

“At the very least, they have some content in front of them they can make an attempt to do,” Madan Morrow said.

Educating parents

Brisa Morales, a Glenwood Springs mom, already was frustrated by her two children’s attempts at remote learning.

“Today was the first day of online classes in my house,” Morales told The Denver Post on Monday. “It’s hard to see my kids sitting at the table frustrated because they don’t understand what all the questions are and even harder for me to not explain to them and not help them with the school activities because of my Spanish speaking. This is the first day. I hope it can be better, but I’m worried it gets worse.”

Morales now spends her days working at a local nonprofit teaching largely adult Spanish speakers — mostly parents — how to use video conferencing platforms.

Some of her students have never touched a computer before. Some have never used a smart phone. Morales, who just learned how to video conference, herself, is coaching people over phone calls.

“I want people to know that not every parent knows about technology like they do,” Morales said. “Someone needs to educate us so we can be able to educate our kids.”

Jennifer Newcomer and Resnick, who conducted the CSU study, hope a silver lining from the pandemic comes in the form of thinking creatively about how to better support struggling students and their families.

“Can we get some pedagogy in daycare?” Resnick asked. “Can we think about summer programs — a lot of which probably aren’t going to run because of health concerns — but can we structure things consistent with health guidelines and reach these children and do reading circles with them in a park or nature hikes? We need to think creatively about how you continue learning for children who traditional distance learning — not that there’s anything traditional about this — does not work.”

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