Much has been written over the past year about the “learning loss” that many U.S. students are experiencing. The COVID-19 pandemic greatly affected education around the world when face-to-face teaching in schools was suspended. I have noticed how often the term learning loss is mentioned in discussions that I read from experts around the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) analyzed a study from the Netherlands that showed learning losses are up to 60% larger among students from less-educated homes, confirming worries about the uneven toll of the pandemic on children and families.
From my experience in speaking to teachers around the United States and reading frequently about the topic, it is evident to me that educators are really worried about English learners’ (ELs’) learning loss during the pandemic.
Let’s Look at the Challenges That ELs Faced During the Pandemic
English learners have faced a huge number of barriers during the pandemic: food insecurity, fears about losing housing, lack of access to internet and devices, and job loss to name a few—all of which has been well documented.
- The JAMA Pediatric Journal (April 5, 2021) reports between 37,000 and 43,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent due to COVID-19. This is a 20% increase in parental loss over a typical year. In addition, many children have lost other close family members, such as aunts, uncles, and grandparents. It follows that if ELs are 12% of the population, they would also suffer at least a 20% increase in the number of losses.
- Sudden death of a parent or other close family member from COVID-19 can be especially traumatizing for ELs. The loss of loved ones from COVID-19 took place when families were socially isolated. This is especially true of EL families because many immigrant families do not have the backing of an extended family group. Bereaved ELs are often without the supports they need, and children who lost a parent are at an elevated danger of extended trauma, including depression and poor academic performance in school. These consequences can be long term.
- The learning loss estimated by educators all over the United States is enormous. Another report from the PNAS shows that learning loss due to school closures is severe. The report states that:
children of very low-educated parents (i.e., none of the parents have more than lower-secondary education; in total, 8% of the families) suffer more from school closure than children from more-educated backgrounds.
According to Grantmakers in Education and reported by Latino Literacy, 60% of families of ELs have an income below 185% of the federal poverty line.
Our Kids Are Not Broken
Ron Berger, who wrote an article for the Atlantic, “Our Kids are Not Broken,” says that districts are focusing of remediating learning loss. Students are being categorized and instruction will be focused on remediation. Berger says, “the students who have experienced the most trauma and disconnection during the pandemic may be assigned to the lowest level and most stigmatized groups.” These students will be viewed as deficient, and the inequities in place before and during the pandemic will be further amplified. Children, having been told that they are behind, will internalize the story of their loss.
Debbie Zacarian, coauthor of the book Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress, commented in an email to me that:
Crises, unfortunately, are not new to English learners and their families—many of whom have faced the devastation civil strife, natural disasters, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. All too often, we tend to focus on what we perceive is broken in their lives. We use deficit-based language to describe our feelings, such as “They’ve missed so much schooling and have lost so much as a result.” These types of statements have become such a part of our everyday conversation that the phrase learning loss has become a central theme in our professional dialogue.
Let’s Celebrate the Resilience of ELs During the Pandemic
It is important that teachers move from the deficit view of how ELs fared over the last 15 months and celebrate how they have persevered during the trials of the pandemic. This means that educators need to help ELs deal with the losses and trauma that the pandemic has caused. It’s important to emphasize the assets and the personal growth that these students bring back to school after the pandemic.
We need to focus on their social-emotional needs and celebrate all our students have accomplished during the pandemic. If the families were able to procure devices and Wi-Fi, their children were in school remotely. Childcare often fell to older siblings, who were also charged with helping our students in online classes. According to Colorín Colorado, older children in immigrant families may also have had big responsibilities, including working outside of the home. As a result of the pandemic, they may have been the primary breadwinners in their families.
Even though some of our ELs dropped out of school over the past 15 months, some of them have learned how to juggle family responsibilities with their academic learning. Many have remained committed to school and their additional responsibilities at home. Others went to work to support their family and are now returning to school. They have all shown resilience and resourcefulness. Let’s celebrate their achievements!
Educators of ELs need to band together in their school districts to advocate for their students. Please share with readers how you are advocating for your ELs, or how you are celebrating their resilience, by writing in the comment box below.