DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — Juan Ramos Larios is enrolled in Decatur City Schools’ EXCEL center for students not proficient in English, and the coronavirus pandemic has complicated his education by leading to more virtual instruction.
“I don’t learn the best when on the computer,” Larios said. “When I can’t see everyone’s mouths to watch what they are saying, it is so hard to know exactly what is expected. A lot of times I don’t want to ask someone to repeat the instructions because everyone else seems to have understood.”
Larios is not alone.
In addition to virtual learning obstacles, students who aren’t fluent in English face pandemic-related challenges from the use of masks and and reduced time around English speakers, according to educators and students.
Kellie Tanner, Morgan County Schools director of federal programs, said students who aren’t fluent in English rely on situations in which they can immerse themselves in the language — and these opportunities are harder to come by during the pandemic.
“A lot of them are remote, and then of course there for a few months (last spring), everyone was remote, so there were several months there that they just did not get to be surrounded by the English language like they are in a typical school year,” Tanner said.
Tanner added that even students taking in-person classes have had less interaction with English speakers this year because of quarantines due to COVID-19 exposure.
Decatur City Schools transitioned to virtual learning for all students on Dec. 14 and will remain virtual after the holiday break until Jan. 13 due to a high number of COVID-19 exposures and cases among students and employees. As a result, students districtwide, including those like Larios who rely on in-person instruction for optimal learning, will spend nearly five weeks out of the classroom.
“It’s so important for these non-English speakers to be around the English language because they learn so much from their peers and from their teachers,” Tanner said.
Decatur City Schools English language collaborative specialist Mary Ann Hotaling said the pandemic has slowed progress for students learning English through the district’s EXCEL center, which was established in 2016.
“The progress of all students has been affected by this pandemic, not just our English language learners and not just here in Decatur. This is a nationwide issue,” Hotaling said.
Hotaling said despite the difficulties the pandemic has created, the EXCEL center is continuing to set high expectations for students and staff.
“Here at DCS, excuses are not an option. We need to meet our students where they are and where our community will allow, given the circumstances,” Hotaling said.
Hotaling said about 95% of EXCEL students are learning in-person.
“We have a few students learning virtually. Of course, there are challenges that come with virtual learning. However, we want to meet each student’s needs at their comfort level,” Hotaling said.
FACE SHIELD SOULTION
Masks pose another challenge to English language learners. Hotaling said EXCEL center staff use face shields to make it easier for students to understand what they’re saying.
“Learning phonetics and literacy has a lot of similarities at any age, regardless if it is elementary or secondary. So, using face shields is crucial for EXCEL students so they can see the formation of our mouth, and hear clearly the sounds we are vocalizing and making during instruction,” she said.
Larios has found learning harder this year even though EXCEL center principal Ressa Chittam said he is about 90% fluent in English.
“Juan is a traditional face-to-face student who enjoys being around others. He is very social and knows everyone. Learning while everyone wears a mask has made keeping up with classes and understanding the teachers’ instructions very difficult,” Chittam said. “On days when the system has gone virtual, Juan has found it hard to do his work virtually because he needs that one-on-one communication and explanation from his teachers to fully understand his work.”
IN-PERSON VS. VIRTUAL LEARNING
EXCEL center junior Katerin Aguilar, who Chittam said is about 40% fluent in English, started the school year virtually. Like Larios, Aguilar struggled to learn virtually.
“She was a virtual student for the first nine weeks of school but had difficulty doing the work on (the) computer, because she needed the one-on-one from the teachers and was hesitant to ask questions on a Google class meet,” Chittam said.
Aguilar said school is easier now that she’s returned to in-person class.
“Doing work on computers is harder than doing work on paper,” Aguilar said. “Staying disciplined to get online every day while at home was hard to do. Coming to class was easier and what I am used to doing and how I learn the best.”
Aleyda Javier, a sophomore at West Morgan High, said the pandemic has impacted all English language learners.
Although she is almost fluent in English, Javier said wearing a mask makes it more difficult to communicate.
Like Javier, West Morgan High sophomore Shadee Yafai said it’s harder to communicate due to COVID-19. He said it’s harder both to understand others and to be understood while wearing a mask. Yafai is from Yemen and has been attending West Morgan High for about six months.
Also of concern for non-English speaking students is that their parents aren’t always able to help them with their school work, Tanner said. Morgan County Schools announcements are sent out in multiple languages to accommodate families, while homework assignments are not. Although this problem existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been exacerbated by a greater number of students doing their school work from home.
“We always make information available to our parents in their native language, whatever they speak, but … it’s just so difficult to help your child when you yourself don’t have that language capability to help them,” Tanner said.