Pandemic leads to projected learning losses among English language learners

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
In this file photo, bilingual English Language Learners (ELL) Aid Marianela Rosario, left, a former student and William Penn High School graduate, works with students Junior Severino, 15, center, and Kevin Ramos, 15, right, at William Penn High School in York, Pa., on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. (Dawn J. Sagert - dsagert@yorkdispatch.com)

Many educators say the COVID-19 pandemic will result in learning losses for most students, but local officials say the losses may be even greater for English learners. 

The research on learning loss has not been finalized, with the state Department of Education still collecting assessment data from schools, according to Carrie Soliday, supervisor of Lincoln Intermediate Unit No. 12's Language Instruction Educational Program.

She said because of additional obstacles, she believes English learners were at greater risk of losing ground during the pandemic. 

"There was a lot of loss of learning simply because of barriers," said Soliday, whose organization provides support for English Language Learner programs at 12 York County schools.

Remote and hybrid learning models made school difficult for many students, she said, but even more for English learners. 

According to new department data, more than 74% of English learners in the state were taught exclusively through remote learning in the fall, which is a higher rate than most other demographics in the report. In comparison, only about 30% of white students were taught exclusively through remote learning at the same point. 

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Many English learners come from households that didn't have access to the technology needed for remote learning. This presented additional challenges, Soliday said, both in getting the resources to the students and teaching them how to use the resources through their existing language barriers. 

Soliday said many of the system's failures had to be identified during the school year. If students didn't complete an assignment, she said that could indicate barriers that staff previously did not recognize. 

With new COVID-19 cases slowing nationwide and additional funding on the way, there is some hope for these programs. In the state budget Gov. Tom Wolf signed Wednesday, there is an extra $100 million that will be distributed to historically underfunded schools, including schools with English learners. 

The York City School District, which offers a prominent English language learners program, received $3.3 million of that $100 million — the fourth highest allocation in the state behind the Philadelphia City School District, Reading School District and Allentown City School District.

It is still unclear how much this funding will impact these programs, but Soliday said it will likely help make up for the losses of the last year. She said the funding will help schools offer additional learning time to English learners, either through summer programs or added time on school days. Schools may also be able to provide extra provisions to help students with technology barriers.