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English Learners Are Falling Further Behind In The Virtual Classroom

A student participating in a distance learning virtual class during the COVID-19 pandemic in this file photo taken Sept. 2, 2020.
Ross D. Franklin / AP
A student participating in a distance learning virtual class during the COVID-19 pandemic in this file photo taken Sept. 2, 2020.
Students who are not fluent in English have received D’s and F’s at higher rates than their peers during distance learning.

English learners are receiving D’s and F’s at higher rates than other student groups during distance learning, according to recent data released by several San Diego County school districts.

While all student groups are failing classes at higher rates than they were before the pandemic, the English learner population is in some classes receiving twice as many D’s and F’s this school year compared to the 2019-2020 school year.

English Learners Are Falling Further Behind In The Virtual Classroom
Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

Daemein Patterson, an English teacher at Grossmont High School in El Cajon, said English learners are in an impossible situation.


“I imagine myself going to another country and having to do what they’re being asked to do in Arabic or in Mandarin,” Patterson said. “I’d fail miserably, but that’s what these students are being asked to do.”

RELATED: San Diego County Students Are Failing Classes At Higher Rates Amid Pandemic

Patterson acknowledges that efforts are being made to better serve these students during distance learning, but he says they are not enough to close the gap.

“Learning a new language even on an app, it works and it’s good,” Patterson said. “But being in a class being able to practice that language with your peers and having those engaging conversations and using the language, that’s by far the best way to help these students become successful.”

South Bay's Sweetwater Union High District and Poway Unified are also reporting the disproportionate rates. In Sweetwater high schools, D’s and F’s went from 20% of all grades given to 33%. But among English learners, the percentage of D’s and F’s went from 34% to 47%.


In Poway Unified, the number of failing grades among English learners went from 915 to 2,174.

The grade disparities are yet another example of the pandemic amplifying existing inequities, said Jorge Cuevas Antillón, the District Adviser for Curriculum and Instruction of Dual Language and English Learners at the San Diego County Office of Education.

English Learners Are Falling Further Behind In The Virtual Classroom

“The fact that these students are getting D’s and F’s is probably a symptom of larger issues that are going on for these students in their lives,” Antillón said.

In California’s public schools, English learners are more likely to come from low-income families and experience homelessness and are less likely to graduate than their peers.

“There’s a lot of reasons why this category that has to do with their linguistic background is just one of the many hurdles they’re experiencing when they’re trying to get an education especially now,” Antillón said.

While teachers acknowledge the need to keep students accountable and motivated with grades, grading students during this educational crisis is a disservice to students, said Ana Monge, an English Language Development Resource Teacher at Otay Ranch High School in the Sweetwater Union High School District.

“It’s unfair because the grades are assuming everyone’s internet connection is equal, that everyone’s home life situation is equal, that they have a learning space in their home, that they are in quiet locations with no other obligations,” she said.

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Monge assists non-bilingual teachers work with their students who only speak Spanish. But without the ability to develop a relationship in person, the virtual classroom stifles her outreach efforts.

“Many students have never met me, so when I do reach out to them, they don’t respond because they don’t know who I am,” she said. “They’re new to the school, they’ve never met me, and so that opportunity is lost on them.”

Monge said parents are just as overwhelmed as their students.

“Under normal circumstances, I think one of the biggest challenges for English learner students is that they don’t have a strong advocate because their parents are also English learners for the most part,” she said.

At Grossmont High, Patterson said radical measures will be necessary to undo the damage the pandemic has done to English Learners.

“I personally feel like we’re going to have to go back and start from the beginning in most cases because a lot of these students come to us not being literate or fluent in english or literate in their primary language,” he said. “They’ve had no educational access since March.”