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South Bay Teachers Try To Bridge The Digital Divide For English-Language Learners

Two students walk past the front gate of Emory Elementary on Feb. 23, 2017. T...

Credit: Megan Wood / inewsource

Above: Two students walk past the front gate of Emory Elementary on Feb. 23, 2017. The school is part of the South Bay Union School District which reported 20 percent of its students were homeless in the 2015-16 school year.

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One-fifth of San Diego students returning to virtual school this month are English Language Learners. And that makes distanced-learning all the more difficult.

Aired: September 1, 2020 | Transcript

Silvia Miranda is a first-grade teacher at Nicoloff Elementary School, which is part of the South Bay Union School District. This district serves 7,000 students. Just over half of them are English Language Learners, meaning they don’t speak English at home.

So, when the pandemic hit in March, during a crucial stage of development, these students’ language acquisition dropped off.

“It was a huge challenge, first of all. Many of them don’t have internet access. They’re low income, so internet is very expensive for them,” Miranda told KPBS.

She handed out some hotspots for her students, but gone were the one-on-one conversations she had with them to develop their language skills.

Miranda scrambled to shift online, while her students and their parents grappled with the immediate shift to virtual learning.

“I don’t even think I can count the number of hours that I had to spend just to figure out the new platform, or how to do lessons online, how to download videos, do my read-alouds, and send them out,” she said. “It was a lot of work just to get things going. If it was challenging for me, imagine just how challenging it was for my parents.”

After a summer of preparation, Miranda’s virtual class opened on Monday. All students in the district have been given a laptop and internet access, but many of them will be without parental assistance while in class.

“They (the parents) cannot afford just to stay home like we do. They have to go and work. So our students are sometimes on their own with older siblings,” Miranda said.

She explained there will be virtual breakout groups for more personal instruction, along with the use of prepared videos to demonstrate concepts, and even individual work.

Reported by Max Rivlin-Nadler

But it’s going to be tricky for teachers to reach their youngest students. For these language-learners, any instruction time lost could reverberate with them for years.

“The learning loss that we fear is going to be true for all children, because of the pandemic, is going to be inequitably magnified for English-learner students,” said Magaly Lavadenz, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Loyola Marymount University. There, she directs a program that creates curriculums to promote equity for English language learners.

She told KPBS that virtual classrooms, at the end of the day, are still no substitute for in-person language instruction.

“Part of the exacerbation is that even with the best of Internet technology, people are still disconnected from each other,” she said.

Lavadenz believes that teachers and students in areas hardest hit by the pandemic, especially Latino communities, have found ways to deepen their connections.

“It really has emphasized what the depth and breadth of the needs of families are. And by knowing that, schools are really trying to respond to the whole family. The focus on the connections, the human connections, is really a value-add. When school started this fall, the focus was on supporting students socially and emotionally. That’s really where we should start always in learning,” she said.

While teachers are trying to be there for their students emotionally during this time, it’s no replacement for the social cues that a teacher can pick up on for English-language learners in the classroom.

“For our youngest kids who are language learners, just imagine the conundrum here of understanding what the teacher’s trying to explain to you. She is basically right in front of you, but only in a box,” said Jorge Cuevas-Antillon, San Diego County’s coordinator for Multilingual Education. “So when you have a box and you’re talking about a thing like a ball, you don’t really know what the teacher is talking about, but it’s not making full sense, as it would if you were actually doing something where the kids were playing with the ball. And doing something that is a language-rich activity.”

RELATED: San Diego County Schools Preparing To Welcome Kids Back To Classrooms

Even as the county has provided ready-made curriculums, support, and specific standards to teachers, Cuevas-Antillon is not downplaying the challenges this school year poses for teachers and their dual-language students — especially as conversations between students play such a large role in language acquisition.

“You can imagine that for our really young kids, it’s really tough to expect the kids to manage conversations and to easily gather all their attention back up,” he said.

And language acquisition is made all the more difficult as teachers try to battle through barriers of language, technology, and just general bureaucracy.

Over the weekend, with classes set to start in just a few hours, parents and teachers in the South Bay posted in Facebook groups about the lack of class assignments, login credentials, and Zoom links.

All setting up a first week of school like no other, especially for students who need the attention the most.

Listen to this story by Max Rivlin-Nadler.

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Photo of Max Rivlin-Nadler

Max Rivlin-Nadler
Speak City Heights Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover City Heights, a neighborhood at the intersection of immigration, gentrification, and neighborhood-led health care initiatives. I'm interested in how this unique neighborhood deals with economic inequality during an unprecedented global health crisis.

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