NYC’s reopening plans leave behind students who aren’t fluent in English, educators say

When she was an 8-year-old refugee from Vietnam, Samantha Nguyen felt ashamed to speak English in front of her New York City classmates after they made fun of how she pronounced certain words. That’s why now, as a kindergarten and first-grade teacher of children learning English as a new language, she focuses on creating trust among her students early on. 

But with an uncertain fall ahead, the Brooklyn teacher is worried how she’ll build relationships with her new students or how they will get all the help they need this year. 

The combination of staffing shortages, budgets cuts and social distancing requirements will make it especially difficult to support the many needs of the city’s 135,000 English language learners this fall. The education department released guidance in late July on instructing English learners this fall. But school leaders said they’ve received little useful information on how to properly serve these students, and some worry they may run the risk of not meeting state requirements for providing enough language instruction to these students. 

The implications could be dire: English language learners are the students most likely to drop out in normal times. Now, educators worry that such rates will only climb higher given the steep barriers many of these students now face with inconsistent schedules, remotely learning — whether fully or partially with the hybrid model — or without having the time to build meaningful connections with their teachers and peers. 

“With most of my students having no language at all — and their parents are not speaking English as well — it makes it so difficult,” said Nguyen, who teaches at Sunset Park’s P.S. 516. “I feel paralyzed. How can I reach these kids to open up to me when they haven’t even met me?” 

Nguyen feels it is unsafe to return to classrooms this fall, but she also wants to meet her new students in person, knowing how critical that is to gain their trust and make them feel comfortable. She fears how difficult it will be for her 4- and 5-year-olds not only navigating virtual assignments, but doing it in a language they’re not comfortable with. 

The in-person experience, however, will be dramatically different as well, teachers said.

In normal times, English learners receive extra support, depending on their needs, from co-teachers certified to teach English as a new language. These teachers also pull some children out of the classroom to give them extra language support individually or in small groups, but that seems to run counter to city health guidance, which says students should stay in their classrooms as much as possible. Teachers remain unclear on how exactly they will deliver these legally required services as principals race to create cohorts of students who will alternate days inside school buildings.

The department has offered no clear instructions on how schools without enough certified teachers will provide these services for the students who are fully remote. 

Gloria Cezeno, who moved to Queens from Ecuador two years ago, plans to opt her children out of in-person learning entirely, worrying it’s not safe to send them to school.  

While she heads to a temporary job this fall helping people move from their apartments, her 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son will be learning full-time from their Queens home. This spring Cezeno’s children often struggled to communicate with their classmates and teachers as they adjusted to online learning, marred by spotty internet on their city-issued iPads, she said. 

“[I am] a little worried on how [the kids] are going to start learning the new language again,” Cezeno said in Spanish through a translator. 

Left out of ‘pandemic pods’

Months of remote instruction could mean these high-need students are starting the school year with big learning losses, especially because social interaction at school is key for practicing a new language, educators said. As the majority of learning will continue remotely, it could deepen inequities between them and their fellow students who are fluent in English. 

Some of these students flourished during remote learning, educators said. But many others, who struggled with accessing and using technology, may have barely practiced any English at home over the past six months in isolation. Their needs might be doubled by trauma from losing relatives to the coronavirus or the need to support families by juggling work and school.

Cezeno’s daughter received extra homework help from an after-school program through Queens Community House, which she found helpful and fun. But educators are worried about students who won’t have any extra support this fall. At the same time, many of those teachers believe it is still unsafe to return to school buildings. 

“We have to double what we are doing this fall because English learners in New York City are not getting the ‘pandemic pods,’ no one is putting together special classes for them,” said Laura Baecher, an associate professor at Hunter College who specializes in teaching English as another language.

Teachers fear they might lose students who don’t log on or show up at all given the complicated schedule changes of in-person days week-to-week. 

Nathan Floro, an English as a new language and Arabic teacher at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, said he’s worried about a spike in the drop-out rate for English language learners, a quarter of whom dropped out in the 2018-2019 school year, compared to less than 6% of high schoolers citywide. 

A chunk of his students are newer immigrants without consistent formal education in their home countries, who were attending school only two or three days a week before the pandemic as they worked or babysat for their families. Several of them were unaware they could choose an all-remote schedule this fall. These students, he believes, could end up missing their few in-person days because of work conflicts. 

“If they’re only supposed to come once a week, and they miss that, that’s a huge loss,” Floro said.

How to deliver individual support

The education department provided guidance in late July on how to group together and instruct these students in a hybrid environment in order to meet state requirements. The 11-page document discussed how to avoid segregating these students — one example was to place native and new-to-English speakers with similar home languages in the same group so they can help each other. The guidance also offered examples of how co-teachers could plan their classes out together and what students should be learning in remote and blended models. That was somewhat better than 20 of the 50 districts that serve the most low-income families in New York and didn’t offer any details about how they would combat learning loss among English learners, according to Francisco Araiza, the associate director for policy and research for Education Trust-New York, which is asking state officials to closely monitor how districts are serving their highest need students.

But school leaders and teachers say these are things they already know, and this guidance failed to address the unique complications around scheduling that are different for every school, including the lack of certified staffing, the varying needs of different students and their families, and how they can create these cohorts of English learners while also accounting for siblings and students with other needs.  These major oversights are among the reasons hundreds of principals across the city say they need more planning time and are publicly pleading for a delay in reopening. 

“My two [English as a new language] teachers will be working in-person everyday, so when those A or B groups [of students] are home, there is no one available to teach them,” said one principal of a large Queens school, who asked for anonymity because they feared retribution. “I just don’t have the bodies.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised the school system will have enough staff to fill shortages, pulling from substitute teachers, instructional coaches, administrators and the city’s Absent Teacher Reserve, a pool of educators who are still on the payroll but aren’t working inside of schools. But city officials have not yet offered specifics on how this will work.

Some principals are luckier. Anthony Cosentino, principal at P.S. 21 in Staten Island, said that in addition to his two English as a new language teachers, two other classroom teachers also have licenses to teach English learners. 

But meeting all state requirements remains a challenge, he said. For example, someone must still cover for those classroom teachers when they provide focused instruction to specific English learners who require the most support, he said. 

Danielle Filson, a spokesperson for the education department, said the guidance released in July was to help teachers “start preparing to deliver rigorous and supportive instruction to our multilingual learners in the fall.” She noted that the city has offered various instructional resources to educators.

“We know there is always more we can do for our multilingual learners, and we will continue to offer resources and professional development to our educators so that they can best serve our students both remotely and in the blended learning model this fall,” Filson wrote in a statement.

Sarah Factor, who teaches at a middle school in Manhattan, is the only English as a New Language teacher at her school and used to “run from classroom to classroom” supporting her students. This spring she was responsible for helping students in 30 different Google Classroom groups. But less than two weeks before buildings are set to open, Factor still does not know how exactly she is supposed to provide support in the fall or who will help the students she’s not physically with.

“I’m just concerned about how my English language learners will do without someone to even look at in class,” Factor said. “There’s always these moments of, ‘Miss, I don’t get this,’ and I can address it in the moment, which is incredible for them. So I’m super concerned, just like I was in the spring, of not being able to keep tabs on them.”

Some educators and lawmakers want the city to expand its Regional Enrichment Centers — which provided childcare for essential workers — to students with the highest needs, such as English language learners, homeless students, and those with disabilities, while other students learn remotely. But with a goal of offering in-person instruction to everyone who wants it, the city has shown no indication it will shift its plans.  

Nguyen, the Sunset Park teacher, said instruction is actually second-place to her concerns  about the pandemic’s lasting effect on her students and their immigrant families. 

All the breadwinners in one student’s family lost their jobs, she said. Another student’s family faced eviction. A third student’s grandfather died of the coronavirus and kept asking Nguyen where he was. One student’s mother relied on gift certificates the school had purchased for families who needed help buying groceries. That mother worried where her next meal was going to come from when the certificates ran out. 

“I am counting my blessings because I have a job and a roof over my head, but my kids are suffering right now and there is nothing I can do to help them except go on these Zoom calls and pretend everything is OK,” she said, breaking into tears. 

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