For NYC students learning English, remote learning can come with steep barriers

This is part of an ongoing collaborative series between Chalkbeat and WNYC/Gothamist  reporting the effect of the coronavirus outbreak on how New York students learn and on how educators teach.

Like many New York City students, Brooklyn teen Kelitha is wading through a new online world of learning as the coronavirus keeps schools shuttered. She’s sharing three laptops among five siblings, and is trying to complete assignments with slow internet.

But Kelitha, a sophomore at a bilingual high school who emigrated from Haiti four years ago, faces another challenge: She’s learning English as a new language, and sorely misses the in-person help she got in class.

“When you are learning in school, you get the opportunity to find teachers and staff to give you support. Now that school is online, you cannot have the help you need,” said Kelitha, who declined to share her last name or the name of her school to maintain privacy. “You try to email teachers — they don’t answer you back, they don’t email you back on time.”

About 135,000 multilingual learners like Kelitha are adapting to a new system of learning in New York City. Students learning a new language need a host of supports, and losing that in-person help can be disorienting, teachers say. Students often can’t rely on help from parents, who have their own language barriers or may be working in essential jobs outside home. Teachers are trying to adapt by offering tech support and reconfiguring lessons, but many can’t keep up with the need for individual attention.

“My biggest problem is that I’m not there,” said Aixa Rodriguez, an English as a New Language teacher at Maxine Greene High School for Imaginative Inquiry on the Upper West Side. “I can’t do small groups the same way, I can’t be over the shoulder the same way, I can’t do one-to-one’s the same way.”

Advocates and families are worried that the shift to online learning is going to leave many of these students behind next school year — students who typically are more likely to drop out than their native English-speaking peers in normal circumstances. A coalition of immigrant rights groups have called on the education department to improve its remote learning approach for multilingual learners, including strengthening communication between schools and families. 

🔗Digital divide

The city’s education department currently translates announcements and learning materials in 10 languages, and has shared with schools best practices for remotely instructing multilingual learners, such as providing teacher-recorded read-alouds. It also has a translation phone line with over 350 languages available to help families understand school communications. But some teachers told Chalkbeat/WNYC that they have some students from Central and South America or Africa who only speak oral languages and whose families haven’t been informed about what resources are available during remote learning.

Darnell Benoit is the director of the Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project, which provides support to Haitian youth who are new to the country and to the New York public school system. She herself spoke little English when she first moved to New York almost 40 years ago.

Benoit said when it comes to recently-immigrated students and their families, it’s not just about English literacy, it’s also about digital literacy, which is generally low in households that don’t have internet access. 

“The DOE thinks that everybody’s online, and we keep telling them, no, many immigrant communities, low-income communities, are not online like you think,” said Benoit. “The people that are working 16-hour days is [sic] not online.”

Her main worry is that students who are learning English and don’t understand the materials, can’t log on, or can’t keep up from home will become disengaged and fall even further behind.

Even under usual circumstances, English language learners graduate at a much lower rate than the rest of the student population. Last school year, 41% of English language learners graduated from high school on time in New York City, compared to 77.3% of students citywide. 

For Brooklyn high school teacher Jennifer Queenan, the biggest challenge has been helping students recently arrived from countries where they did not have much access to technology. A couple of her students haven’t had any internet access. Another student, who came to the U.S. just a few months ago, found it too challenging to set up an internet plan. He found a public Wi-Fi hotspot to use, but it doesn’t always work, she said.

Queenan made sure students using their phones had the Google Chrome app to use Google Translate and knew how to turn on subtitles for YouTube videos “so it translates better.”

Providing this kind of help is not an easy feat, and a recent poll by Education-Trust New York, fewer than half of surveyed multilingual parents — 48% — said their school was providing technical assistance. 

At The Woodside Community School, an elementary school in Queens, many parents are also essential workers, so they may not be home to help their children, said Israt Nali, a third-grade teacher who also teaches English language learners. 

One parent, she said, cleans a hotel and has to work late at night, but was worried about her child missing online lessons. 

“I have so much respect for them, and I don’t think there is enough justice for what they’re going through right now,” Nali said, through tears. “It makes you want to step up.”

She and her colleagues have held virtual workshops in the mornings and evenings to help answer questions from families, especially those with tough schedules. Nali is assigning shortened versions of in-depth texts and is asking her students to answer simpler questions. She’s sending them instructional videos and is encouraging students to post comments on each other’s online posts, saying that a key part of learning a new language is “using it with someone else.”

“It was confusing, but we all made sure we communicated every single step we needed in order to make sure everyone felt comfortable,” Nali said. 

🔗Overcrowded homes, overwhelmed teachers

Some English language learners who were highly motivated in school are having a hard time transitioning to remote learning because of the demands of their home environment. 

An eleventh grader in Upper Manhattan — we’re calling her Somia, because she didn’t want her name or school shared publicly — is feeling discouraged. She’s the oldest of eight kids, seven of whom are doing remote learning in their two-room apartment.

“I have to cook, I have to clean, I have to help my mom,” said Somia. “And then I have to do my work.”

In the first two weeks of remote learning, Somia, like Kelitha, would email her teachers with questions and get no response.

“When they give me work, I read. I try first,” said Somia, who moved from Yemen three years ago and speaks Arabic at home. “My grade’s going down … I never give up in my life. But now I start to give up.”

A teacher at Somia’s school, who also did not want to be named publicly, said she’s aware that some students have not heard back from their teachers.

“Imagine if you had 80 emails a night with student questions? You may not be able to answer all 80 every night,” said the teacher, who described these past few weeks as the most stressful in her 30-year teaching career. 

She says every week has gotten slightly better, as they get more students on board. Her school also started offering virtual office hours in the third week of remote learning, so that teachers could answer students’ questions more immediately.

Some teachers told Chalkbeat/WNYC that since remote learning started in mid-March, there are still a number of students who they haven’t managed to contact at all. 

“We’re getting really frustrated because our [English language learners] are the ones who are not responding,” said Moni Woweries, who teaches at ReStart Academy, a District 79 school in Manhattan. “We have so much difficulty communicating and getting them set up with the internet, and we keep running against a wall.” 

The education department issued guidance for educators who are unable to contact their English language learners students during remote learning. It recommends teachers try contacting family and relatives at different times of the day, and track all outreach efforts. Schools were also directed to use last week’s “non-spring break” to make contact with every student or family individually.

“Every day, my singular focus is serving the multilingual students, staff and families in our school system, and since we made the difficult decision to transition to remote learning I’ve committed to increasing and maintaining access to instruction and support,” said Mirza Sanchez Medina, deputy chief academic officer for multilingual learners, in a prepared statement. 

Teachers told WNYC/Chalkbeat that all the challenges have pulled their teams together closely to figure out solutions. 

Myrna De La Rosa, an elementary school teacher in Bay Ridge, co-teaches lessons through video conferencing — similar to what she does in the classroom — then jots down the names of students who have virtually raised their hands. She sets up meetings with them afterward to give them individual attention.

De La Rosa will help colleagues reach Spanish-speaking parents, while she will rely on someone else to help her with an Arabic-speaking parent. 

“I’m very proud of my kids because they’re resilient,” De La Rosa said. “They don’t give up.”


  • NYC DOE Translation and Interpretation Unit: (718) 935-2013
  • The DOE’s Learn at Home resources for Multilingual Learners and English Language Learners
  • For families who have requested an internet-enabled device, check the iPad distribution page for more information. If you need to request a device, fill out the request form here (available in Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, English, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Urdu).
  • The education department has shared some instructional tips with schools. Some examples: 
  • To keep students speaking, give them discussion prompts 
  • Provide read-alouds of texts that teachers have recorded, or links to such resources online
  • Post sentence stems or word banks that students can refer to when participating in a group discussion

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