English-learning parents face challenges with remote learning during pandemic

by Lora Painter | News Channel 3

Monday, November 23rd 2020

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WWMT) — A love for family, a quest for a better life and a stroke of luck brought Elvis Vetene to West Michigan.

Vetene won the visa lottery, also called the Diversity Visa Program. He left the Democratic Republic of the Congo for Kalamazoo to give his family a better life.

Vetene spoke several African languages and French. But because of COVID-19 his English level was not improving.

“It’s very, very hard– very, very hard because I don’t have the time,” Vetene said. “I was very, very busy, to go to school, go to work, take care of the kids, That’s not easy.”

Vetene worked third shift at a factory and took adult English-learning classes with volunteers at the Kalamazoo Literacy Council. With two daughters under 10 years old and a teenage son with special needs, Vetene said language barriers can make it hard for him to help his kids with their online school work since their classes moved online because of the pandemic.

“If [I don’t] understand that, that’s difficult for them too,” Vetene said.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, as of the 2016-2017 school year, Michigan’s schools were home to more than 94,500 English language learners.

“Many of our ESL parents have expressed frustration due to distance learning,” Jacqueline Denoyer, an Adult Learning Service Navigator with the Kalamazoo Literacy Council.

As a navigator, it is Denoyer’s job to help the Council’s students reach their educational goals by removing barriers that keep them from having access to education. Since the pandemic started, it has mostly involved transitioning their students from in- person learning to digital learning.

For adult learners, the Virtual Learning Center for the Kalamazoo Literacy Council has a schedule of classes, including fall 2020.

Vetene had taken English classes supported by the Council. Denoyer said she and her team were able to identify a lot of need from parents like Vetene who were concerned about what was happening with their children and feeling helpless.

“There is a lot more burden on parents to explain concepts to children, and parents tell me that even if they have studied these subjects in their own language, they don’t know the words in English and they are spending more time trying to understand them,” Denoyer said.

“For most of our adult ESL students, their children are the ones who explain to the parents how to use Zoom and set it up for them. Internet connectivity is a big problem,” Denoyer said.

Many school districts have specially trained English as a second language, also known as ESL, teachers, who not only help students acquire English skills, they also help families adjust to their new school and community and connect them with resources.

“During the pandemic, we’ve improved communication with students and their families,” Stacy Nieto, the English Language Learner Coordinator with Comstock Public Schools said.

From daily texting to setting up Google Class, Nieto said teachers and students are connecting even more.

Many districts, including Kalamazoo Public Schools and Portage Public Schools, have also equipped students with laptops and other types of technology to help them access online learning tools from home.

“Even in remote learning we have set up schedules for ESL students, and the support still comes outside of the classroom time too,” Cindy Green, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Services at Kalamazoo Public Schools, said.

Small group time, office hour times for parents to call in to talk with their teachers, and also additional technology software for student to get additional English help, are a few of the many ways Green said KPS is helping ESL students and their families in the remote-learning world. She said teachers have developed ways for students to get extra practice and additional literacy support.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA), public schools must ensure that English Learner (EL) students can participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs.

Even with this help, families can still encounter challenges.

“Some of our students live in apartments with multiple children doing homework in the same room sharing a weak Wi-Fi connection,” Denoyer said. “We sometimes have our learners come to [online] class in a room full of people with a cacophony of noise behind them.”

In addition to literacy education, Denoyer said, over the summer, the council had planned a course with health literacy content for their learners. They were able to add COVID-19 content into the curriculum which taught students vocabulary and skills that allow them to better access care.

Educators said there are some positive impacts from remote learning that were brought on because of the pandemic.

“The parents we work with are even more aware of what their students are learning because of remote learning,” Nieto said. Parents have more questions and teachers are answering them, Nieto added.

Despite the challenges for families, students and teachers, educators recognize everyone has a common goal: to give students a strong educational foundation to help them have successful futures no matter what level they are starting at.

“We’ve received teenage students who’ve had very little formal education,” Green said. “They definitely want to learn and do well and be able to get a degree and support themselves in a job.”