Remote learning presents unique — and similar — challenges for English learners

Back to School Guide

Learn how local school districts are preparing for the upcoming semester and what families can do to prepare on their own.

FILE – In this Nov. 26, 2018, file photo, Odalys Tebalan works on an assignment at Fairview Elementary in Carthage, Mo. Millions of children are suddenly learning at home everything from reading and multiplication to literature and calculus as a result of school closures prompted by the global coronavirus pandemic. Many parents are trying to guide their children through assignments, but many face the challenge of English comprehension. (Roger Nomer/The Joplin Globe via AP, File)

Online learning poses several challenges for students and families, especially those who are not fluent in English.

While local school districts have released plans that provide support and resources for their English Learners (ELs) during remote learning, some acknowledge that in-person learning “typically delivers the best possible environment” for ELs.

“Interaction among students to practice and acquire language is crucial, and learning in a common environment creates the strongest results,” Henrico County Public Schools’ “Return-to-School FAQs” page reads.

Classroom interaction has been seen as one of the best ways to immerse students in the language they are learning but Chris Chang-Bacon, an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, believes that online learning presents its own advantages. He told 8News that virtual classes keep students immersed in their native language at home while they also learn English, allowing them to maintain bilingual skills that Chang-Bacon says is vital in the future.

The challenges that Chang-Bacon does see for ELs with virtual learning are “very similar to the ones they are facing in the classroom. Not recognizing how we should use their bilingual talents.”

Roughly 5 million public school students in the U.S. were classified as English-language learners in 2017, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Figures from the Virginia Department of Education show that last year there were a total of 1,296,822 students in the state, with 116,450, nearly 9 percent, identified as English learners.

Chang-Bacon, a former ESL teacher who studies equity in multilingual and multicultural contexts, said that he’s encouraged by the effort from teachers but that school districts have had to put reopening plans together quickly that could “leave out ELs.”

Richmond Public Schools, which has roughly 3,300 English-language learners, said in its 51-page reopening plan that Language Instruction Education Program teachers and general education teachers will partner together “to provide small-group instruction and support, and may at times co-teach” during the virtual school day.

“It’s sad that we can’t see our students,” Dr. Jannette DuHart, the bilingual and EL coordinator for Richmond Public Schools, said. “But I would say the preparation has been phenomenal.”

Dr. DuHart explained that her optimism for the upcoming semester comes from the work done in the summer with the district’s virtual learning platform, RPS@Home. DuHart and Tyra Harrison, RPS’ director of academic supports, both told 8News that the teachers who utilized the platform in the summer were able to share lessons on what they learned during remote learning and how to best support virtual classes.

Harrison cited the effort by Superintendent Jason Karmas and the school system to make sure teachers were “communicating early and often” with families. She also noted the importance of community walks, where RPS staff and volunteers would pass out flyers and door hangers about its reopening plan, for helping engage “communities in ways that we might be missing.”

A push to get families more involved won’t be as hard as many think, Chang-Bacon explained. He told 8News that research shows that parents are overwhelmingly supportive of their children’s academic growth, but not all in the same way.

“Some look forward to PTA meetings, some don’t,” he said, “but every English learner when you ask on graduation who they thank the most, they are going to talk about their parents.”

Chang-Bacon believes that there are several tools to help students learn English during online learning, including the use of translators, introducing current events in their own language to help put news in perspective and videos and visuals that transcend language. Despite concerns and with virtual classes set to begin, there are additional resources available for students and families to use outside of school.

Resources for families to use during a virtual semester:

Colorín Colorado provides free information, activities and support to families, students and teachers. It also has lists of books and classroom videos for students to use. The site has tips for parents that want to help their children at home, including sections on learning how to read, best ways to learn at home, resources for parents of teens and more.

Breaking News English allows English Learners to improve their vocabulary and grammar through the context of current news topics.

English Grammar Guide gives students guides with examples for learning grammar concepts.

Hello-World provides more than 800 English games and activities at no cost.

Learn that Word helps students learn words faster with free online tutoring sessions.

How school districts are providing support to ELs in the fall:


English Learners (ELs) in Henrico schools will get their ESL instruction directly from a Language Instruction Educational Program teacher “under the predominantly virtual model” as part of their weekly class schedule. Henrico County Public Schools also intends to allow students to finish activities that support language acquisition at a time that works best for them.

LIEP teachers in the county will still work with classroom teachers to accommodate the needs of ELs during the virtual start. Henrico schools also plans on using several digital support resources that meet students at their own level: SmartyAnts, DreamBox, Lexia Core, BrainPop, Newsela and NoRedInk.

The district suggests that families take part in the learning process, saying parents play a vital role in helping their children develop literacy skills, even if they don’t understand English very well.

“If your child reads in his or her native language, continue to practice their reading and writing skills to develop literacy in their native language. These skills will transfer and grow as they learn English,” HCPS’ return to school page explains.


English Learners will have to take part in an English Language Development block. Richmond schools will utilize online programs during this block, including Imagine Learning, Read 180 and Language Live, and LIEP teachers will be providing instruction.

The students in Richmond schools with low numbers of ELs will join virtual co-taught ELA classes and ELD elective classes and the district plans to make accommodations to schedules “to ensure all our English Learners have access to the services they require.”

“Our Response to Intervention (RTI) model, is a framework that provides support to ALL students to ensure mastery of grade-level content standards. The tiers of RTI provide varying levels of support for students who are struggling to reach mastery as well as those who meet or exceed grade-level,” RPS spokeswoman Danielle Pierce told 8News. She noted that any additional support given to students will based on their needs, not tied to a designation such as ELs.

Families who have a new RPS student can check whether their child qualifies as an English Learner by going to its Welcome Center at 4100 Hull Street. Families are required to wear face coverings during their visit.


In Chesterfield, which had more than 4,500 ELs enrolled last year, plans to phase in students who are not fluent in English (Levels 1-4) for in-person learning. There are no specific plans to provide additional support to ELs.

There are options provided by the school district to support families during virtual learning, but none of which are specifically tailored to English Learners.


Hanover County Public Schools has committed to letting parents choose whether their child will have in-person or online learning, both of which will be full-time instruction from Monday to Friday, under Phase Three of the state’s reopening plan.

English Language Learners will still be permitted to have face-to-face instruction if Gov. Ralph Northam decides to eventually move the county back to Phase Two but not if the area reverts back to Phase One.

“English language learners should be served with push-in instruction to the greatest extent possible. Careful structures must be considered to ensure a strong school-home partnership given that language barriers may exist,” Hanover schools’ “Return to Learn Plan” states.

The district’s plan says that take-home resources should be provided during virtual learning but does not specifically mention any tools that students would use.

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