ESL Students and COVID-19

By Aiden Holczer

Every morning—7:55 am sharp—I roll out of bed, pick up my laptop, and promptly return back to the comforting embrace of my bedsheets to give what I know to be minimum effort in my first period class and all classes that follow. This is how life has been for me and many other students across the country for the last 4-5 months. I have done a lot of complaining recently about the quality of the education I have been receiving, a curriculum that has been poorly adapted to a now even more technologically dependent world. But if there is one thing I am thankful for, above all else, it’s the fact that I am an English-speaking student.

For all students—heck, even teachers—who may be reading this, I want you to ask yourself a question: how long did it take for you to become adjusted to online learning? Now imagine what your answer might look like if you didn’t speak America’s not-so-official language. I would wager that your original answer could go into your new one at least several times over. 

ESL (English Second Language) and ELL (English-Language Learner) programs have been implemented in America since the early 60’s, with Florida’s Dade County being the country’s first public school district to mandate it’s inclusion in their school’s curriculum. This was due in large part to the massive wave of Cuban imigration to Florida that peaked in the 60s. The aforementioned Dade County was, and still is located inside of Miami, the epicenter of Cuban immigration to the U.S. 

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of ESL/ELL students are not immigrants. In reality,  85 percent of pre-kindergarten to 5th grade ELL students and 62 percent of 6th to 12th grade ELL students are born in the U.S. (Zong and Batalova, 2015). While they might not be immigrants themselves, many ESL/ELL students come from communities, and by extension households, where they have been surrounded since birth by immigrants who speak almost exclusively in their native language.

 Of course this isn’t an inherently bad thing. Quite the opposite; in fact, afterall, it is America’s greatest strength to be a nation made up of multiple diverse and vibrant cultures. But being brought up in environments such as this downplay the need to learn English, and in a nation where English is essentially the non-official language of the land, this can lead to great difficulties navigating different sects of the world later on in life–whether it be business, medical, or in the case of this article, school-related. 

For many ESL/ELL students, difficulty learning English doesn’t just mean that their GPA might drop a few points, or that they get below a C on their science test, it could literally mean the difference between graduating and not graduating. In a study conducted before the nationwide shutdown of the public school system, the National Center for Education Statistics concluded that 67% of  students with “limited English skills” graduated from high school after four years compared to the national average of  84%.

With a growing teacher shortage across the country and an invisible enemy that doesn’t look to be going anywhere anytime soon, it should surprise no one if this number is frighteningly worse by the end of the 2020-2021 school year. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that all students across the country are suffering at the hands of things out of our control, but the 4.9 million students across the nation that make up the U.S’s  ESL/ELL programs are being affected at a disproportionate rate. The same way students from lower-income families and communities have been negatively impacted for decades. The first step in promoting change is awareness, and second is action. And as such, I hope that school systems around the country will divert resources and funding towards these essential programs that set students up for success in the future and in the present as well. 

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