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Online Learning Brings Extra Challenges To English Language Learner Students In Weld County

Greeley-Evans School District 6
Carmen Bustillos (upper left), a second language acquisition teacher at Brentwood Middle School, teaches a virtual English class to English language learners.

"Welcome back to our English class everybody," Carmen Bustillos, a second language acquisition teacher at Brentwood Middle School in Greeley-Evens School District 6, greets her class of seven.

She is talking to her students through the district's video platform. They are from Mexico, Guatemala, Eritrea and Myanmar. The students range from newcomers to more seasoned residents who have been in the United States for a few years. District 6 classifies them as English Language Learners, or ELL, students.

District 6 has over 22,000 students and about one-third are either current or former ELL students. They come from all over the world and speak over 80 languages.

"We hope that you enjoyed your morning classes," Bustillos continues. "Were they good?"

Due to COVID-19 and the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Jared Polis closed all preschool through 12th grade school buildings statewide until April 30. This forced school district to switch to online classes and remote learning and District 6 needed to make sure all students would be able to learn.

"My initial response was, 'Well, I do love a good challenge,'" said Cassie Guy, the elementary culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) coordinator for District 6.

Guy's works alongside Jessica Cooney, the secondary CLD coordinator, to oversee the programming and teachers for students who are learning English.

"We truly believe that our students deserve and they need to be in general education in order to learn," Guy said. "They need to around other kids who are speaking English, that are fluent English speakers."

One way District 6 achieves this is to have CLD teachers co-teach with regular content teachers. Co-teaching has continued online and CLD teachers also have virtual office hours to work with their students.

"The classes that I'm assisting in," Bev Anderson, CLD teacher at Brentwood Middle School, said,  "the content teachers teaching and I'm listening and watching at the same time."

Anderson helped create the online CLD curriculum. She also works with Bustillos and is sitting in on her virtual English class.

"I like to stay as silent as possible and these kids are asking questions in the public chat. I just quickly answer the questions on the side," Anderson said. "They'll call me and say, 'I'm really confused about this. Can you help me?'"

Staying informed

Teaching ELL virtually is just one part of the online learning experience for these students. The district also gave them Chromebooks and is working to ensure they have good internet access. But families also need to stay informed.

District 6 partnered with the Immigrant and Refugee Center of Northern Colorado to translate notices, information about online learning and COVID-19 updates in several languages including Spanish, French, Swahili and Malay.

The translations are not only written but turned into audio recordings for families that might not be literate in their native languages.

"They can click and hear the information in their native language so that they're still kept up to date and they still understand," Cooney said.

Lisa Taylor is the executive director of the Immigrant and Refugee Center of Northern Colorado. The district has done a great job working with families, she said, but there is a digital literacy divide. Older students are more digitally adept and adjusting quicker.

"But for our clients who have younger children, where there is the need for assistance and engaging this medium, many of them don't possess those skills themselves." Taylor said. "That's not something that's a part of their world."

The center has called clients and created tutorials in their native languages to help them help their kids. District 6 continues to be supportive, flexible, and patient during the transition, said Taylor.

"We're grateful for that for sure. But it would be misleading to not fully admit what a heavy lift it's been for our clients," she continued.

Online classes are not ideal for ELL students but overall, they are going well, according to Anderson. Attendance is good and most students can complete the reading and writing assignments. But the oral part is a challenge, she said. There isn't enough time for students to talk during the virtual class.

"At least when they're in school, they're required to speak in English," Anderson continued. "These kids will probably regress a little bit. So, they'll go backwards on their speaking ability because at home, it's their first language completely."

District 6 has identified about 600-700 students who are without internet access or don't have a strong enough connection to take video classes, said a spokesperson. They have been given schoolwork on paper while the issue gets resolved. This includes some ELL students. CLD teachers regularly call and monitor their students to make sure they can get the content and the supports they need to learn.

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