Supporting ELLs during the Pandemic

By Erica Schatzlein

Across the country, teachers watched the global pandemic unfold with shock and trepidation. Like my fellow teachers of English language learners (ELLs), I watched with an added layer of concern. Too often, ELLs experience situations at school where their educational rights are violated. During a pandemic, these inequities could be greatly amplified.

As teachers of ELLs, advocacy runs in our blood. I am a proud member of the Saint Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) in Minnesota. One reason I am so dedicated to my union is because we fight for our ELLs, and their educational needs are prominent in our policy proposals. In February, we were in the middle of union contract negotiations, with our ELLs front and center. We were seeking more multilingual educational support professionals, who are a critical link between schools and families. We were seeking staffing ratios for our ELL teachers, so that we can ensure our students receive enough individual attention to increase their academic English skills. We were asking our district to provide these things for our ELLs, and we weren’t settling without them.

So as COVID-19 first started to spread across China, and then Italy, the 3,400 members of the SPFE went on strike. After nine months of negotiations, the strike was our ultimate refusal to accept a contract that did not meet our students’ needs. In addition to the proposals for our ELLs, we walked out to demand mental health supports for all students, and support for students who receive special education services.

The Saint Paul Federation of Educators walked out to get students the services they need. After winning key supports, they hurried back in to prepare for remote learning.

When the pandemic spread, we knew we needed to get our staff back into schools. We didn’t win everything we asked for, but we won for our ELLs. We won a staffing ratio that will get closer to ensuring all schools have the ELL resources they need, additional multilingual education support professionals, and contract language that ensures our ELL teachers aren’t pulled away to be substitutes.

Two days after we settled, Gov. Tim Walz ordered Minnesota schools closed to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Then we shifted to distance learning. And our work of ensuring equitable access to our ELLs started immediately.

Distance Learning

I often tell people I have the best job in the entire school system. I love language, and I spend my days helping students expand their abilities in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Suddenly, my students and I found ourselves in a different world. How were we going to communicate? How could I check in on them and ensure their needs were being met?

Sometimes, it feels like every single thing about education has changed. However, many things remain the same: Our students need equitable access to education, and our families need accurate information. These needs are true for every child and family, inclusive of all languages, immigration statuses, religions, and countries of origin.
For educators, having resources like Share My Lesson and Colorín Colorado are essential.

Distance learning can never replace the magic that occurs in my face-to-face classes: the collaboration, the co-teaching, and the community. Nonetheless, educators in my school and across the country are rolling up our sleeves and working relentlessly to give students every educational opportunity.

Fighting for the Rights of Our Students

Language, academics, and social-emotional health are three essential tenets of any educational program. At all times, my students need opportunities to develop their language skills. Because many distance learning lessons rely on students reading texts and responding in writing, I am also focusing on listening and speaking with my students. They need access to audio and video, and they need structured and supported opportunities to speak, too.

This work is challenging, but also rewarding. In one week in April, I experienced the delight of listening to a recording of one of my fourth-graders as she described what she has been reading, and what the characters sound like in her mind. Just one day later, I endured the pain of learning that one of our students experienced a racist anti-Asian hate crime while standing in her front yard. While she is physically unhurt, the trauma and fear our students and families—especially our Asian students and families—are experiencing must be considered in our instruction.

Supporting ELLs’ language and academic growth, as well as their social and emotional well-being, is essential. When I feel like everything in the world has changed, I return to these elements, centering myself in the needs of my ELLs and their families. Meeting those needs will be difficult, but it is the most important thing I can do as an ELL teacher.

Erica Schatzlein teaches English language learners at a public Montessori school in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She is also vice president of the Saint Paul Federation of Educators and a member of the AFT ELL Cadre. This essay is adapted from Share My Lesson’s blog. For the original version with links to many resources, see

American Educator, Summer 2020
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