A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report late last week—completed as part of the GAO’s COVID-19 monitoring and oversight responsibilities under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—detailed the challenges of distance learning for 5 million English language learners (ELL) and more than 7 million students who receive special education services.
Both these groups face persistent achievement gaps.
In March, school districts across the country rapidly shifted to distance learning. The US Department of Education (ED) issued guidance to schools in March and May to ensure that they continue to accommodate special education students during remote learning, but the guidance acknowledged that services may suffer.
Lack of access to technology and specialized equipment, language barriers, shortened school hours, diverse student needs, and family challenges complicated delivery of instruction for ELL and students with disabilities during distance learning, the GAO report authors found. Although school districts employed a number of strategies to address the challenges of distance learning for these student populations, many problems remained and may have exacerbated preexisting achievement gaps.
Obstacles to those learning English
In a performance audit spanning from April to November, 2020, the GAO interviewed officials from ED, school and special education administrators, representatives from teacher associations, student advocacy organizations, technical assistance centers, research organizations, and professional associations of service providers including school psychologists, and occupational and speech therapists.
The researchers reviewed distance learning plans from a selection of 15 schools districts with a variety of population densities and serving a high proportion of either ELL or students with disabilities. They then conducted interviews with officials from four school districts that had detailed distance learning plans.
The researchers found that language instruction programs—designed to help ELL attain English proficiency and meet academic standards expected of all students—were complicated by the challenges of distance learning.
ELL appear to have been disproportionately affected by lack of access to technology, compromising the ability of schools and educators to communicate expectations and deliver content to students and their families. Limited internet connectivity, device access, and data limits were compounded by language barriers that prevented families from understanding how to access web-based instruction.
Furthermore, informal opportunities to communicate with families—during school drop off and pick up, for example—were no longer available.
Interviewees shared that, during distance learning, many ELL did not have the opportunities they normally would during the school day to practice their language skills with other English speakers. Limited English comprehension also compromised the ability of families to assist students with the distance-learning curriculum, which district officials identified as highly dependent on family support.
Contributors to the report indicated that ELL and their families—more likely to come from poor households at 0% to 99% of the federal poverty level—were also more likely to have responsibilities that prevented them from fully participating in distance learning. Parents of ELL were more likely to be essential workers and thus required to work outside the home. And students were more likely to be responsible for the care of younger siblings or to need to work to help support their families.
“The difficulties of distance learning for English learners, exacerbated by language barriers, may reinforce existing achievement gaps for these students,” the GAO authors noted.
“One thing that exacerbated all of these issues was that in some school districts, the number of languages that English learners speak can be incredibly high,” Jackie Nowicki, MPP, director of K-12 education policy at the GAO, said in a GAO podcast. “In some of our largest school districts, close to 100 different languages are spoken.”
Less contact affects special ed students
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 7.1 million (14%) of public school students with disabilities were entitled to special education and related services in 2018-19, including psychological services and speech, occupational, and physical therapy.
Distance learning during the pandemic complicated the delivery of quality education to students with disabilities. The wide range of student needs represented in this population and the correspondingly wide range of services provided made it difficult to provide specialized instruction for every student.
Disability services are elaborated in student individualized education program (IEP) plans that include information about a student’s present level of achievement, annual goals, and services needed to attain those goals. The researchers noted that many districts’ student IEP plans failed to include details on how specialized instruction would be provided, even during regular, in-person learning that led to ambiguity about how to adapt IEP accommodations to a distance learning format.
Shortened school days and limited live communication time with teachers also made it difficult to meet requirements in IEPs—one student’s IEP called for 4 hours of individualized instruction during a school day that was shortened to less than 4 hours during distance learning. Additionally, hands-on services like occupational or speech therapy, or those requiring specialized equipment such as braille readers, made the delivery of virtual instruction particularly problematic.
Parents who were suddenly required to take a more active role reported feeling overwhelmed by the number of roles they were asked to assume, citing some of the same challenges noted for ELL families—an inability to assist because of responsibilities outside of the home or the need to care for other children.
Successful strategies for distance learning
Schools attempted to address distance learning challenges for ELL and special education students by providing free laptops or other devices and mobile WiFi hotspots. They used creative communication strategies, such as smartphone messaging instead of email and physically distanced home visits, and adapted materials and instructional methods.
One district partnered with a Spanish language TV network to broadcast curriculum and created bilingual paper workbooks mailed to students’ homes.
“There were so many creative ways that educators used to connect with English learners and their families,” Nowicki said in the podcast. “Some districts, to help mitigate fear of government authorities that some families face, sometimes had their teachers drive to student’s homes for socially distant visits, both to provide educational materials and to increase families’ comfort level with school personnel. We even heard about a teacher who arranged to deliver pizza to a student’s home and attached a note with her contact information.”
Some school districts modified students’ goals and services to account for the limitations of distance learning, adding temporary distance-learning plans to IEPs.
“We also consistently heard that some students flourished in this virtual environment,” Nowicki said. “For example, kids with social anxiety were sometimes better able to focus outside of a classroom of their peers.”
Many contributors identified virtual IEP meetings as an area of success, allowing parents and educators greater flexibility and, in some cases, increased participation. Some districts indicated that the success of virtual IEP meetings has led them to consider continuing to use them after a return to in-person instruction.
“They now expect that virtual IEP meetings are the way of the future. They also noted that this has been a catalyst to look at education in a different way—to figure out who will benefit from doing this virtually, and to give families these options,” the authors wrote.
Some parents were able to take on new roles during distance learning and fill in as their child’s aide or therapist, in some cases receiving remote training with specialized devices delivered to students’ homes.
“Another silver lining seemed to be increased collaboration and communication among the different parties,” Nowicki said.
“In one district, they noted that general education teachers got a much clearer picture of just how much the special education department does for its students, and they said that that kind of insightfulness is really an opening for better communication and better appreciation of special education in general moving forward.”
“School districts are facing real challenges providing services to English learners and students with disabilities during distance learning,” Nowicki noted. “And while some of those challenges affect all children, they often disproportionately affect these particular groups of kids who are already experiencing achievement gaps.
“There are clearly opportunities for educators and administrators to learn from each other about things that may work in different situations and about things that didn’t work quite so well, and we hope this report provides the starting place for sharing this type of information.”