Pandemic Learning Was Tough On Everyone. Bilingual Students Faced Additional Challenges


After gaining a foundation in one language, students are expected to begin learning the same in their second language (either Spanish or English) by the time they leave second grade.

Across the school, the walls of Patricia Lozano’s fifth grade classroom are adorned with vocabulary words posted in English and Spanish.


Anchor chart/póster de estrategia.

Now that they’re in-person, Lozano has worked hard to get students talking. She’s been able to return students to their routine of group and paired work, where an English-proficient student and a Spanish-proficient student team up to support each other.

Engaging students virtually during lockdown was onerous, Lozano recalls. They turned off their cameras and didn’t interact with each other. Even after the initial return to campus, it was as though students were still virtual.

Many Garcia Elementary students don’t have WiFi at home. The district deployed WiFi-connected buses to neighborhoods and gave out hotspots, but Lozano’s students still struggled with choppy signals. Parents worried about their children’s academic progress opted for in-person classes in April 2021, when it became optional.

“They would just stare or say a couple words,” Lozano says. “They had not practiced the language with their peers, and they were shy.”

There was a big gap when these emergent bilinguals returned to campus, not only with academics but with confidence in speaking English. Lozano’s fifth graders were in third grade when virtual learning began, she says, and many students learning English didn’t have someone to practice speaking with at home.

Once Lozano had students back in the classroom, her strategy to get them to open up was making games out of group work, where students who interacted the most with each other got points and entered into weekly raffles. Bit by bit, their discussions became longer.

“I have seen a big improvement,” Lozano says.

Broader View

When Villegas interviewed bilingual education professions across the country, she found that the pandemic revealed which districts had invested in support for those programs and which lagged behind.

Schools that had strong instructional programs for English learners had an easier time transitioning to remote learning, she says, and one state-level administrator told Villegas that the pandemic highlighted the need to have a conversation with districts still employing more antiquated, less successful models.

“It’s a good testament as to why those investments have to happen all the time, not just in the face of a pandemic or emergency,” Villegas says. “But just because [students] were logging on doesn’t mean they were able to engage in the instruction and curriculum.”

Teachers were overwhelmed, too, and bilingual students lost support. Villegas’ research found that educators who teach English as a second language were pulled away to staff general education classes, while in other cases general education teachers were thrust into ESL roles with little preparation.

One model of bilingual education involves taking students out of core classes for structured English instruction, she adds, which interferes with students fully participating in those core classes.

“If they were already kind of being siloed and pushed into another class and not accessing the full range of academic courses, it also happened in remote settings—but on steroids,” Villegas says.


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