NYC Public Schools Are Failing English Language Learners

As the New York City public school system has transitioned completely to remote learning, they have abandoned struggling English language learning students and immigrant families who lack digital literacy.

Asha Ramachandran, Deputy Opinion Editor

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, New York City public schools have transitioned to remote learning for the duration of the school year. For many students who are immigrants or the children of immigrants, particularly English-language learners, the public school system has failed to accommodate them. Over 160,000 ELL students in New York City have had their education abruptly disrupted and many are struggling to catch up.

Immigrant families are more likely to live in poverty and have lower median earnings than U.S. born citizens. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated this disparity, as working-class, immigrant neighborhoods have been hit the hardest. Immigrants in these neighborhoods live in worse conditions in closer proximity and have less access to essential resources like the internet. 

Stable and reliable internet access as well as safe living conditions are obvious necessary precursors to successful online education. Given that ELL students already face a variety of unique challenges in public schools that require adapted learning, the loss of these adaptations has been a significant blow to their ability to learn effectively. 

New York City public schools seem to have taken digital literacy among its students and families as a presumption, rather than something that varies drastically across socio-economic and immigration backgrounds. Although the school system has taken some important steps to accommodate immigrant families, such as providing a translation phone line meant for communication with schools, this is not nearly enough. New York City public schools have failed to even inform some families what resources are available online. For immigrant families who are unfamiliar with the internet or do not have digital literacy, this prevents them from accessing essential tools students need for success. For New York City public schools to take digital literacy as a presumption when many households do not even have internet access is gross negligence at best.

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For students still learning English and those who cannot easily understand the language, the loss of a teacher who can assist them in person and work through their difficulties is a major, perhaps insurmountable barrier. Organizations that assist immigrant youth are urging the city to take concrete action in accommodating these students as the challenges facing these students grow every day. The consequences of the school system’s inaction during the pandemic will be significant for ELL students, who already graduate at a rate 36% behind all students citywide. 

When surveyed recently, around 38% of non-English home speakers said their respective schools were not providing translated material for students. Many of these families are already struggling financially, as is far more likely among immigrants in the city. Many parents are now considered essential workers and cannot afford to stay home and assist their children. Public schools should be taking every step to reach out to and accommodate immigrant families and ELL students, who are especially vulnerable right now. 

Other school districts around the country such as Oakland, California are faring better than New York City by taking concrete steps to reach out to immigrant families and accommodate them. The Oakland Unified School District reached out to families to ask whether students had access to technology and food, among other necessities. The city published its resources in multiple languages and took additional efforts to contact families and inform them of those resources. Oakland schools have significantly eased the burden on students and families by making assigned work and attendance optional. These are just some additional steps the public school system in New York City must take to accommodate immigrant families and make sure they are not left behind.

The coronavirus pandemic is laying bare some of the deep-rooted hierarchies and injustices in this country’s education system. New York City has a diverse population — 38% of which is comprised of immigrants — but it is also deeply racially segregated within the public school system. Public schools have neglected immigrants and ELL students for far too long and the coronavirus makes outreach and accommodation all the more urgent. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo called the virus “the great equalizer,” but the reality is that the virus and the governmental response is exacerbating inequality at the expense of some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers: immigrant families.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

Email Asha Ramachandran at [email protected]

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