When Taniya Ria moved to the Bronx from Bangladesh in 2019, she didn’t know a word of English. Within months, Taniya, now 12, was translating for her mother, making American friends in class and getting good grades. Then the pandemic arrived.
This fall, she took classes on an iPhone from her family’s one-bedroom apartment in Parkchester, struggling to make sense of the teachers’ English through the tiny screen. Words and grammar she once knew evaporated, and so did her confidence.
“This is the hardest school year of my life,” said Taniya, who is in sixth grade. “I feel like the year is going to waste.”
While the disruptions of 2020 have threatened learning loss for nearly all students across the country, the toll has been especially severe for students who come from immigrant homes where English is rarely if ever spoken.
In-person instruction is essential for these students, teachers, parents and experts say. Not only are they surrounded by spoken English in their classrooms; they also learn in more subtle ways, by observing teachers’ facial expressions and other students’ responses to directions. Teachers, too, depend on nonverbal gestures to understand their students. All these things are far more difficult to perceive through a screen.
“You can’t take everything you do in an in-person context and move it online,” said Christopher Wagner, a member of the Citywide Council on English Language Learners. “So we need to figure out what does particularly work for our multilingual learners.”
And beyond the classroom, these students, known as English language learners, absorb incalculable amounts of information about syntax, slang and vocabulary by simply hanging out in hallways and playgrounds with other students — experiences that have been lost for most New York schoolchildren this year.
“For English-language learners, if you’re not having those casual, informal, low-stakes opportunities to practice English, you’re really at a disadvantage,” said Dr. Sita Patel, a clinical psychology professor at Palo Alto University who studies the emotional health of immigrant youth.
Those concerns are playing out across the country. Parts of Virginia, California and Maryland are beginning to see E.L.L. students fall more behind than their peers, according to early fall data from each school district. In Connecticut, attendance is becoming a larger issue for English learners, who were second only to homeless students in their drop in attendance in virtual and in-person classes.
In New York City, the Department of Education does not yet have estimates on learning loss for the city’s roughly 142,000 English language learner students — among the largest populations of English learners in the country. It is also not clear how many of those students opted into hybrid as opposed to full-remote learning.
The city’s Department of Education officials said they have instructed schools to prioritize English learners in deciding who will be allowed to return to full-time in-person classes — and insist they are leveraging every resource they have available to bolster remote learning.
“Whether they’re learning in-person or remote, we are committed to providing a high-quality education to our English language learners and have critical supports and services in place to meet them where they are,” said Sarah Casasnovas, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education.
Still, students like Taniya are toiling under the radar and struggle to even ask for help in the new virtual setting.
During a music class, Taniya was confident she knew the answer to a question posed by her teacher, but her excitement was quickly dampened by a concern that she would mispronounce a word.
Over and over again, she silently rehearsed saying the answer. But by the time she had mustered enough courage to speak, the iPhone she was using for class froze. When it rebooted, her classmates had moved on. She was silent for the rest of the period.
“It’s hard for me to explain what I want to say correctly,” Taniya said. “And there are so many people in class, I get nervous about making a mistake.”
Educators who work with English language learners are having their own difficult times.
When Aixa Rodriguez, who teaches English learners at a Manhattan middle school, was in a classroom, she said she could intuit from her students’ posture and demeanor when they needed help. But now, her students are often on mute and off-camera.
“I don’t know if they’re engaged or not, I can’t figure out who needs to be redirected, and so my ability to be effective is hampered,” said Ms. Rodriguez, who has been teaching English learners for nearly two decades.
“I’m worried that the kids who are falling through the cracks will stop working as hard and stop pushing themselves,” she added. “They’re going to hit a point where they’re comfortable with their English and that’s it.”
Nadal Bertin worries about that himself. Now 18, he moved to New York last November from Haiti, where he taught himself English as best he could and worked hard to earn school credits that would be accepted in the United States. He is determined to graduate on time this spring.
“I have to get into college and make my family in Haiti proud,” Nadal said. “But I’m worried about my English.”
Nadal saw his English improve greatly over just a few months while immersed in the language at his high school in Lower Manhattan. That’s no longer the case now that he’s in all-remote classes. “Doing classes online, I don’t speak English very much anymore,” he said.
English language learners who need additional support for learning disabilities have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.
When Huiyong Yu and her family came to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, from Hong Kong two years ago, her 12-year-old son struggled to learn English and did poorly in school. She felt he wasn’t getting the right support for his autism, so this year she enrolled him in a District 75 school to receive services like speech therapy. But his progress is still hampered by virtual learning, she said.
“It’s hard for both of us to understand how to use Google Drive and Google Meet,” Ms. Yu said. “Because of that, sometimes he misses the homework.”
Ms. Yu herself has been taking an online English course at University Settlement, a human services nonprofit working with immigrants in New York. After a long shift working at a senior center, she and her son work on their separate English homework. It’s become a bonding activity during the pandemic.
“I just hope my son learns enough English that he can make some friends,” Ms. Yu said through a translator.
Opportunities to practice English can be even harder to find for students in immigrant neighborhoods where other languages are predominantly spoken. Even the most highly motivated students may learn a new language at a slower pace if they’re not surrounded by people who speak that language, experts say.
“E.L.L. students may lose more than other students and at a faster rate,” said Julie Sugarman, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
Sofia Green, whose family emigrated from the Dominican Republic five years ago, said her son, Sebastian, 14, was already most often speaking Spanish because that is what is spoken in his house and in his neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn. Now that he is in full-remote classes, her son is even less inclined to practice English, she said.
“I feel that he’s slowly going backward, ever since he started online learning,” Ms. Green said in Spanish. “If he learned better English, it would help me and our family,” she added. “He could get a part-time job too, and that could help a lot.”
In the Bronx, Taniya also feels at loss without the opportunities for off-the-cuff conversations with peers during lunchtime, gym period and in the hallway between classes — the times when she believes she made the most progress in learning English.
“I feel like I became more shy because I can’t really talk with other students anymore in online class,” she said. “I feel like it’s all my fault.”
Now, Taniya, who fan-girls about BTS, the K-pop group, and practices TikTok dances, rarely speaks or shows her face in class, unless it is to explain her slow internet.
When Taniya first noticed her English slipping in September, she would read to herself out loud to practice speaking, pulling from a towering stack of picture books and young adult novels piled on her dresser.
But over time, it became harder to pronounce the words and took longer to finish each chapter. Eventually, she stopped trying.