In 2019, who would’ve thought that schools would shut down and move online? Like many institutions and businesses, the coronavirus gravely impacted the US educational system. School districts scrambled to make decisions with no precedent for the situation. Teachers, students, administrators, and parents scrambled to adjust to the evolving processes and methods of online school while balancing work, family needs, and health issues.

It was enough of a challenge for those with access to broadband internet services, additional child support, and flexible working schedules. But for those with Limited English Proficiency (LEP), many families struggled with additional and fundamental challenges, including lack of technology, access challenges to healthcare and mental health resources, lack of accurately translated content for COVID-related topics, reduced or eliminated school food, and many others. Let’s look at just some of how the lack of language understanding has affected LEP students and their families during this unprecedented time.

Educational Challenges During COVID-19 for Those with a Language Barrier

Technology: Lack of Internet Access and Devices

COVID-19 put technology at the forefront of education across the globe. From classes to meetings to after-school clubs, the internet played a critical part in communication. Yet many struggled with accessing the internet or having slow connections. According to an FCC report, approximately 19 million Americans, which is 6% of the population, lack access to broadband service at threshold speeds. People who live in rural areas are the most affected, with nearly one-fourth of the population lacking access. And although the numbers fare much better in densely populated areas, many people in urban districts have a high concentration of poor students that can’t afford a subscription service.

The internet aside, many students didn’t have reliable or newer machines to access the internet. So when schools shut down, they scrambled to help students by providing Chromebooks or other devices. Unfortunately, as schools everywhere dealt with the same issue, manufacturers weren’t able to keep up with orders. Combined with trade restrictions, many schools weren’t able to provide devices in time for the school year to start in 2020. Five million laptops were in jeopardy of being delivered at the beginning of the 2020 school year.

Many devices couldn’t support the newer technologies required for online learning. In addition, school-issued Chromebooks needed to be updated when connected to the building Wi-Fi in the school building. Since Chromebooks weren’t in the building, students experienced glitches due to the lack of updates.

Knowing how to fix device problems wasn’t common, as just 12% of US residents who are foreign-born and speak a language besides English were found to be at higher levels of proficiency in solving problems in digital problems. In addition, almost 21% of US adults who speak a language other than English have no computer experience.

Needless to say, all of the technological obstacles made online learning a challenge.

Impacts on Family Life

Many LEP students have taken on additional responsibilities and faced new challenges during the pandemic. In addition to the technical issues we described, students may have new family responsibilities such as helping their siblings with online school and caring for grandparents or extended family members while their parents work. During the height of the pandemic, most Latinx, immigrants, and refugee individuals were listed as essential workers, so they had to continue working during the pandemic, leading to more potential for exposure to COVID-19. In fact, although immigrants comprise 14% of the population, nearly 1 in 6 frontline workers were immigrants. If individuals tested positive for COVID-19, hospitals minimized interpreters and wouldn’t allow visitors, leading to a frightening experience for both patients and families, and causing financial hardships.

As a result of all these challenges, more pressure was placed on the other family members to keep the family going. Kids are generally wired to be social—not social distance and learn online. Many immigrants and LEP students don’t have access to healthcare, including mental health resources. Although schools pushed counselors and therapists to watch and listen for signs of depression and other mental health issues, with the language barrier, it was more challenging to spot signs right away. Many felt ill-equipped with the language barrier and were also faced with offending students with cultural differences. Although a lot of work has been done in the last few years, there can still be a stigma around getting help for mental health, especially within different cultures.

What Can We Do?

Clearly, many challenges still lay ahead. As a trusted language service company providing a full spectrum of translation services for LEP students and their families in the educational system, we’ve witnessed these challenges. During this time, we’ve also seen many positive things that organizations, governments, non-profits, and individuals are doing to reach LEP students, from all types of donations to community outreach programs to better access to information.

We see several opportunities to help this population. For example, there’s much to be done on many levels to strengthen language access and parent engagement beyond the students’ rights to education, more training and education around the use of communication styles and channels that are culturally appropriate and accessible for reaching families, and education around US educational systems and expectations to support immigrant families.

Language Solutions to Serve LEP Students

Avantpage’s mission is to help our clients create a linguistic bridge connecting people, cultures, and communities through mutual understanding. Although we come from diverse backgrounds and cultures, we’re joined together by a common goal of empowering immigrant populations in the pursuit of the American dream.

We provide language services for the education needs of LEP populations. Our language services include written translations of educational materials and remote interpreter services at both the state and local level. During the pandemic, our translation of the California COVID-19 website (https://covid19.ca.gov/) has provided served millions of Californians, and we’re proud to be bringing our expertise to a new partnership with the nation’s largest school district – Los Angeles USD.

For more information, contact us at info@avantpage.com or (530) 750-2040. Let us help you provide the best language services for your students.