North Carolina ESL Educators Overcome Pandemic Challenges

Cindy Anderson, an English teacher at Culbreth Middle School, has worked with students from diverse backgrounds, many of whom are new to the United States and have come from non-traditional educational paths.

When English learning moved online during the pandemic, Anderson said, it became difficult for teachers and students.

“It’s put (the students) at least a year behind, if not more, and trying to get them to a certain level at this point is very difficult,” she said.

English language learners often aren’t able to get as much help outside of school as other students, Anderson said. This lack of support can hurt them academically.

“Some of our better-off students can get a lot of help, our kids can’t,” she said. “Maybe they were home alone while mom and dad worked, or mom and dad slept during the day so they could work at night.”

As the pandemic and associated staffing shortages have taken their toll on North Carolina school districts, English teachers like Anderson have faced many unique challenges.

Emily Lewis, ESL facilitator for Orange County Schools, said in an email that the broader teacher shortage has affected the ESL curriculum for the school district.

Lewis said that at one school, several kindergarten teachers had to learn how to deliver language lessons to students due to a lack of available ESL teachers.

“Truly the teachers are stretched and doing their best, but we all know we could do more if we were full,” she said in the email.

Lewis supervises, provides instructional coaching, and monitors the effectiveness of the ESL program. This work, she said, has been directly and significantly affected by the pandemic.

Along with other ESL teachers, Lewis has been forced to learn how to navigate remote learning during the pandemic. She said she provided lessons and support directly to students due to teacher shortages caused by the COVID-19 quarantine and isolation.

Sashi Rayasam, director of K-12 English learner services for Durham Public Schools, said in an email that the pandemic has also had a significant effect on ESL teachers for the DPS.

She said that although the pandemic has affected English learners, there have been no significant vacancies for ESL teachers.

“Teachers had to adapt to virtual delivery of the curriculum, ensure students had access to technology, and manage student access to social/emotional support,” Rayasam said.

Fight against the shortage

To make up for the lack of certified teachers, Lewis said the OCS has added English tutors to its ESL program. She said this opportunity has allowed English learners to receive more one-on-one support.

Carrie Doyle, president of the Orange County Board of Education, said OCS’s ESL programs are working “reasonably well” despite the pandemic and associated staffing shortages.

“Specifically for ESL teachers, we currently have one part-time position at the primary level that is vacant and one full-time position at the middle level that is vacant,” she said. “We don’t have any vacancies in high school.”

However, she said it was difficult to find people involved in translation and family outreach services, which led to these specific shortages in some schools.

To address these staffing shortages, the district has established Parent Academies for families whose first language is not English. These programs are designed to provide parents with a better understanding of how to access services such as the college application process and online education programs for their students.

“A lot of people come from different countries with different understandings of public school, and so it’s as much the language (as) the way the American education system works that we offer families,” Doyle said.

Lewis said in an email that although many families struggled during remote learning, the return to in-person learning has helped ESL teachers better reach their students.

“This partnership between schools and families has continued beyond remote learning and I am proud of our ESL team’s continued efforts to help families become essential members of their respective school communities,” said she declared.


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