Schools across Kentucky are shut down for the remainder of the academic year because of COVID-19, and most students are adapting to virtual learning.
But students who were already struggling, or have English as a second or third language, are at-risk for falling behind.
Educators in Owensboro Public Schools, like teachers across the nation, are increasing communication to keep at-risk students engaged.
Estes Elementary in Owensboro, which has students in preschool through 5th grade, has about 100 "English Learners." Those students are dealing with the combined challenges of language and the loss of in-person instruction in the classroom.
Ileana Gaynor, who teaches English Learners at Estes Elementary, said every day, teachers communicate with many families.
“We have their contact phone numbers. If they speak Spanish, I can talk to them," said Gaynor. "But if they don’t speak Spanish, we use a language line.” That language line is through Paragon Language Services. It allows a three-way phone conversation among the teacher, translator and parent or student.
Owensboro Public Schools Superintendent Matthew Constant said the translation service is used district-wide and is indispensable in allowing educators to communicate with families in their native language.
Gaynor has been teaching English Learners in Owensboro Public Schools for 18 years, at the preschool, elementary, middle, and high school levels. She said some students have had to learn more than one language.
“Many are natives from Guatemala, so they have different dialects that they speak at home," said Gaynor. "Spanish is actually their second language and they are learning English as a third language."
Owensboro Public Schools is a district with families from many countries, including China and India.
The Owensboro office of the International Center of Kentucky has helped to resettle refugees from Somalia and the Republic of Congo.
Gaynor said many refugee families face extreme educational challenges.
“When we talk about refugees who have spent years of interrupted schooling, waiting in that refugee camp to be accepted by a county, they have no access to education,” said Gaynor.
With school buildings closed, elementary students in the district get printed packets of lessons. English Learners get lessons adjusted for their specific educational guidelines, called a Program Service Plan. Gaynor said parents are very supportive and the whole family is involved in making sure children get a good education.
“The older siblings are the ones that are providing the information or the education or the support to the younger siblings, because their parents--either they have to work or their English knowledge is very limited,” said Gaynor.
Even for older students, remote learning, called Non-Traditional Instruction, or NTI, can be stressful. NTI is the continuation of the academic program when buildlings are closed. Before the pandemic it was generally used for situations like snow days. Those NTI days meet state education requirements and do not have to be made up.
Owensboro High School English teacher Daniel Brown has about 130 students in his classes in mythology, which is an elective; sophomore English, a required class; and Advanced Placement Literature and Composition, which is for college credit.
Brown said learning from home is very challenging for some young people.
“You realize what an extreme burden this is on some students who wake up on the first day of NTI and now have to organize everything in their life. Some of them don’t have the structure set up in their home lives to accomplish this," said Brown. "We also have some students that have one school-given laptop and their whole family needs to use it, or they have siblings they have to share it with.”
During this time of remote learning, administrators at Owensboro Public Schools have initiated a system using spreadsheets for teachers to document communication with each student. School staff members reach out to families if more communication seems necessary to make sure students are OK, and to keep them engaged in their classwork.
Brown said communication is critical because teachers and students don’t have the advantage of being together in the classroom.
"I think that the biggest takeway that we have seen so far is really just how important those relationships we make with our students are," he said.
"I see this with my advanced students, my college bound students, my students with very active parents. The game has changed, but nothing else. Their level of interaction, their level school work, has really not changed a lot," he said.
“But those students that you would consider at-risk, or from homes of extreme poverty, or students that don’t have access to the internet, it’s amazing how much they’re missing out not being in front of us,” said Brown." Because I know that if I have that student, if I have that group of students in front of me in a classroom, I can convince them through this relationship we've built that, 'Hey, let's get this done. Let's figure it out together.' And you just can't do that when they're all by themselves at their homes."
He said he appreciates the school district’s perspective on what’s most important during this unusual time.
“I think ultimately, what I’ve noticed about Owensboro Public Schools, is just the great amount of empathy and kind of mercy that our administration has kind of dropped down to us, as well, to expect us to continue teaching and do everything we can, but also understand that this pandemic is not something you can plan for, and we just have to do the best we can,” said Brown.
In this time when COVID-19 presents major challenges for all of us, it seems like a good idea to adopt the school district’s view to approach each day, and each person, with “a great amount of empathy and mercy.”