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North Carolina ESL teachers navigate pandemic challenges

DTH Photo Illustration. Local ESL programs have recently been facing staffing shortages.

Cindy Anderson, an English language teacher at Culbreth Middle School, has worked with students from a variety of backgrounds, many of whom are new to the U.S. and have had a non-traditional education path.

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

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

English language learners often are not able to receive as much assistance outside of school as other students, Anderson said. This lack of support can hurt them academically.

“Some of our more affluent students may have lots of help, our kids did not,” she said. "They may have been at home alone while Mom and Dad are working, or Mom and Dad are sleeping during the day so they can work at night."

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

Emily Lewis, the ESL Facilitator for Orange County Schools, said in an email that the broader teacher shortages have affected the English as a second language program for the school district.

Lewis said at one school, several kindergarten teachers had to learn how to provide language instruction to students due to the lack of available ESL teachers.

“Truthfully, teachers are stretched thin and doing the best they can, but we all know that we could do more if we were fully staffed,” 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 was forced to learn how to navigate remote learning during the pandemic. She said she has provided lessons and support directly to students due to teacher shortages caused by 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 had a significant effect on ESL teachers for DPS as well.

She said that while the pandemic has affected English learners, there have not been significant ESL teacher vacancies.

“Teachers were faced with adjusting to virtual delivery of the instructional program, ensuring students had access to technology and managing students’ access to social/emotional support,” Rayasam said.

Combatting the shortage

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

Carrie Doyle, chairperson of the Orange County Board of Education, said ESL programs in OCS have been doing “reasonably well” despite the pandemic and the associated staffing shortages.

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

However, she said that it has been difficult to find individuals involved in family translation and outreach services, which has led to those specific shortages at some schools.

To respond to these staffing shortages, the district created 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 are coming in from different countries with different understandings of public school, and so it’s as much the language (as) how the U.S. educational system functions that we’re offering family guidance on,” Doyle said.

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Lewis said in an email that though 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 the days of remote learning and I am proud of the continued efforts of our ESL team in helping families become vital members of their respective school communities,” she said.


@DTHCityState |

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