La Colectiva’s ESL Network in confronting the challenges of Covid

October 26, 2021

Learning English: ESL Students and Programs Surviving – Even Thriving – during COVID-19
Christine Cannon PhD, Arsht-Cannon Fund August, 2021

“At no time has the need for family literacy has been more pronounced than during 2020,” as shared by an ESL Network teacher.

In May, 2020, leaders of eight southern Delaware’s English as a Second Language (ESL) and Family Literacy programs came together as the “ESL Network” to discuss, commiserate and plan how they were going to ensure immigrant families had access to English language instruction during the pandemic. Risking program closures with losses of students, volunteers and paid staff, these program leaders rallied to help each other through months of uncertainties. Their classrooms in closed schools, churches, and libraries re-located to their students’ homes virtually, parking lots with Wi-Fi “hot” spots and to “COVID-19-adapted” spaces for limited in-person learning.

This summary describes the perseverance and experiences of a diverse network of eight adult language and family literacy programs. These include the small and growing volunteer-taught programs that offer individual tutoring and/or multi-level small group programs: (1) ESL at Ocean View Presbyterian Church, (2) Unitarian Universalists of Southern Delaware ESL Program, (3) Independent ESL instruction in collaboration with La Esperanza and Sussex County libraries (Lewes, Georgetown, Milton), and (4) Literacy Delaware. Large, established, multi-level “Family Literacy” programs in the ESL Network that provide concurrent ESL adult and child education include (5) ESL at the Lutheran Church of Our Savior, (6) Sussex Tech Adult Education , and (7) Polytech Adult Education’s Family Literacy Program. In addition, (8) Delaware Technical and Community College in Georgetown offers free and tuition-based courses for prospective and current students. (Data from these numbered ESL Network members are identified by superscripts in the following content.)

This summary also describes the perseverance of the many immigrant families in southern Delaware who would not put their hopes on hold despite the huge burden of COVID-19. The work of program directors and their staffs and adult learners and their children to manage loss, changes and challenges provides transformational opportunities to integrate technology to benefit program quality and access in multiple ways moving forward. Integral to the development and growth of successful educational programs for immigrant families is the focus on the goals they share –working together to improve lives, families and an inclusive community.

To support the work needed during the pandemic, La Colectiva de Delaware invites leaders of new and established ESL (English as a Second Language) and Family Literacy programs to get to know and help each other in “ESL Providers” Forum meetings using Zoom every 3-4 weeks. La Colectiva de Delaware ( is an initiative rooted in the need for collaboration among non-profit, governmental and for-profit organizations and southern Delaware’s Latino families to build an empowered, connected and trusting community. Within what is now La Colectiva’s ESL Network, members share their many concerns and questions about how to continue supporting the children and adults in their programs in very uncertain situations. The transformation to online learning is complex and complicated for programs, staff and immigrant (mostly Spanish-speaking) families. The ESL Network provides the structure for building relationships and trust among the experienced and new program coordinators. As the required COVID-19 protocols changed frequently over the last 18 months, all eight programs benefit by sharing knowledge, resources and communications.

At the end of the 2020-21 school year, each of the eight program coordinators looked back on this historic time and then, documented changes, challenges and successes. Learnings will contribute to designing more accessible, versatile programs that help students achieve their goals.

Southern Delaware’s ESL Programs during COVID-19
Mid-March in 2020, the world changed and life as usual shut down. For ESL programs in southern Delaware, many volunteer and hired teachers lost their jobs, as many of their students were left not understanding what was going on. Program staff sought available contact information to connect with students by email, phone, Facebook and WhatsApp. With the abrupt closings of schools, churches, libraries and community centers, decisions on whether to transition programs to new locations, curricula, and methods had to be made.

Perseverance during a challenging times
By May, 2020, all program coordinators were working to plan for their fall programs despite the unpredictability created by the pandemic. The many challenges included: (1) communicating with and motivating enrolled students; (2) developing or expanding an online presence (including program websites with student registration, self-evaluation forms and learning resources in English and Spanish); and (3) learning (and then, teaching students) how to use online tools such as Zoom, QR barcode readers, What’s App, and e-learning resources, tests and quizzes to accompany new or adapted curricula.

Funds were required to purchase and mail textbooks and to provide re-furbished laptops to students. Zoom licenses for staff teaching from their homes and costs for online curricula and other tools had to be purchased. Reallocation of budgeted funds and the availability of small COVID-19 grants to nonprofits helped to support unanticipated needs and expenses in several programs. Although restricted from providing space for year-round individual and small group classes normally provided by ESL
Network organizations 3,4,6, several libraries throughout southern Delaware stepped up to help students get textbooks and their teachers acquire Zoom licenses.

A great team spirit developed…
The learning curves for staff and students were considerable related to a variety of the personal challenges and the many barriers imposed by COVID-19. A significant number of mature volunteer or paid staff decided it was time to move on. Loss of staff required the increase dedication, preparation, and comfort of those remaining in using new learning platforms, tools, programs and methods. The crises of the last 18 months provided experiences for coordinators to work closely with their teachers
and for teachers to help their students and families individually and in small groups – strengthening understanding, competence, commitment and lives.

Coordinators invested in regularly scheduled online staff development with practice teaching and problem-solving sessions. “A great team spirit developed” as teachers felt more competent and confident. Creative strategies tackled access barriers with a variety of options such as encouraging the use of community Wi-Fi hot spots. While most programs were not available for in-person learning, a couple programs provided socially-distanced student registration, orientation and classes for new students or those have the most difficulty with online learning.

Fall, 2020…
By Fall, 2020, all programs had fluctuations in student enrollments (compared to 2019) related to the reduced availability of in-person meeting places due to COVID-19 restrictions, the fall in the number of volunteers and paid staff able to stay on, and deficits related to knowledge and availability of technology support, equipment, and funding. One large ESL program5, transitioning to 100% online learning with Zoom classes, exploded with hundreds of student applications beyond their capacity.
Other large multi-level programs reduced enrollments by 50 % (200 to 100 students6;) from 2019-20 which made it challenging for previously-enrolled students to progress onto planned college and career preparation offerings.

Some programs started in September, 2020 below capacity but as spaces and places opened up, more students enrolled in early 2021. Programs with multiple levels of instruction (from Beginning Literacy to Advanced) retained most students (76% 5-82%6 – 86%7) with students in the majority of levels reaching performance goals. Smaller programs 1,2,3, 4 suffered greater drop-out rates. Programs reported that the main reasons for student drop-outs were student/family health issues, re-locations, and work-related issues, rather than difficulties in online learning (although acquiring a laptop and Wi-Fi access was factor for some.) Smaller class sizes did provide opportunities for more individualized communications and assistance. As students dropped out, others on waiting lists joined and students from outside the area were able to participate as online “distance” students.

With shifts to remote learning in programs, childcare and education program components in family literacy programs changed. While parents were not bringing their young and school-aged children to programs, and this component was suspended in three programs 2, 5, 6, One program asked parents to come to school parking lots to pick up books, activities and directions on how to join Zoom sessions with their children’s teacher. School-aged children participated in a book club and literacy activities while
preschoolers were engaged by online stories, songs and games. Parents and children shared interactive online scavenger hunts, bingo and games together. One program even expanded their program to include older middle-school-aged children and strengthened communications between the program and the school teachers of enrolled families.

Remote Online and In-Person Learning
Students confirmed that learning English required so much more time, effort… but once the access to, and confidence in their use of technology increased, many realized the pay off.

“I think the transaction costs for students to connect, download and operate Zoom were very steep. I suspect that those who were successful with online learning were already familiar with Zoom because of their children’s school experiences.” said one teacher3. Another reported that after a mid-year survey that students (and teachers) reported high satisfaction with virtual learning and that students missed class because of job or family issues, not technology.”5

“One of the biggest successes was that it forced students to learn to use technology. This made it easier to use other learning platforms which proved difficult in past years.”… “Success was having (language) gains and practical technology skills.” said another teacher.

“Time and time again, mothers in our program commented that they were able to stay home with their children while they ‘zoomed’ from home too.”6 In addition to not worrying about childcare, students did not have to worry about the additional costs of traveling to class – saving time, money, and arranging to get there. With these constraints reduced by online learning, access to a wider variety of programs is possible. “We were able to enroll students from a wider geographic area than we normally do.
“One student said she preferred online classes because she wasn’t as scared to make a mistake online as she was face-to-face classes” offered by one teacher.3 Another teacher mentioned, “ Because students were logging in from home, their children and pets often joined the classes – sometimes entertaining, sometimes distracting.” 5

As limited in-person slots opened, beginning learners and others needing and desiring in-person instruction were invited to attend with COVID-19 precautions in place, but masks made learning and teaching difficult. Barriers reported the difficulties breathing, communicating and learning with masks on during in-person contacts. Teachers shared, “The biggest challenge was wearing MASKS! It was difficult to understand students with language barriers, and equally difficult for them to understand me, if they cannot not see my mouth move.”… “It is hard to teach and hear pronunciation wearing a mask.”

Building Together
Throughout the last 18 months, ESL program providers shared their experiences, knowledge and determination. During ESL Network meetings and in between, they freely updated their progress, recommended resources (like Pro-Literacy 4, 5) and offered each other textbooks, and even staff. The value of cooperation and collaboration within the ESL Network was described:

“It was good to know that we were all in similar states of disarray and confusion while learning how to proceed. Other programs provided many new resources and suggestions that we incorporated and shared with our students – info on COVID and health, food and family resources.”2

“Perhaps most importantly, La Colectiva has shown each of us that we aren’t alone.” 3 “Participating in La Colectiva’s ESL Network was valuable in providing support for each other in an uncertain time.” 7

“As a small program, we missed the collegiality and networking with other programs. La Colectiva put us back in touch with other ESL programs.”1 “It was helpful to learn how other programs were handling challenges as well as to share how we were overcoming similar obstacles.” 7

Based on what has been learned, programs are now better positioned to address the major challenges in Fall 2021 – despite the unknowns and threats of the highly contagious delta variant.

As a result of the experiences during the 2020-21 program year,

  1. Increased number of teachers and students are more competent and accepting of online learning – many even preferring online instruction because of its flexibility, greater access for more students and teachers living at a distance.
  2. Increased options are available to provide programs in the classroom and/or online – designed for needs of students and staff preferences / and type of program content
  3. More efficient online registration processes were designed. Improved ways to counsel and navigate students to programs accepting new students during registration. Students have information to choose the best program aligned with their needs (location, method type, teacher/student ratio – 1:1 tutoring, small groups, adult or family, career goals,
  4. Improved teacher training and ongoing support
  5. Online teaching opportunities can increase the pool of interested volunteer and staff teachers – think about “pool” of all interested for ESL Network programs
  6. Others:

Moving Forward
La Colectiva continues to support the ESL Network with these opportunities:

    1. Marketing programs by
      • providing a reproducible 1-page downloadable online visual (in Spanish and English) to advertise programs to prospective students. Includes program name, location, description/learning method, contact information. (2021-22 ESL Program Flyer available at LCD website under Network Programs)
      • posting an online, searchable map with program information at LCD website network programs
      • posting program announcements on the LCD website
    2. Recruiting volunteer and paid teachers for ESL and Family Literacy programs by
      • sending out stories to local news outlets
      • posting job opportunities on the LCD website
      • providing a representative to a new collaborative planning team involved with addressing the growing need for bilingual, bicultural nonprofit professionals
      • expanding pool of English-speakers interested in training to become ESL and childcare teachers
    3. Considering ways to increase effectiveness and efficiency of student registration in, and placement within, programs
    4. Continuing to discuss a variety of aspects related to in-person, online and hybrid program implementation during monthly ESL Providers group meetings. Problem-solve, share issues, information, resources and experiences
    5. Building a collaborative project of benefit to all/most programs to expand reach, quality and/or accessibility to immigrant families.