Making the Connection: Communicating with ELLs and Their Families During School Closures

Father talking on cell phone while giving son breakfast

Learn more about steps educators can take to reconnect with English learners and their families during school closures and how administrators can support that outreach. This article also includes multiple tools, resources, and tips for collaboration.

Special thanks to Larry Ferlazzo and the educators who contributed to his Education Week series on distance learning and responding to the school closures.

 

Before we start looking for the next new tool, the next website we can use, the next learning opportunity, let's just find ways to connect.
The most important thing that we do for our students is love them. That's more important than ever right now. Mike Soskil, quoted by Justin Minkel

Whenever we ask educators of English language learners (ELLs) to share their suggestions for teaching ELLs, the advice is nearly always the same: Build relationships. Get to know students and their families. Find ways to connect.

Not only do these connections help build trust, they also allow educators to provide more effective instruction by taking students' strengths, experiences, interests, and challenges into account. 

That advice has never been more critical. Just like the rest of our K-12 students, ELLs and their families need an anchor in this massive sea change of nationwide school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some ELL and immigrant families have recently arrived in this country and the school is their strongest link to the community and source of information. For students who have experienced displacement and/or trauma in their young lives, reestablishing this link is even more critical.

Updates

Making communication a priority

Figuring out how to reconnect with students and checking in is a first step in reestablishing some stability — but these important steps may be lost in the overwhelming effort of shifting to distance learning. Making space in teachers' schedules for the time and effort needed to establish this communication may seem difficult given all that they are juggling; in the long run, however, it will help to fortify those critical connections and allow them to plan more effective and efficient instruction around students' situations at home.

Administrators can help in this effort by:

  • acknowledging the importance of this communication, even if distance learning has already started
  • acknowledging that communicating and collaborating with ELL families may take extra time and effort
  • ensuring teachers have time for this outreach as part of their new schedules
  • ensuring that current policies and resources support teachers in their efforts to reach families to the extent possible.

Overcoming challenges

Connecting with ELLs and their families at this moment can pose big challenges due to language and technology access, but we'd like to share some ideas and insights we're hearing from educators around the country.

Most importantly, don't give up! While it may be a challenge to reach every student, as this teacher notes, the families you do reach will likely be appreciative to hear from you and their children will be one step closer to getting on track to continue their learning:

I spent a chunk of my day today calling families using Google Voice. I didn't get through to most, but the ones I did talk to were SO grateful for the clarification about what's going on. I even got to hear a few of my sweet kiddos' voices. Megan Kingery 

Contact information and preferred methods of communication 

The first step is to locate contact information and identify families' preferred forms of communication. Those preferences may vary from family to family, although some families' situations may have similarities to each other (i.e., parents who work at the same plant and must follow the same rules regarding phone calls or text messages during their shift). 

Phone calls 

You may wish to start with a call if you have families' phone numbers. This will also allow you to reach some families who don't have internet access.  

If you don't have updated contact information for families, consider asking other students, parents, or teachers whether they are in touch with the family and have a way to pass along a message. Families often have strong networks among themselves and may be in contact with each other regularly.  Other community or faith-based organizations may also be in contact with families and may be able to help you reach them. 

Resource: Google Voice allows you to place phone calls without sharing your phone number.  

Texts 

Some families may prefer to communicate by text. That will allow them to respond at their convenience. You may also wish to text video messages to your students or families with information, greetings, or messages of encouragement.

Email / online communication 

For those families who do have Internet and are comfortable communicating online, you may be able to establish communication quickly via email. If you don't receive responses to your emails, however, consider calling or texting instead. Just because a parent has provided an email address doesn't mean they are using it or are comfortable communicating with the teacher via email. Online options for family communication include doing a video chat, sharing a survey or family check-in form (perhaps via Google Forms) or sharing some online learning resources.

Note: Your district may have policies in place regarding student privacy and online learning. Some districts restrict the use of videos of students. Check with your school administrator for clarification as needed to protect student and family privacy.

Resource: See strengths-based outreach ideas in EL Family Engagement During Coronavirus from Immigrant Connections.

Mail and more

Some teachers have gotten creative by sending post cards, attaching contact information to food delivery, or trying to connect through students who are in touch via social media. The teacher who sent her phone number via pizza delivery heard back from the family she was trying to contact!

 

Translation resources 

Another key step is to identify your translation options. School districts are legally required to provide information in families' home languages.

If you are unsure where to start, contact ELL educators from your school or district to find out more about your options. (Note that ELL/bilingual educators may be able to assist in some translation but will likely have numerous other responsibilities at this time, including communicating with students, planning their own instruction, and collaborating with other teachers as well.) 

School / district interpreters, family liaisons or paraprofessionals 

If your school or district has bilingual staff who typically help with interpretation, find out whether they are able to assist with family communication during school closures. In addition to translation, these staff members can also provide invaluable information and insights into families' cultures or home situations.  

The current use of district staff in this role varies widely across the country:

  • In some places, this is currently working very smoothly and providing helpful connections among families and teachers.
  • In others, these professionals are not being pulled into collaboration yet even though they could help facilitate better communication among all parties.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, some interpreters are being asked to do so much daily interpreting that they are already overwhelmed even though we are just at the beginning of this period of school closures. 

Administrators may wish to reach out to these staff members to talk about schedules, case load, availability, and their ideas on how to make communication more efficient.

Teachers may also wish to reach out first to find out if their colleagues are able to assist with family communication, and if so, what process they prefer. It may not be sustainable for these staff members to provide ongoing translations for multiple teachers with multiple families, especially if they are frequently being asked to explain assignments or new technical platforms for an extended period of time. If you do reach out to your colleagues, take a moment to ask how they are doing and whether there is anything you can do to support their work. 

District translation hotline

Your school district may offer a translation hotline. Find out if it is currently available and if so, how you can use it to set up conversations with families.

Translation apps

Ideally, districts will have in-person interpreters available as part of their legally mandated obligations to make information available in families' home languages. However, there are tools that can help fill in the gaps, especially during the current crisis. Talking Points is an app that translates messages between teachers and families in many different languages. Parents receive the messages as a text message and do not need to download an app. It's free for individuals and can be purchased for broader use by districts. Translations are done automatically but human interpreters are available if needed. You can send mass texts as well and teachers' numbers are protected. Illinois multilingual education administrator Sarah Said notes, "It's an application that works as a text message on parents' phones. It enables two-way translation communication with families. You can send mass texts for free!  It has been a LIFELINE in this situation."

The Talking Points can help give individual teachers more options in reaching out to families directly rather than relying on an intermediary. Please note, however, that it should not be considered a wholesale substitute for professional, knowledgeable interpreters and liaisons who are familiar with:

  • the language and culture of the families
  • technical school terms, especially for special education
  • strategies that can help build trust and community among ELLs and their families.

In addition, keep in mind that some information may be more suitable for texts (shorter messages and check-ins) than lengthy or sensitive information. Please take a look at these privacy and security considerations for ELLs and immigrant families if you are considering using Talking Points.

Note: Google Translate is best used in a pinch for short words or phrases, in part because it may not always provide accurate translations.

The importance of check-ins

Once you work out the logistics, you can focus on what you want to cover in your early conversations with families. You may be the first person from the school to talk with the family since the closures went into effect.

Health and well-being

At the most basic level, checking in with students and families offers a chance for educators to find out:

  • how everyone is doing
  • how students are responding to school closures
  • if students or families have any questions, concerns, or additional preferences regarding communication
  • if families know about important ongoing school services like meal distribution
  • if any children have special needs in the family and whether families have been able to connect with a special educator, social worker, or counselor to discuss support plans for their children.

Note that undocumented immigrants will be unable to access many of the supports included in the recent federal stimulus bill to address COVID-19.

In addition, immigrant advocates and medical personnel are sharing numerous examples of immigrants who are not seeking medical care related to the COVID-19 out of fear of consequences for their immigration applications or fear of deportation. (The government has specified that COVID-19 care will not be used as part of public charge considerations.) This puts many immigrants and their families at risk who may work as essential personnel or who may not have qualified for federal economic relief due to immigration status.

Social-emotional health

For younger students, talking with parents or caregivers will be most appropriate, although it may be possible to chat briefly with the children as well. (Educators in Dearborn shared with us that elementary teachers drove through their students' neighborhoods waving from their cars just as a way to make a personal connection.) Educators are reporting that engagement with young children varies widely through distance learning, particularly if students had not used much technology in their classrooms prior to the pandemic.

For older students, more communication may be possible depending on students' levels of language proficiency. Larry Ferlazzo shares that, in his first conversations with his high school ELLs after school closed, he asked his students the following three questions:

  • How are you and your family doing?
  • How are YOU feeling?
  • What do you need?

High school English teacher Matthew Johnson asked his students to write him a letter about how they were doing, how they were keeping busy, non-COVID-19 things in their life, and what they thought was manageable in terms of schoolwork at home. Not only did he learn a lot about how they were responding to the crisis, it helped him establish a better system for online learning with his students. (The full prompt is online, which could be shortened and adapted for English learners.)

This is a reminder that getting feedback and listening to students and families will help educators create a distance learning system that is more likely to be successful! He writes,

Their words helped me a great deal as both their teacher setting up a new classroom structure and in my own journey through this new world. So many students also were deeply thankful that an adult in this crisis was asking about their thoughts, worries, and needs instead of just giving them advice. Many offered suggestions that have helped me establish better supports and systems.

Learning at home

At the same time, check-ins can provide a chance to learn more about factors related to students' distance learning options, such as:

  • if the family has access to a device or Internet
  • if multiple children will be sharing a device
  • what the family's schedule (and children's schedules) are like
  • other responsibilities students may have, such as caring for younger siblings during the day
  • whether the child has a place to complete schoolwork at home.

This kind of information can go a long way in helping inform teachers about how best to manage their distance learning set-up. At the same time, it can also provide them with an opportunity to offer some support and assistance to optimize learning at home. Some teachers have shared that they have called families to ask them the questions from their school or district home technology survey. (Families without internet will not be able to complete those surveys online or via email!)

For example, consider the following scenarios:

  • If schools have devices available but families have not received one yet, this might be a time to figure out how to get a device to the family.
  • If a local internet provider or school is offering free Wi-Fi, this is a great time to let families know about that option and then follow through to see if they were able to get set up. (Note that some families may be reluctant to register with an internet provider. Some companies are requiring social security numbers and no past due notices before providing free service, which may make families reluctant to participate.)
  • If a student is caring for younger siblings during the day, they may not be available during typical school hours, but may complete assignments in the evening.

You can learn more about considerations related to families' technology access in our earlier article on ELL considerations for school closures.

Closing thoughts

The challenges ahead are daunting, especially as more families face the risks of illness and instability. However, if we can recognize and seize them, there may be some opportunities that come out of this crisis, such as the chance to:

  • better understand and address inequities within our school communities
  • improve digital access for all students
  • strengthen family communication
  • think creatively about student engagement and instruction in new ways.

We are all in this together. Your ELLs and their families will be powerful partners on this journey once they are invited to the table!

 

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