How Schools Can Communicate with ELL Families During COVID-19

Father talking on cell phone while giving son breakfast

Learn how to stay in contact with English learners and their families from a distance and how administrators can support that outreach. This article also includes multiple tools, resources, and tips for collaboration.

As schools plan for the 2020-2021 school year, many educators and administrators are looking for ways to reconnect with families of English language learners (ELLs) and keep that communication strong throughout the year. In some cases, contact may not have been re-established during school closures, making the priority of connecting with each student's family even more urgent.

Just like the rest of our K-12 students, ELLs and their families need an anchor during 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, this link is even more critical.

Here are some tips for schools based on lessons learned so far. We will continue to update this article as needed.

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

Contact information

1. Find families' contact information.

The first step is to locate contact information. This may be especially challenging since many families' housing and economic situations are unstable, especially during this time. Families who use prepaid cell phones may also change phone numbers regularly.

If you don't have updated contact information for families, consider trying to pass on a message through:

  • other students or families (including through families' networks among themselves)
  • an interpreter, family liaison, or ELL educator who knows the family
  • other educators such as teachers, coaches, and counselors
  • teachers of other children in the family
  • community or faith-based organizations serving your students' families.

2. Help families keep their contact information updated.

Ensure that families understand why the school needs updated contact information, especially during COVID-19. You may wish to provide translated emergency contact forms or other tools that can help.

Learn how to make this easier for families in The Importance of Keeping Emergency Contact Information Updated (and keep in mind that families' with limited internet access may not be able to log in easily to parent portals).

3. Ensure that families know how to contact you or the school.

Make sure that families have:

  • updated contact information for their child's teacher 
  • updated contact information for any other adult who will be working with their child, such as an ESL specialist or special educator
  • information on contacting an interpreter or getting necessary information in their home language
  • information on getting technical support for distance learning platforms.

You may also wish to provide a translated contact information form to help families keep this information organized. In addition, make sure that families know that they are allowed (and encouraged!) to reach out to their child's school with questions.

Preferred methods of communication 

4. Find out how families prefer to communicate.

Each family will have their own preferences on how to communicate, although there may be some similarities among families from particular communities who are using the same methods. The more you know about how families wish to communicate, the more successful your communication will be.

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. 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. Many immigrant families use WhatsApp and create large texting groups as part of the app.

Social media

Many schools have had success in communicating with ELL families through social media, including Facebook messenger or a dedicated Facebook group with translated information. For example, the Karen Family Facebook Group in Roseville, MN posts bilingual information for families to the page, including translated messages from a family liaison.

Email & online communication 

Email may be a good option for families who do have Internet and are comfortable using email. If you don't receive responses to your emails, however, consider calling or texting instead. Just because families have provided an email address doesn't mean they are using it or are comfortable communicating sending emails to a teacher. Other 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.

Notes:

  • Assisting families with access to devices and internet may also improve communication, although as our related article notes, the technology alone won't do the trick without strong relationships and tech training and support.
  • Your district may have policies in place regarding student privacy and online learning, such as restrictions on videos or images of students. Check with your school administrator for clarification as needed to protect student and family privacy, as well as with your families to find out if they have any concerns.

Mail and more

Some teachers have connected with families through post cards or attaching contact information to food delivery. One teacher who sent her phone number via pizza delivery heard back from the family she was trying to contact!

 

5. Find out when families prefer to communicate.

Keep in mind that immigrant families may be juggling a number of challenges and responsibilities that impact how and when they can communicate with the school. Some families may:

  • work outside of the home during the school day, during the evening, or overnight
  • need to juggle child care and other family caregiving responsibilities during the day
  • work for employers that have strict rules about responding to phone calls or texts during their shift
  • follow cultural norms regarding family or gender roles around communication.

The better you know your families, the more you can learn about their schedules and their family's situation during the pandemic.

 

Translation resources 

6. Share information about families' rights to translated information if needed.

School districts are legally required to provide information in families' home languages. You may need to share information about these rights with colleagues or administrators if families are not getting the information they need in their language.

For more information on these requirements and tools that can help you choose the right options for your setting, see this helpful blog post on fulfilling translation and interpretation requirements by Immigrant Connections.

7. Identify your translation options.

If you are don't know what your translation options are, contact ELL educators or administrators from your school or district to find out more about your options. (Note that some ELL/bilingual educators may be able to assist with translation but will likely have numerous other responsibilities, including communicating with students, planning their own instruction, and collaborating with other teachers as well.)

Your options may include the following:

School / district interpreters, family liaisons or paraprofessionals 

Your school or district may have bilingual staff who can help communicate with ELL families, including interpreters, family liaisons, and paraprofessionals. These staff members can also provide invaluable information and insights into families' cultures or home situations. 

During the spring, the success of collaboration with these bilingual staff members varied widely. In some places, this worked very smoothly and provided helpful connections among families and teachers. In others, bilingual staff were not utilized effectively even though they could have helped facilitate better communication among all parties. And at the other end of the spectrum, some bilingual staff were overwhelmed by the amount of interpreting that was needed during school closures.

If your school or district has bilingual staff available to help with interpretation, ask your colleagues:

  • if and when they are able to assist with family communication
  • what process they prefer for setting up conversations
  • what worked or didn't work in the spring
  • if there are other translation resources that you should be familiar with
  • if families have common questions that can be addressed more efficiently
  • if there are some ways to make technical support in families' home languages more efficient
  • how they are doing and if there is anything you can do to support their work.

Keep in mind that 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.

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. If the hotline's hours don't match your families' availability, talk with an administrator about whether other options may be available.

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 some of the gaps, especially during the current crisis.

Talking Points is an app that translates messages between teachers and families in many different languages. Here's how it works:

  • 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.

Success in distance learning

It is important to learn more about factors related to students' distance learning situation 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. Explain to your families that these questions are not meant to be instrusive but instead are meant to help you work together to support their child's education and that there are no right answers. Some families may feel that they have not been able to adequately support their children's education at home so far.

11. Learn more about what distance learning looks like at home.

Some helpful things to learn might include:

  • whether the student has access to device and internet (and whether the student is sharing a device with siblings)
  • 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
  • what students' language use has been like at home (keeping in mind that extra exposure to the home language is a great opportunity for bilingual students)
  • 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.

How administrators can help

Making space in teachers' schedules for the time and effort needed for the above strategies (especially if they do not yet have a relationship with the family) may seem difficult given all that they are juggling. In the long run, however, it will:

  • fortify those critical connections
  • 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
  • ensuring teachers have the necessary time to communicate effectively with ELL families in their schedules
  • ensuring that current policies and resources support teachers' ability to succeed in ELL family communication.

Administrators may wish to reach out to staff members, including ELL and bilingual educators, interpreters, family liaisons, and paraprofessionals, to talk about:

  • schedules
  • case load
  • availability
  • their ideas on how to make communication more efficient.

Closing thoughts

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 

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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