ESL in the Virtual Classroom – by Beth Lynne, EdD

A Look at How Foreign-born Students are Faring in the Pandemic


At this writing, students around the world have been on lockdown since March 2020. As a result, online and virtual environments have been used by school districts in order to reduce regression and loss of skills. This essay presents a look at English language learners (ELL) and challenges they face as a consequence of loss of face to face instruction. Regulations, testing, the digital divide, support of ESL students, and improving attendance in relation to ELLs is examined. A section about implications for future instruction as LEP students as classrooms open up again and some who have graduated go to the next phases in their lives is explored.


The COVID-19 pandemic, which caused schools and businesses to close while many people stayed locked down in their homes and working from there, left educators scrambling for creative strategies that would work in a virtual/online environment and to motivate students to attend. Some subjects and topics lend themselves nicely to the virtual environment, such as English Language Arts and Social Studies, and even Fine Arts classes such as Music and Art. However, some, such as Physical Education and Science, and some facets of Math, are more amenable to hands-on activities. Students with special needs also need a wide variety of hands-on and tactile experiences that may not be addressed in the virtual environment, unless there is a concerted effort by parents and teachers and students. Under the special needs umbrella comes English Language Learners, foreign-born students, who have a variety of unique governances in learning, easing out of the program, and assessment.

In this article, the uniqueness of English as a Second Language (ESL) and its learners, called English Language Learners (ELL), also known as “limited English proficiency” (LEP) will be examined, as well as strategies to teach and how they can be adapted to the virtual environment. Challenges such as attendance and motivation, plus implications for helping those who have graduated, dropped out, and what will happen when school is back in session after the pandemic is over are discussed.

Regulations Governing ESL

Every state in the US has its share of diverse populations. ESL covers those who are foreign-born and do not speak English (and can include those from English-speaking countries that do not speak American English to the point it hinders their education, or even those who are born in the US and live in homes where English is not spoken). For example, in the Wilkes County School District in North Carolina, “To qualify, the student must have a level of English language proficiency below that of a native speaker in any of the language domains: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.” The goal of ESL is to ease out students into the general classroom after a certain period of time, usually three years, although some districts have tried one year (California, Prop 227), and some give as long as five years. It also may depend on the program offered, whether it is sheltered English instruction or total language immersion programs.

Additionally, the age of the student is a consideration, as younger students tend to grasp language more easily for the most part and the academic knowledge needed is more challenging as students enter the higher grade levels. It has been found that ELL students from fourth grade up make fewer academic strides than their native-English-speaking counterparts, most likely more difficulty in language acquisition combined with the more advanced academic concepts. So how have ESL students fared during the pandemic? It can be inferred from the current issues presented to the school districts across the nation that ELL students are having their fair share of challenges.


One of the tests given to ELL is called the ACCESS (Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English) Another is the WIDA, which stands for World- Class Instructional Design and Assessment, which is administered to students who are LEP in the thirty-nine states that make up a consortium of state departments of education. These tests are given yearly, usually in person, although there is an online version of the ACCESS. Due to the pandemic, school districts need to plan a workaround so that tests can be administered to individuals and groups to determine where they are at in their proficiency. For example, in Colorado, the testing window has been extended and the consideration of health will outweigh any testing requirements. The district will also play it by ear, in that if there are building closures, then adjustments will be made. Additionally, the district is considering that if a student is learning remotely, they may take the test remotely as well. With good reason, the board of education is playing it safe so as not to endanger the students and their families. However, there are over 95,000 ESL students in Colorado who will need to be tested. There is a large Latino-Hispanic community in Colorado, a population that is already suffering during the pandemic. A major concern is the equipment being used for the ACCESS is shared and will not be sanitized properly, such as microphones and other recording equipment, and that masks muffle the sound of the students’ responses, reducing the clarity. Many parents are electing to opt out of the testing for safety reasons.

Assessment is essential for educators, parents, and students to determine progress made, especially when it pertains to ELLs, who must be able to test out of the program to join their peers in the general classroom. A continuum of support is followed from entry into the ESL program to the end and beyond.

Reaching out through the digital divide

At least 10 percent of the 55 million students in the US who were mandated to stay home (or at least out of school) during the pandemic are ELL, most of which were born outside of the country. The digital divide—the gap between those who have computers, state-of-the-art technology, and internet—gaping already, is more apparent now as ESL teachers try to reach out to their students and parents via email and text and receive no response. And if parents and students cannot respond to an electronic communication, how then do students hook up to the virtual classroom? The concern is that these students will be further marginalized and fall behind even more academically, as schools may not have the materials needed for the virtual or online classroom, or students may not have the equipment needed at home. In some cases, schools are trying to broadcast lessons on local TV stations, while others distribute iPads along with meals; these initiatives help either bridge communication gaps or place technology into the hands of students. Grading models are also shifting from the traditional A thru F to a “pass” or “incomplete” scale. Some schools have available hard-copy packets for those who have no access to computers, etc. But parents of ELLs are concerned that their children will lose the language skills they have already acquired during this long absence from the classroom. Students are not necessarily immersed in English language in their home environment and community, so essential opportunities they have for practice have been largely lost, particularly if they are not attending at least virtual meetings for class.

Supporting students during the pandemic

Perhaps foreign-born students have had more than their share of challenges during the pandemic, which is unfortunately a burden carried more heavily by those who are already living from hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck. Some foreign-born students have lost jobs, some have no access to affordable medical care, some may have no money and no food. Some may find it necessary to drop out of school in order to find more work to help support the family. Students who received counseling in school due to trauma suffered in their home countries may not get the care they need and may be feeling depression or worse.

In New Orleans, LA, schools are not only providing educational materials, but also maximizing tools that were already in use in the school community, such as Face Time, Google Hangouts, and ordinary phone calls from teachers, counselors, and their peers. The staff of George Washington Carver High School reached out to students’ case managers and social workers to message parents and students in their native language so they could get telehealth appointments from free clinics and information from local food pantries. One teacher even sent reminders to students to attend virtual appointments with their immigration lawyers and checked in with seniors to make sure they were completing their college applications and practiced their interviews with them. These are wonderful initiatives, but they need to be instituted universally by school districts in all fifty states.

Improving Attendance

Being motivated to participate in life events, let alone education, is a major issue with students right now, particularly teens. Students in 2020 did not have a formal prom, sports activities, and in-person graduation. Celebrations of milestones are huge for students, as they need to feel a sense of accomplishment. Many cultures emphasize celebration as a way to mark rites of passage, so of course graduation or going from one grade to the next even, are milestones to observe in a significant way. When motivation, whether it is intrinsic or extrinsic, is gone, attendance, participation, and even simple interest suffer. The hard-won benchmarks attained may reverse as loss of interest increases. Reminding students of the value of having a diploma and the benefits of language acquisition might help, especially coming from the teacher and other school personnel. Reaching out frequently to both students and caregivers may also provide motivation and encouragement. People need to know that they are still valued and cared about, that they are important and matter.

In some cases, foreign-born students have returned to their native country, particularly those who settled in large urban areas in the US and no longer attend school at all. They may have lost motivation, such as some of the in-person activities that they looked forward to in school, and have dropped off from attending online classes. The reasons for this are numerous, such as the classes are not interesting, they are too difficult, or the students do not have adequate access.

Types of instruction

As previously stated, many students are not attending in-person classes, whether the case is that school is closed or that there is a fear of attending classes where infection may be possible, and may not have the wherewithal to log in to classes online/virtually, particularly those who are new to the country and are termed LEP. Many districts are supplying iPads, Chromebooks, and other equipment to make sure these students have what they need to attend class. But what happens when they get these devices? There are a few types of instruction that are typical to an ESL classroom, but how do they translate into the virtual environment? Can they be adapted so that instruction is not lost in the translation, so to speak?

English Language Immersion.

In the six-and-a-half-hour school day, ELL students have many opportunities to immerse themselves in the English language. The teacher for each class teaches in English, the student hopefully interacts in English appropriately with peers, and students may attend after school activities that give more opportunity to learn English. But now, what happens to students who are not immersed, such as not attending online or attending at a reduced level? English language immersion requires a lot of time and practice. Learning a language requires utilizing it, so these students in immersion programs have most likely lost skills during the pandemic lockdown and this applies to not only language but content needed to advance through grade levels, as most likely is the case with many students, even those who are attending general classes.

Sheltered Instruction

Sheltered instruction takes several forms in the ESL program; many of the students are included in the general classroom, but it takes a concentrated effort of all teachers involved to incorporate language learning objectives in the program for full effect. There is a huge emphasis on hands-on learning experiences, vocabulary, opportunities to practice, and cohesive strategies from teacher to teacher. This approach requires careful planning with the general classroom teachers and continued interaction with and knowledge of the students served, so with a lockdown in place, this collaboration and communication can be hampered. In sheltered instruction, many students have ESL class as a separate class that focuses on English language acquisition, which must be adhered to in a virtual classroom to be effective during the pandemic. Attention to scheduling is essential to making sure students do not lose skills acquired and learn new ones.

Strategies for ELLs to learn academically

The efforts schools are making to get technology into the hands of those who cannot access it otherwise is admirable where it is taking place. So what are some strategies online/virtually that might work with students who are LEP? It is known that language immersion is a proven method, but how can ELLs be immersed in the English language when they are locked down and unmotivated to log in if they can? Sheltered instruction and the many forms of it is also a research-based program, but it has limitations as well. It is evident that the most pressing issue is the human contact needed to make ESL programs work, from testing to teaching and assessment again.

There is a paucity of information or research done on how to best teach English language learners through distance learning, virtual environments, or a combination thereof. After addressing the digital divide that is often faced by those who are new to the country, as they are frequently experiencing difficulty in paying bills, school districts—ESL educators in particular—some simple strategies may be put into place to ensure that students have contact with speakers of English and focus on academics as well.

Williams (2020) recommends that teachers assign students to call ELLs and ask questions, particularly video calls to help remove an isolated feeling, even if they are provided with guiding questions to ask classmates. This can be done on a rotating basis, and is not only wonderful for providing opportunities for language use, but also for socialization. It is also critical to incorporate academics in the discussion, as language acquisition in isolation will not help learners grasp content. It is important to continue to build vocabulary as well as provide modeling so that ELLs can succeed.

Implications for Future Instruction

No one knows how long the pandemic might last, and how much longer we will be in lockdown status. Some schools at this writing have opened, while some are open on a limited basis, and still others are only operating virtually. Even in a classroom where individuals are hesitant to make contact with others and with the blocking of facial movements and expressions via a mask essential to those trying to communicate, ELLs may be set back from learning. It may take a very long time for them to catch up on what they have missed. Educators must be patient and give some leeway in testing schedules and even in students returning to school. There is a lot of fear and uncertainty tied into the pandemic, as well as misinformation given. Vaccines, when available, must be administered to students, and those who do not visit a doctor due to financial concerns should be directed to free clinics or vaccinations should be offered in school so that ELL populations have a chance at a future.

When all students and teachers return to the classroom, hopefully, COVID will be under control with vaccines and no longer as prevalent as it is now. At that time in the most likely near future, as vaccines are being offered to an ever-expanding demographic of the population with a needed focus on minority and special needs, students who are in ESL classrooms should be retested for retention of English skills, either formally or informally, to make sure that what is taught is appropriate for the individual. If reteaching is necessary, then those skills needed should be retaught. If the student has improved English-speaking skills, then placement in the general program with some gradual release of supports may be what that individual’s learning plan should involve.

Students who have graduated should be located and given support and encouragement in the next phase of their lives. They may have missed college application deadlines or desire instead to work. Perhaps school counselors can step in here and follow up with these students to increase the chances they will have the best possible start in life. And for those who have dropped out, it may be a good idea to trace their whereabouts and entice them to return to school so they may continue their education.

1 Wilkes County Schools (n.d). Frequently asked questions about ESL. Retrieved from:
2 Lectura Books (2018). How long does it take English language learners to acquire English? Retrieved from:
3 Colorado Department of Education (2021). Considerations for ACCESS for ELLs Test Administration in 2021 Including Special Considerations for Assessing Remote Learners. Retrieved from:
4 L. Lizarraga, 2021, In-person ESL testing continues during pandemic across Colorado. 9 News, Retrieved from:
5 J. Napolitano, 2020, How teachers are trying to reach English language learners during pandemic. PBS News Hour. Retrieved from:
6 Napolitano, 2020, How teachers are trying to reach English language learners during pandemic.
8 Teach for America, 2020, Supporting English language learners in the midst of covid-19, Alumni Resources. Retrieved from:
9 Teach for America, 2020, Supporting English language learners.
10 C. Bryan, 2020, As a school year of challenge and heartbreak ends, students and families grapple with the fallout. Chalkbeat. Retrieved from:
11 Westfield Public Schools, n.d. What is sheltered instruction? Retrieved from:
12 C.P. Williams, 2020. How best to serve English learners during a pandemic. The Century Foundation. Retrieved from:
14 Williams, 2020. How best to serve English learners during a pandemic.
15 Williams, 2020. How best to serve English learners during a pandemic.


Colorado Department of Education (2021). Considerations for ACCESS for ELLs Test Administration in 2021 Including Special Considerations for Assessing Remote Learners. Retrieved from:

Lectura Books (2018). How long does it take English language learners to acquire English? Retrieved from:

Lizarraga, L. (2021). In-person ESL testing continues during pandemic across Colorado. 9 News. Retrieved from:

Napolitano, J. (2020). How teachers are trying to reach English language learners during pandemic. PBS News Hour. Retrieved from:

Teach for America (2020). Supporting English language learners in the midst of covid-19. Alumni Resources. Retrieved from:

Westfield Public Schools. (n.d.) What is sheltered instruction? Retrieved from:

Wilkes County Schools (n.d). Frequently asked questions about ESL. Retrieved from:

Williams, C.P. (2020). How best to serve English learners during a pandemic. The Century Foundation. Retrieved from:

Dr. Beth Lynne

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