Testimony submitted to the New York City Council Education Committee oversight hearing on COVID impact on English language learners
Testimony of UFT Vice President Mary Vaccaro
As Vice President for Education of the United Federation of Teachers, I want to express my thanks to the Education Committee and especially to Chair Rita Joseph for her support for public education and for championing that which all children across our city need in order to thrive.
This is a critical and historic moment for children and families who rely on our public schools, and for their educators who have dedicated their lives to teaching. We recognize the need for an unprecedented level of support for all children attending public schools, and especially the most vulnerable who have experienced barriers to learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We are especially heartened that the Council’s Education Committee provided the opportunity for stakeholders to share what the impact has been on English-language and multilingual learners and contribute to the conversation on how to best ensure that our students continue to move forward. These concerns resonate deeply with our members, the union’s leadership and the children and families that we serve.
First, I would like to acknowledge the collaboration we have maintained with the Division of Multilingual Learners under the leadership of Mirza Sanchez-Medina over these challenging two years. From the earliest days of the closing of NYC schools, our teams have worked together to try to ameliorate the most-damaging effects on our students.
Of course, despite our joint efforts, there is much that our English language learners and their educators still need during this period of academic recovery. During the period of remote instruction, we know that ELLs were severely affected, and not solely because of access to tablets or internet service. It was challenging for many multilingual parents to support their children on multiple virtual platforms and curricula in English.
Another consequence of the pandemic was a significant loss in peer interaction, including social interaction, that is so important for language acquisition. Even when students returned to the classroom, the need for social distancing made collaborative group work difficult. Masks, while also necessary for health and safety, created challenges for listening and speaking.
We have heard some positives in terms of parent engagement, with families being able to participate more in their children’s education by joining school Zoom and Google Meets events. We hope these opportunities will continue to be supported.
We are very concerned about New York City’s recovery plan for ELLs and the promised multi-tiered system of support. Carolyne Quintana has stated that schools are responsible for designing their own plans and that ELLs are being supported in small groups of 2-4 during the school day. However, we know that in most buildings, there has been no provision of additional staff to provide these supports, nor has there been a decrease in class size. It is impossible for teachers to provide all of the leveled tiers of intervention, as well as all the other needed instructional supports while teaching a full class. We hear daily from teachers who agonize over not being able to provide what they know their students need.
We recommend the following actions and policies in support of ELL students and educators:
- Additional staffing support is needed to provide small-group instruction or tutoring for academic intervention at tiers 2 and 3.
- Self-contained classes of ELLs should be capped at 18 so that teachers can strengthen level 1 core instruction that is scaffolded and on grade-level.
- Co-teachers who deliver integrated ENL services must be provided dedicated co-planning time in order to meet the language-acquisition and content-area needs. Currently, ENL teachers often have many co-teaching partners (8 or even more) making integrated ENL instruction impossible.
- While there is a shortage of substitutes, it is imperative that ENL teachers not be pulled from their programs to provide coverages. We know from the field that in the fall, just when ELLs needed the system to spring into action on their behalf, ENL teachers were often told to cancel their own classes to cover content-area teachers.
- We are also worried that ENL programs will be frequently cancelled once state assessments start in the spring, including the speaking portion of the NYSESLAT. The city DOE must develop and disseminate a clear policy that ENL programs should be cancelled only due to a true emergency, and that the responsibility for coverages must be shared equally across all teaching staff. Plans must be put into place at all levels from K-12 so that ENL services are maintained throughout the entire year.
We thank the Council and the Chair for their ongoing commitment to the education of our city's English language learners, and we look forward to collaborating with you on this issue as the city's recovery continues.