Skip to main content

Thousands of San Francisco kids learn English at school. It isn’t as easy over Zoom

High schoolers across San Francisco, like eighteen-year-old Litza Padilla, haven’t set foot in a public school classroom since last March. But during the past year of remote learning, Padilla and her 12th grade peers at San Francisco International High School have juggled Zoom classes with an additional challenge—learning English. 

For immigrant students like Padilla, who arrived in San Francisco from Honduras three and a half years ago, distance learning has put additional strain on the already difficult task of absorbing class materials in a new language.

Now, with no in-person instruction expected until fall 2021, and mounting evidence that this group of primarily Hispanic and Asian students is falling behind, teachers and students at International are growing concerned.

According to a San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) report released in mid-January, overall attendance across the district has held steady on average compared to previous years. But attendance for English Language Learners (ELLs) has taken a hit. Of the 910 SFUSD students who attended fewer than 40 percent of their classes in fall 2020, 32 percent were ELLs. 

A learning gap has emerged as well—milestone scores in math were down by 5 percent for high school ELL students compared to predicted growth based on a three-year average—a “significant” decrease, according to an SFUSD report.

Away from the classroom, most International students speak Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hmong or one of another dozen “home languages.” Educators at International leverage those languages as learning tools by breaking students into small groups of the same skill level but differentiated by home language and asking them to workshop various problems. According to International’s school principal, Tara Hobson, this methodology tasks ELLs with “negotiating meaning” in English together and relies on community participation.

At school, students keep translated aid materials nearby and can raise their hands whenever they need support. But, Hobson said, it’s “harder to call the teacher over if the teacher [is] jumping around to breakout rooms.” 

An empty SF International classroom. | Photo by Ben Derico

Amy Gottsfeld, supervisor of Multilingual Programs at SFUSD, shares Hobson’s concerns. “If I visit a Zoom classroom, and all of the cameras are off, and students are silent, not only is language development not happening, but learning is probably not happening,” she said. 

These observations have been echoed on a statewide level. In June 2020, a report published by a group of ELL advocates, including the California Association for Bilingual Education, said “online or hybrid learning models may open up new educational possibilities, but they do not inevitably serve the cause of educational equity at all levels.” The report notes that both national and statewide data confirm ELL students consistently and “disproportionately lack access to digital learning technology and internet connectivity.”

Back at International, 10th grade teacher Yaqueline Rodas sees these technological challenges playing out firsthand among her students. “They're having a lot of tech issues,” she said, adding that these barriers are “slowing them down or making it a struggle [for them] to understand the content.” She said that while some students are getting the hang of the technology, it’s difficult to watch others who need extra support and not be able to offer the same level of assistance as she could in person.

Speaking over Zoom from her living room, Padilla said she misses school and is growing concerned that she’s forgetting the English she learned before the pandemic. With no one to speak English with at home, Padilla can’t immerse and practice nearly as much as she did on campus.

Some SFUSD schools will reopen on April 12, but high school students won't return back before the fall. With graduation approaching in June, Padilla says it makes her sad to think she won’t see International’s hallways or classrooms as a student again. 

Padilla hopes to be the first in her family to attend college and was recently accepted by San Francisco State University. One draw? It plans to offer in-person classes in the fall.