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On a recent weekday, 13-year-old Genesis walked quietly through the halls of Gaudet Middle School in Middletown. She wore white Nikes and pulled at the sleeves of her pink sweatshirt in the nervous way middle schoolers sometimes do. 

When she arrived at her class, she dashed inside and took a seat where three other students were waiting around short laminate tables. Like Genesis, all of them are seventh graders who recently moved to the United States. They get extra time outside their other classes to focus on learning English.

This afternoon, the class was playing a game to practice vocabulary. The students buzzed with chatter as their teacher, Jennifer Lamond, announced the category — parts of the body.

Genesis slumped over her school laptop in disappointment. 

“I’m not playing,” she said. “I don’t know the parts of the body.”

When Genesis first moved from Guatemala to Rhode Island, about a year before the pandemic began, she knew almost no English. She made lots of progress at first, but that came to a halt when classes went virtual in 2020. For privacy, The Public’s Radio is only using her first name.

For Genesis, distance learning was especially hard because most of her family at home didn’t speak English. 

“I didn't really do much work, because I couldn’t understand it,” she said. “And there wasn't people to help me with it, because they didn't know either.”

English learners like Genesis and her peers were also more likely to lack the necessary technology at home for distance learning. After schools finally reopened, many students had not only missed new content, but they had also experienced learning regression — meaning they had lost progress and knowledge they acquired before the pandemic.

“When we first started with the pandemic, I didn't really want to leave the school,” Genesis said. “But then when we had to come back, I was scared.”

Back in person, some pandemic protocols created other barriers to catching up. Face masks prevent students from seeing the movements of their teachers’ mouths, which is crucial for learning new sounds in English.

For example, the “th” sound, as in “Thursday,” is an unfamiliar mouth shape for many native Spanish speakers. With mask requirements in place, educators were tasked with teaching how to make these sounds with only pictures and videos as visual aids. For children like Genesis who were still shy and lacked confidence when speaking English, it was also hard having to talk louder with a mask on.

When the pandemic first began, Genesis was a star English student just beginning middle school. Now, with only a year left before high school, she sometimes imagines how different things might be if not for COVID-19. Genesis wonders if she would have been placed out of the English Learners program by now.

“I would, like, speak more confidently,” she said between pauses, “and do things that the other kids do.”

A statewide challenge

As of this school year, about 11% of all Rhode Island public school students are classified as English Learners, also called Multilingual Learners. That’s about 15,000 students, nearly twice as many as a decade ago. Over 80% of these students speak Spanish at home. The remainder speak roughly 90 other languages, including creole languages, Arabic, and Portuguese. Multilingual learners are more likely to live in households with lower incomes, and nearly 80% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. 

“These last two years have been really challenging. You know, they've been challenging for everyone. But for this population in particular, we have seen the impact,” said Angélica Infante-Green, Rhode Island’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education. “We've seen it in our scores. We've seen it in their social-emotional development. It's just been greater than we anticipated.”

The pandemic’s impact has also become apparent in Rhode Island’s rates of chronic absenteeism, defined as when a student misses more than 10% of the school year. Among non-multilingual learners, Infante-Green says chronic absenteeism has risen from about 17% to 25% during the pandemic. For multilingual learners, however, that’s about where chronic absenteeism stood before COVID-19.

“Chronically absent, our students were at 24%, our multilingual learners,” she said. “And now, during the pandemic, it's gone up to 43 [percent]. So it's doubled.”

Nearby states like Connecticut and Massachusetts likewise saw surges in chronic absenteeism particularly among English Learners, but Rhode Island’s numbers were the highest. Infante-Green says, among older students, there has been an increase in the need for adolescents to work to support their families. That can mean students miss classes or arrive at school tired after working a late-night shift.

During the pandemic, Rhode Island has also seen steep declines in EL students’ test scores. In 2019, 8% of multilingual learners in Rhode Island were reading on grade level. Infante-Green says, as of last year, only 4% are.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “And you may say, ‘Yes, but they're learning English.’ So ELA, English, we get that. But let's talk about math. Two percent of all the multilingual learners in the state of Rhode Island can do math on grade level. What do you think happens to a child that is in that space, that doesn't have the right foundation? They're going to be lagging behind.”

Jennifer Efflandt, the executive director of multilingual learners in Providence’s public school system, says that puts a responsibility on educators to ensure there is more support for these students than ever. She points to research that suggests once a student has been identified as a multilingual learner for more than five years, their learning can plateau and they’re more likely to maintain that status throughout all of high school.

“We know that we have a certain amount of years of a window to close that gap to make sure that they're on grade level,” Efflandt said. “So if they've missed two years, that means we need to make a lot of growth in the next couple of years to make up for that time.”

In the fall of 2020, the Rhode Island Department of Education released a strategic plan for multilingual learner success, which was already in the works before the pandemic. The plan outlines a number of goals, including strengthening parent engagement and expanding EL teacher training. 

Some progress in these areas has moved forward over the past two years. Providence is among a number of districts statewide working to expand dual language programs, which have been shown to support multilingual learners. In Newport, the school district launched a club to keep senior English Learners on track to graduate. However, there’s no quick or easy fix to make up for what has been lost over the past two years, and that weighs on some students.

Moving forward after disruptions

In Lamond’s Middletown class, the seventh graders help each other when someone forgets a word, and they even teasingly correct one another’s pronunciation.

One boy, Carlos, is among the most chatty students in class. Like Genesis, he is originally from Guatemala, but he enrolled in Middletown schools only a week before classes went virtual in 2020. At that point, he was a complete beginner in English. He couldn’t get the necessary technology working at home for distance learning, so he spent that entire spring learning through packets that Lamond dropped off at his house.

“It was difficult because if I have a question, I cannot be able to ask her,” Carlos said. “We were separated, so it was very difficult.”

During the vocabulary game, Carlos was playful and competitive as he and his classmates raced to name the body parts flashing on a screen. At one point, Lamond warned the class that the next question was particularly tricky, but Carlos had already clicked too quickly. He confused the words “feet” and “foot,” and he got the question wrong.

“When I get, like, a really hard problem or something like that, I just wish that maybe we never have the pandemic,” he said later.

But Carlos doesn’t dwell on it. He keeps studying, keeps trying, and hopes it will compensate for the years he will never get back.

Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio and a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at