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Blog Post · April 10, 2020

Remote Learning for English Learners and Special Needs Students during COVID-19

Photo of student learning from home

For California’s most vulnerable students, including 1.2 million English Learners (EL) and over 700,000 students with special educational needs, remote learning in the wake of COVID-19 presents particular challenges. As districts across the state roll out distance learning plans to minimize disruption to K–12 students, educators must find alternate ways to meet all student needs.

English Learners and special education students typically require more in-person support, such as occupational and speech therapy, in their daily learning than students in general. Educators are struggling to devise and implement plans to address these requirements remotely. Access to internet and devices is one area of concern, but so is providing intensive learning experiences that can stand in for in-person services.

Most EL and special education students live in large urban areas with access to broadband, and school districts in these counties, such as in the Bay Area and coastal counties in Southern California, may be able to partner with philanthropy and technology providers to supplement households currently without broadband access. Rural areas, however, may not have the same supports.

In counties where broadband access is low—that is, over 18% of households with school-age children lack it—and where the share of EL or students with disabilities is high (over 26%), online learning is a hurdle. This includes Colusa, Yolo, Napa, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Monterey, Kern, and Imperial, which together account for over 220,000 students who have special education needs or are English Learners.

There are an additional 50,000 such students in counties where we cannot estimate the share of families without broadband, but where concentrations of EL or students with special needs are disproportionately high. In these rural counties—which include San Benito, Mono, Tulare, Modoc, and Yuba—educators must determine how to compensate for lack of internet while offering intensive, though not in-person, instruction.

And it isn’t just students tested by the move to online instruction. In a typical school year, only 67% of teachers received professional development in using computers for instruction. Most received less than eight hours of training.

To fill the gap, more districts are providing training on how to teach students remotely. Courses cover online tools such as Zoom, Google Classroom, Canvas, and Seesaw; how to monitor and assess student learning; and how to manage and cater to student needs in an online environment. The California Department of Education also provided resources and idea banks to help districts accommodate students with varying learning needs, with guidance on options for delivering individualized education.

California continues to provide funding to districts to implement distance learning, through the governor’s executive orders and recent legislation. While distance learning cannot replace in-person instruction and services, educators are exploring alternatives, from reading assignments over the telephone to moving speech and occupational therapy online. Districts are also discussing extending the school year as they work to provide effective and equitable learning to the state’s most vulnerable students.


coronavirus COVID-19 digital divide distance learning English learners internet access K–12 Education Population remote access school closures
Public Policy Institute of California