There were roughly 145,723 English language learners (ELL)—representing 13.3 percent of all students, including school-age and preschool students—in New York City public schools last year. Two years after the pandemic hit the city, there are several academic areas in which ELLs have not recovered.

Ed Reed/NYC Mayor’s Office

A scene from the first day of school in September 2021.

Translated from Spanish by Daniel Parra. Lea la versión en español aquí. 

Two years after the pandemic changed the way classes are taught in New York City public schools, English Language Learners (ELLs) continue to struggle.

Students for whom English is a new language, roughly 145,723 kids enrolled during the 2020-2021 school year, regularly have a learning gap—but being out of school for in-person learning for more than a year, teachers say, further widened it. Skills such as fluency, reading comprehension, and writing are some of the problem areas for ELLs, so some schools have created additional learning times to close this gap.

Through a request sent by the Citywide Council on English Language Learners (CCELL), responsible for advising and commenting on educational policies that involve ELL students in the city, City Limits received direct feedback via email from representatives at 15 schools on the continuing impact of the pandemic on these students. 

English Language Learners in NYC 2020-2021
Borough# English Language Learners% English Language Learners% Poverty All Students
Staten Island4,7087.00%58.10%

Widening the Gap

In addition to coping with English as a new language and tending to have lower-incomes, ELL students face other issues that can affect their academic performance. P.S. 69 Daniel D. Tompkins Public School in Staten Island, for example, reported that their ELL students continue to have “problems with reading fluency and comprehension. Writing is also a problem for some students, as their formal papers lack detail and organization.”

Other schools reported some improvements in these areas including gains in reading and speaking since returning to face-to-face instruction earlier this fall. “Our data shows a 9 percent increase in students reading at grade level at the beginning of the year versus 37 percent reading in March,” said Laura Avakians, principal of P.S. 94 David D. Porter Public School in Queens. 

The return to face-to-face instruction this school year provided an opportunity to compare the performance of ELLs who had in-person learning during the 2020-2021 school year and those who took the remote option. For example, in Brooklyn’s P.S. 319 Early Childhood Education Center in Williamsburg, where the highest grade is first grade, the repercussions are still evident. ELL students that were remote during the 2020-2021 school year are still scoring lower during the 2021-2022 school year. “What the data has shown for our first grade ELL students is that the remote learning students have been scoring lower on our assessments than the ELLs that came to school daily,” the school told City Limits via CCELL’s feedback request.

Several public schools, such as P.S. 59 Springfield Gardens in Queens, which serves Caribbean immigrants, P.S. 94 David D. Porter in Queens, and P.S. 256 Benjamin Banneker—which is now a Magnet school—have created recovery programs and tutoring services specifically for ELLs to close the gap and increase comprehension, grades, and outcomes. 

“We have also been more inclusive in parent/guardian outreach for those students to better support the families holistically,” said a representative from P.S. 59.

“More attention is also being given to monitoring the attendance rate,” she added. 

ELL attendance rates at some schools remain below what was seen before the pandemic. At Manhattan Bridges High School in Hell’s Kitchen, “attendance is still an issue for us. From 90 percent pre-pandemic, we are now at 86 percent.”

There are more critical cases in which ELLs are overrepresented among students who are consistently absent. “Though current ELLs comprise approximately 12 percent of our total student population, 31 of 145 students, 21 percent ELLs are represented in our recent chronic absentee list (March 7 list),” said a representative of Long Island City High School.

City Limits asked the DOE for the most recent absence numbers for ELL students in the city, as well as the percentages of ELL students in the chronically absent category, but the agency did not respond to these questions.

The DOE reported in January 2021 that ELL students, as well as students with disabilities and students living in the shelter system, were absent the most, as were Black and Latino students. 

The schools have been digging into the causes of declining attendance and say there are several factors. “The underlying causes are numerous, but we know from conferences with students and families that this is due in part to changes in housing/geographic location, the taking on evening/morning work to assist the family economically, fear of COVID re-infection, caring for family members, loss of motivation after disruptions in education from 2020-2021,” said a LIC High School representative.

Gaps in school personnel and information

There are also gaps in staffing, some schools reported. A teacher at P.S. 53 Barbara Esselborn in Staten Island, where 20 percent of the students are ELLs and 20 percent are Asian students, said that hiring bilingual staff to represent the culture of the neighborhood has been difficult, and they have not been able to find staff who speak Chinese. 

Another problem highlighted by some of the schools is that several bilingual teachers decided to retire during the pandemic. “Of our eight TESOL [Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages] certified ELL teachers, three retired from 2020-2022,” said a LIC High School representative.

The DOE responded that teacher retention in the city remained high, even for teachers serving with English as a Second Language (ESL) or bilingual licenses, although it did not provide updated figures for how many are currently working in city schools. In October 2019 there were 5,650 of these teachers and by October 2021 there were 5,600, according to the DOE.

Advocates and educators say more staff-specific information is needed because, according to the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF), it is not known what languages bilingual school staff speak across the system, making it difficult to identify gaps in services.

Knowing in detail how the city’s ELL population is comprised is also difficult, and one of the biggest problems is that, according to CACF, the DOE does not collect specific data on the ethnic groups of ELLs. DOE did not respond directly to this complaint.

“The DOE does not collect data on AAPI ethnic groups, which disregards the unique social, educational, and economic differences associated with different Asian ethnicities and thus impedes the ability to provide targeted services,” said CACF’s Education Policy Coordinator 

Kaveri Sengupta, during the City Council’s education committee hearing on Feb. 28 on the impact of the pandemic on ELLs.

For all of these reasons, a representative of Long Island City High School said that “the severe impacts on families of ELLs across economic, educational, and emotional spheres cannot be understated.”