Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Hawaii English Learners Falter Under COVID-19 Distance Learning

Hawaii Department of Education website
Cover of the state Department of Education English Learner Guidance Manual.

When Hawaii public schools closed to slow the spread of COVID-19 and moved to distance learning, education advocates warned that students learning English were at high risk for falling behind.


17 percent of Hawaii public school students were or are active in learning English as a second language.

In the fall, Ben Setik will be a senior at Farrington High School. He moved to Hawaii from Lukunor in Chuuk about three and a half years ago.

Setik is just one of Farrington's 450 active English Language Learner students.

The shift to distance learning affected the newcomer students who moved to Hawaii within the last three years, most from Chuuk and the Marshall Islands. Being new was just one of their hurdles.

For Setik, learning how to use the technology has been a challenge.

"When you first started, it was kind of hard," he said.

"Some people will say, 'Oh, our generation knows how to work technology,' but for me. I can’t work technology, because back home in Chuuk, Micronesia, we don't really have technology. We only use the old version textbook, paper, pen."

ELL coordinator at Farrington, Akiko Giambelluca explained that students like Setik need more than just verbal communication to learn English.

"They have to look at facial expressions, tones and the gesture, maybe acting out, experiencing the real thing and watching the models," she said.

"We always constantly used to provide the language resources, but during distance learning, we couldn't quite provide all of them."

Giambelluca surveyed the ELL students, but only about 25% had a computer and internet access. Although the state Department of Education distributed Chrome books to the children who needed laptop, many ELL students still wouldn’t log on because they just didn’t know how. In some other cases, students lacked reliable Wi-Fi connectivity or a quiet place to work.

Ellie Kantar, one of Setik’s ELL teachers, has been trying to keep her students engaged in learning, but the COVID-19 outbreak has created some extra distractions.

"I've just had to become really accessible outside of school hours," she said.

"I have a lot of students that this situation has brought about extra responsibilities at home. They're either caring for siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews during the day because I work with high schoolers or they've taken on extra responsibilities, helping out adult family members who might be immunocompromised."

Setik is helping his aunt, who is medically at risk. While she usually helps community groups like Kokua Kalihi Valley to assist families in need, Setik explained that he's stepped in. Since distance learning began Setik's been volunteering there every day.

Setik noted that he was able to keep up with school because his teachers were constantly emailing, texting and calling him to remind him to keep doing his distance learning work.

Kantar explained that because of the distance, students who wanted to learn had to be more self-disciplined.

“With distance learning students have to be much more independent because they might be the only one at home that knows what's going on with this assignment,” she said. 

“As we've gone on with distance learning, I've actually started doing more video discussion . . . language is something that you do with other people so for them that interaction is so important.”

Kantar noted that having a preexisting relationship with her students before starting distance learning was vital, and was worried about how it would work if it continued through the beginning of the next school year.

Geraldine Bossy, a former ELL student who just graduated from Farrington, moved to Hawaii from Chuuk when she was in the fifth grade. She explained that her ELL classes helped her quickly learn English. Now she translates for her family.

"I usually go with my dad to his appointments. There are times where I guess he's just not processing anything, in his head or I don't know what's going on," she said. "But he will look at me and ask me to answer what doctors are saying or like, ask them questions about his conditions and stuff like that."

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the DOE published a report on the state’s English Language Learners. It showed that the most common languages that students spoke were Ilokano, Chuukese and Marshallese.

The report showed promising outcomes for students who completed the ELL program before entering high school, but the disparity between languages was stark.

For example, while most ELL students who completed the program before entering high school graduated on-time and went to college at higher rates than students who had never been in the program at all, Marshallese and Chuukese speaking students’ rates were far below.

Shawn Ford, a linguistics and language assistant professor at Kapiolani Community College that works with many upcoming ELL teachers suspected that Marshallese and Chuukese speaking students had lower outcome rates because students are often moving from school to school or back and forth from their home country.

“The kids who come over for educational opportunity, there's a lot of there are a lot of issues with them because many times just depending on family situations, they might not be able to fulfill their goals because they might have to go back home, or they might be living with an uncle in Asia, and then they have to move to live with an aunty who lives in Hawaii,” he said. 

“That can happen within a school year and we know that happens because we see the children's names showing up on different school lists being moved around like that.”

He also explained that the public school system hasn’t been able to account for the cultural differences for Marshallese and Chuukese speaking students.

“We just don't know how to respond to these issues because we don't have that kind of flux with our local kids,” he said. “Kids just aren't moving from school to school, or disappearing for a year and then reappearing. You have some of that I'm sure, but not to such a large degree as is happening with our Micronesian student population.”

Meanwhile the schools are looking for ways to help students overcome their challenges.

Giambelluca explained that some in-person summer school is a start, but students may need to repeat the year to make up what was lost while schools were closed and distance learning was in place.

She said COVID-19 has highlighted one other need: the importance of incorporating more technology into the ELL lessons.

"I think in regular ELL classes we are focusing on literacy skills, but we didn't quite teach them their computer or technology literacy so I think we really have to focus on that," she said. 

The DOE sent a team to the Marshall Islands in Spring 2019 to learn about the country’s education system and better understand the culture of the islands.

In a statement, the department said it learned that access to health care services is crucial for the Pacific Islanders as they arrive in Hawaii and that cultural differences impact students particularly in attendance expectations and time management. 

In response, the DOE has encouraged schools to set up transition centers for new families coming to Hawaii to, “provide assistance with language instruction, cultural norms, vital community connections including health care connections and introduction to western schooling.”

Ashley Mizuo
Born and raised on O’ahu, she’s a graduate of ‘Iolani School and has a BA in Journalism and Political Science from Loyola University Chicago and an MA in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.
Related Stories