As data on the pandemic continue to roll in, it’s clear that the pandemic’s burdens are not shared equally. It is increasingly evident that California’s families of color–the state’s linguistically and culturally diverse communities–have been among the state’s hardest hit.
Many families of color who work in frontline service sectors like health care or food services are at an exceptionally high risk of exposure to the virus. Their children, many of whom are dual language learners (DLLs), continue to experience stress and anxiety as their families work as essential workers risking exposure to COVID-19. Families speaking languages other than English at home were more likely to report food insecurity concerns. What’s more, there is evidence that the state’s DLLs are likely to face digital divides—that is, lack of access to the learning technologies required for distance learning. As a result, polls suggest that many DLLs could not reliably access schools’ online learning offerings, and—even when they accessed them—were not adequately supported.
California must do better. Over half of the state’s young children speak a language other than English at home. In too many instances, the pandemic has disrupted their access to Early Learning and Care programs and exacerbated existing opportunity gaps for them and their families. California’s future depends on these students’ success, and that begins with a strong developmental foundation in the early years.
State and local leaders must invest in an Early Learning and Care system that supports DLLs and their families’ needs with distance and/or hybrid learning. Here are a few ideas:
- Address and close—digital divides—for families of young DLL children. Disparities in access to technology make distance learning prohibitive to many DLLs in California. DLLs’ families appear to be more likely to lack access to devices and internet connectivity necessary for video-based learning.
- Provide DLLs and their families with support and guidance in using available technology in their primary language. While access to learning technology is critical during the pandemic, this is still just a first step. Tablets, laptops, and mobile hotspots are not magic devices. It is not enough to leave them on families’ doorsteps. Families deserve guidance on how they can ensure that their children are using these resources appropriately and effectively. This guidance must include translated instructions, multilingual video training, and resources on online, electronic, or digital platforms to support DLL children in multiple languages.
- Provide information about the critical role home language development plays in supporting English acquisition and reaping bilingualism’s numerous benefits. With many families at home with their children during the pandemic, the Early Learning and Care system should equip our programs to build on this opportunity for families to further develop their young DLLs’ home language. Families and caregivers need developmentally appropriate learning materials in their home languages. They also need guidance, resources, and strategies that can help them to develop their children’s home language proficiencies.
As we respond to our current state of emergency, we must bring DLL children to the center of our policy conversations around the digital divide and distance/hybrid learning. We must not miss the critical window of opportunity that the early years bring for brain and language development and set children on the path to success. As the largest proportion of California’s young child population, DLLs, in many ways, are the future drivers of the state’s economic and social well-being. Their future is our future.