IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Remote learning a major challenge for students learning English as a second language

“I would help him with his activities, I would help them a bit with what I could to do their work, but it really isn’t sufficient,” one teen's mother said in Spanish.

Roberto Gomez, 14, moved with his family to San Antonio from Mexico less than two years ago. He's been working hard to learn English since then — a task made even more difficult now that all of his classes are taught virtually.

Roberto is one of more than 5 million students in the United States learning English as a second language, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Now with many schools relying on remote learning to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in schools, the ability to stay on top of classes has become even more difficult for those without fluent English speakers in their household.

Roberto's mother says he’s been losing some of the English he’s already learned since the pandemic. “It's difficult to find ways to practice,” he told NBC News and Telemundo.

Previously a star student, Roberto has been struggling since classes went all online last semester. He said it is difficult not having direct contact with the teachers. Not being able to see friends also means he can't practice English with them or get their help with schoolwork.

Karla Padilla and her husband, Roberto.Aaron Franco / NBC News

To add to his challenges, Roberto said he usually does his homework on his phone because the family of five shares one laptop.

Parents, like Roberto's mother, Karla Padilla, were unexpectedly forced to oversee their children's educations — all in a language they may be struggling with themselves.

“I would help him with his activities, I would help them a bit with what I could to do their work, but it really isn’t sufficient,” Padilla said in Spanish.

It’s also a challenge for Roberto’s teacher, McKenna Potter.

“Our school systems aren't really set up to support migrant families to begin with,” she said.” And now with remote learning, that's just carrying over into that.”

"I think the students who are learning English, they need extra support, they need visuals, they need to be able to see the way pronunciation happens, see the way the mouth moves," Potter said. "So it is extra important for them to be in class in real life."

The situation is even more complex for the approximately 700,000 students with special needs in the United States who are also English-language learners. It has left many immigrant parents having to provide speech, occupational and behavioral therapy at home.

Soledad Picero and her 6-year-old twins Rocio and Emma. Emma has autism and has had a difficult time with distance learning because of her disability.Soledad Picero

Soledad Picero's 6-year-old twins, Emma and Rocio, do everything together. But when it comes to learning, the two have different needs because Emma has autism and is nonverbal.

Picero said the transition from school was a major stress factor because autistic children need a schedule. She said being patient is crucial.

“I didn't have much patience before, but I had to develop that part of me,” she said.

At school, Emma met with a teacher and seven different therapists every week, roles that her mother had to take on overnight.

“I have to run from one side of the house to the other side of the house so they concentrate on their stuff,” she said.

Adding to the challenge for Latino parents of special needs children is the lack of information in Spanish. Picero created a website with information to try to help others in similar situations.

“That's what moms do: Be there for your children,” she said.