Long before settling in Clarkston last year, Abdul Shahil picked up some English from Americans he encountered in Afghanistan.

“When I came here to the U.S., I knew some English, but my speaking was not good,” said the 43-year-old refugee. “I’m trying to improve.”

He enrolled in free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Georgia Piedmont Technical College in Clarkston. The classes are virtual, an option that Sahil says allows him to better balance his language education with his retail job.

“It was hard at the first,” he said.

Like most state-funded ESL programs, Georgia Piedmont’s entry into virtual education was a direct response to the pandemic. The transition wasn’t easy, administrators say, especially for newer immigrants with limited English.

Across the metro area, enrollment in ESL programs remain lower than 2019 levels due to the pandemic, even as many providers returned to in-person instruction.

Second-level student Alejandro Murillo delivers a presentation about his home country of Colombia during his English class on Nov. 11, 2021. Most of the students studying through the Center for Pan Asian Community Services are immigrants who, despite the pandemic, continue to seek ways to improve their English. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Pandemic impact

Community advocates say immigrants have long understood the benefits that come with English proficiency, from being able to pass the English test required for U.S. citizenship to accessing higher paying jobs.

Mónica Cucalón, managing director of economic empowerment at the Latin American Association, said immigrants know they need to develop English-language skills “so they can really find a job or find a better job.”

Access to free English education is administered in Georgia only for immigrants with legal status through the Technical College System and affiliated organizations. When the pandemic hit, it left providers scrambling to create virtual classes.

“We were a mess. We didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t have any experience with online classes,” said Angela Towner, ESL coordinator at Georgia Piedmont.

It took the college about a month and a half to launch virtual programs for all levels.

Mary Baxter, instructional coordinator at Georgia Piedmont, said the school is located in an area with a large population of refugees.

“Many of the lower-level students we cater to are students who … don’t know how to read or write in any language,” she said. “So that is a population that is very difficult to reach through online learning.”

Other factors caused immigrants, who studies show were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, to discontinue their English language education such as expanded childcare demands after schools switched to virtual-only learning last year.

“There were some shifting priorities [among students] when the pandemic first hit,” said Vanessa Russell is the CEO of Catholic Charities Atlanta, a provider of free ESL classes funded by the Technical College System of Georgia.

“People were really concerned about their jobs,” she said. “That was number one. And so that took them a little bit off focus.”

Many immigrant families also lacked the devices or internet connectivity needed to participate in virtual programs, she said.

A second-level student reviews his workbook during class on Nov. 11, 2021. The mission of the Department of English Literacy at the Center for Pan Asian Community Services is to provide diverse education and learning opportunities through services, resources and collaborations with organizations. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Bounce back

Many providers have now brought back in-person classes, all while maintaining virtual alternatives for students who remain wary of potential COVID-19 exposure or simply prefer that format.

The program at the Center for Pan Asian Community Services (CPACS) was among the first to return to the classroom. Grace Pyen, who leads the ESL department, said in-person classes resumed in the summer of 2020 with social distancing and masking guidelines in place.

She said in-person classes are the best way to increase enrollment. In addition, immigrants benefit from the community-building aspect meeting in person, she said.

“Normally, before the pandemic we did 1,400 students per year, a good number,” she said.” Last year we did 880.”

While enrollment at CPACS’ program has rebounded from its 2020 low point, it is still 35% lower than pre-pandemic levels, a pattern most providers are also seeing. At Catholic Charities Atlanta, enrollment is still 30% lower. Enrollment at Georgia Piedmont’s ESL program, which had 1,100 students enrolled in fiscal year 2019 , is “about half” of what it was pre-COVID, according to administrators.

Providers say they expect the numbers to increase because they plan to continue making in-person and remote options available long term.

Meghan McBride, vice president for adult education at Georgia Piedmont, said online English classes are here to stay.

“We will never get rid of it,” she said. “That’s probably been a silver lining of this pandemic.”

Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.