Bassole Sarah signs up for classes at the City College of San Francisco Ocean campus on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (Samantha Laurey/Special to S.F Examiner)

ESL students struggle to register online for classes

CCSF offering in-person registration for English classes to bridge language barriers, digital divide

Students hoping to learn English as a second language at City College of San Francisco have a long-awaited chance this week to register in person, temporarily removing barriers that have halved enrollment since spring,

The Department of Public Health cleared CCSF for limited in-person enrollment for the non-credit classes after the college found that students with language differences and a lack of digital access were struggling to enroll remotely.

“One of the real challenges for beginning level ESL students and all students is bridging the digital divide,” said Greg Keech, chair of the ESL Department. “We’re still having difficulty getting new students, getting old staff back, and getting students connected.”

Though non-credit enrollment numbers aren’t finalized until the end of the semester, the college has seen about 8,000 enrollments in ESL courses this term versus 17,000 in the spring, according to Keech. CCSF also cut noncredit ESL offerings from 255 classes in the spring to 183 classes this fall, according to spokesperson Rachel Howard.

Non-credit ESL students, who are frequently enrolled at the end of a semester by their teachers for the following semester, can’t fully register online. Instead, they can submit a form and are called back to complete the process, said teacher Audrey Wallace. For ESL students, who are often essential workers with multiple jobs, flexibility to adjust their classes to their shifting work schedules is crucial.

But with language, technology, and internet connectivity barriers, ESL students have had an especially difficult time enrolling. The college sought permission to offer in-person registration earlier this year, during the usual registration period, but could not get it until now.

“Online platforms were largely designed for people who could use them, who had the technology and the know-how,” Wallace said.”What happens when everybody has to use it, a lot of people fall through the cracks — especially seniors and people who don’t speak English.”

Immediately after the shift to online teaching, many instructors like Wallace recognized that they needed to keep in regular contact with students. About a dozen teachers and librarians cold-called students, posted and handed out flyers, and enlisted bilingual volunteers through the Women’s Building to help students get acclimated to the system.

Once they’re enrolled, ESL students often also have difficulty logging in with the online platform to access classes. Though Wallace said the Registrar’s Office was pretty quick to sign students up, it took a couple of days for the classes to show up in the online platform Canvas — and then teachers had to double back and make sure they knew how to access the classes.

“We must not say, ’Oh, we just can’t access this group of people, they just can’t do it,’” Wallace said. “They can but it will take time, it will take considerable effort and intentional planning.”

Wallace hopes CCSF will be able to offer in-person registration and orientation for the following semester, even though classes will also be conducted remotely. The ability to send students a simple Zoom link, rather than make them log in through a specific platform, would also make access easier, she said.

“It’s like flying an airplane while we’re building it,” Keech said. “We really are working on it, it just takes time. Everything that we’re building this semester is going to be useful next semester in figuring out ways to create access, to figure out ways to work with students to make sure that they know how to take a remote class.”

In-person ESL registration began Tuesday and will continue Wednesday and Thursday from 9a.m.-2 p.m. at the multi-use building on CCSF’s Ocean Campus. The Chinatown campus is planning to offer in-person registration next Wednesday and Thursday, and the Mission campus is also making plans, pending DPH approval.

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From left: Kelley O’Neil, Monika Liu and Chandra Edelstein wait for ESL students to come sign up for classes at the City College of San Francisco Ocean campus on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (Samantha Laurey/Special to S.F Examiner)

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