Equity is a driving force for charter schools in their quest to provide high-quality education options for all students, regardless of zip code. The COVID-19 pandemic and related school closures have created new challenges in this quest. As we learned this past spring, low-income students are at a greater disadvantage due to disparities in access to infrastructure needed for distance learning. Many schools across the country are starting the new year with either distance or hybrid learning, putting pressure on school leaders to determine how their school will continue to provide equitable learning opportunities for all students and families.
We’ve been following what charter schools are doing in this area and put together a list of suggestions for how school leaders can practice equity-based distance learning in the upcoming school year.
1. Check-in on Students and Families to Ensure Needs are Being Met
The students who are most in need are less likely to have access to a conducive learning environment, technological devices, internet connectivity, and parental supervision. Schools can play a role in helping to connect families to organizations that provide access to technological devices and internet service for reduced or no cost. You might want to check your state department of education’s website for a list of local companies providing discounts. For example, the California Department of Education shares information about special offers by various internet providers across the state. Common Sense Education also shares information about organizations helping to facilitate access to low-cost and free internet service, devices, and educational content.
Schools can also provide families with information about community organizations that can help to meet basic needs such as food, shelter, and childcare. For example, schools can create a list of community resources with instructions on how to initiate contact and make the list easily accessible to all families by sharing it in newsletters and posting it on their website. Alpha Public Schools created a microsite Alpha Family Resources Hub to provide families with information about resources related to distance learning, housing, food, and more.
2. Prioritize Staying Connected with Students to Support Academic Success and Mental Wellness
During distance learning, regular live interaction between teachers and students is important to maintain connection and encourage stronger learning outcomes School leaders are tasked with overseeing the quality of communication between students and teachers while ensuring check-ins are done regularly with different modes of communication such as text, phone, video, small groups, and social media. Maintaining a consistent, open, two-way communication between your school and students and families will allow insight into how students are adjusting to the new learning environment and coping with other issues.
School leaders can create a space for informal and formal conversations with students by implementing virtual advisory groups or individual online meetings. For example, Memphis Merit Academy created a hotline for parents and students to call for help with schoolwork, LifeWork Hotline | Virtual Teacher, to support students’ academic success. A similar model could work to connect students to counselors to support students’ mental health and wellbeing and help students cope with the stresses brought about by the pandemic. School leaders may also call upon social and mental health services by directing families to their teletherapy services while emphasizing mindfulness, playtime, and exercise to help parents and guardians structure time at home.
3. Provide Flexibility That is Responsive to Students’ Unique Needs and Abilities
It’s important to consider students’ unique needs and experiences when planning your school’s distance learning strategy for the 2020-2021 school year. School leaders might consider distributing surveys that solicit student and family feedback on digital learning experiences as well as their home environments. This feedback will make you aware of any barriers to learning such as access to technology, home language, caretaking responsibilities and/or the presence of caregivers, and can help to inform your distance learning strategy and tailor your approach to serve different groups of students. For example, the survey results can help to identify which students have familial obligations during the day and need access to asynchronous instruction, as well as those who require synchronous instruction to keep them engaged and on track.
A survey can also help improve family and student engagement. For example, at the start of distance learning and after noticing that only a few students were engaged in daily learning, Rocketship Public Schools surveyed their families each morning to inquire what students needed to learn at home and worked to address those needs throughout the day. By the end of the school year, nearly every student was engaging in daily learning.
4. Focus on Mitigating Learning Loss
A recent study by NWEA predicts that students will experience a learning loss of 30 percent in reading and 50 percent in math due to school closures related to the COVID-19 crisis. To help mitigate potential learning loss, school leaders can focus on strategies that accelerate student learning. Accelerated learning strategies require that students consistently receive grade-level materials, tasks, and assignments while making the work accessible. This Learning Acceleration Guide might be a helpful starting point for planning your strategy. To make up for the learning loss, the accelerated student learning plan should start as soon as possible, and ideally should be put together by a diverse team of teachers, administrators, and school leaders in a series of planning sessions. It is helpful to plan several instructional delivery scenarios and have a high-level plan for each scenario. You’ll also want to identify what unfinished learning needs to be addressed, and when and how. This document from Achieve the Core helps educators identify instructional content priorities in math and ELA in order to stay on grade level while addressing related prerequisite skills.
School leaders across the country are tasked with the challenge of developing strategies that maximize equity outcomes and address the diverse needs of their students during this unprecedented time of school closures. Equity-based distance learning helps to ensure that the most vulnerable students are supported during and beyond the pandemic. The resources cited here can help school leaders to implement school policies and processes that support equitable learning outcomes, as well as to train teachers to diagnose unfinished learning while providing acceleration support to the students most in need. What is your school doing to achieve equity in distance learning? Let us know in the comment section below!