Applying an Equity Lens to Online Learning
In a post for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) website, educator Dena Simmons contended that “on some level, COVID-19 is our equity check, reminding us of who we could be if we valued equity as much as we say we do.”
For Simmons, childhood summers were spent indoors to avoid the gun violence that afflicted her neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. The memory and trauma of this experience have led her to worry about today’s youth—who, she pointed out, were contending with notable stressors such as school shootings even before the coronavirus outbreak and resultant shutdowns. And it didn't take long before simmering issues connected to equity bubbled to the surface in the wake of school closures, when students and teachers in many school districts were required to rapidly adjust to virtual teaching and learning. After all, Simmons noted, some students do not have access to a safe space from which to learn at home, and millions still don't have readily available and consistent internet service.
Although questions continue to abound regarding what K–12 public education will look like in the coming months, online learning is likely to play a major role for at least the next year or two, with school districts including those in Los Angeles and San Diego making plans for education to be entirely online until further notice.
With this in mind, we'll explore some equity prioritization approaches to help make online learning accessible for all students.
Consider the student perspective
Around the time that schools first began closing due to the pandemic, Vanderbilt University assistant professor Shaul Kelner and his colleagues authored a post titled “Inclusive and Equitable Teaching Online” that detailed ways to make virtual learning better for all students. While K–12 classrooms are not in these professors' direct purview, many of the insights provided can be applied to students of all ages.
One succinct phrase—“empathy is crucial”—jumped out at a time when it is arguably more important than ever for teachers to consider learning from a student perspective. Elaborating on this assertion, Kelner explained that it can be easy for educators to proceed with blinders on, too focused on the work at hand to consider how students are experiencing online education. To ensure students feel seen, Kelner recommended directly asking them what it is like trying to complete work virtually. Simple steps like this can help open the door to a better understanding of what challenges students are facing, which will ultimately allow a more equitable and responsive approach to take root.
Tailor approaches based on need
In a recent interview with Lulu Garcia-Navarro of National Public Radio, three teachers from California, Colorado, and Texas shared their thoughts on how schools could or should reopen.
As the conversation progressed, an eagerness to open school doors was palpable, with California-based educator Jori Krudler stating, “I have not talked to one teacher who does not want to be back with our kids.” Still, with COVID-19 cases continuing to rise, Krudler expressed dismay over her district’s decision to move ahead with a five-day, in-person resumption of school, citing safety concerns.
At the same time, Colorado teacher and librarian Julia Torres acknowledged that the online-only model hurriedly thrust upon educators a few months ago left many students behind. According to Torres, “a lot of the students did not show up for online learning at all,” often because they required additional support or lacked the necessary resources to participate.
Along with Texas-based biology teacher Lee S. Ferguson, Torres and Krudler came to the consensus that deploying a hybrid model to pair online learning with site-based instruction would be the best course of action in terms of both upholding safety and ensuring equity. Elaborating on this idea, Torres noted that schools could use a hybrid approach to better accommodate students who need direct, in-person instruction by allowing these individuals back into the classroom while their peers engage in online learning from home.
Center equity when addressing learning losses
According to a July New York Times article that outlined how students have been academically affected by the pandemic, “American children were set back, on average, by seven months in their reading and math learning, with children from low-income families and students of color experiencing even bigger losses.”
In her post on the ASCD website, Simmons advocated for greater flexibility and empathy among those trying to reverse these losses and help students adapt to online education models. While this includes ensuring students have the devices and connectivity they require to complete their online work, it is also important to acknowledge and support students whose needs are not being met through online instruction, as well as to consider what can be done to address these barriers to learning as soon as possible.
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