Online Learning: Accessible to All?

Online Learning: Accessible to All?
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A recent New York Times article began by presenting a familiar scenario: A young girl, newly equipped with an iPad, was eager to begin online learning after her public school had been shuttered due to the COVID-19 crisis.

However, reporter Nikita Stewart went on, 10-year-old Allia soon discovered she could not take part in the virtual lessons her school was attempting to provide. The reason? She and her family live in a New York City homeless shelter that does not provide internet access.

As school districts across the country navigate a shift to online learning in response to mandated closures, many educators and officials are grappling with the question of how to equitably reach all learners, including homeless and highly mobile students, those with a lower socio-economic status, those with special education needs, and those who are non-native English speakers. 

Even when school buildings are open, sufficient funding is available, and resources are accessible, supporting students from vulnerable demographics often presents a challenge. So, what happens when disaster strikes? What provisions can be made to ensure students in need—like a girl with an iPad but no access to the internet—will not be left behind?

With the COVID-19 pandemic threatening to keep schools closed until fall 2020 in many areas, let’s take a look at how the needs of marginalized students are being considered thus far.

Students who live in poverty

Slightly more than 50% of the country's K-12 public school students qualify for free and reduced lunch, according to federal poverty guidelines. Those who live in poverty are far less likely to have access to electronic devices and reliable internet service, and while this "digital divide" is not a new problem, the coronavirus situation is highlighting it in new ways. As a recent Bloomberg News article phrased it, “Distance learning necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic starkly exposes the continued disparities in access.”

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In addition to grappling with connectivity challenges, students with a lower socio-economic status face a host of other issues that may interfere with their ability to adequately participate in online learning. Notably, many have parents who need to keep working during the crisis and thus are less able to guide, monitor, and supervise students doing schoolwork.

These equity-based concerns have prompted calls to halt mandatory online learning in favor of implementing summer school or other remedial plans down the line. As Brown University education policy fellow Douglas N. Harris recently argued, when it comes to distance learning plans, “even the best and most well-intentioned efforts will mean that students suffer—especially low-income students.”

Citing research that suggests online learning is tough for many students under ideal circumstances, Harris underscored the impact of a swift and unexpected switch to virtual instruction before recommending that the remainder of the semester be used to better prepare teachers for the world of online education. “Now is a good time for schools to consider their online teaching capacity,” he asserted, “which can be useful beyond emergencies such as this (and in preparing for a possible reemergence of COVID-19 this fall/winter).”

Students with special education needs

Of course, students who are homeless, highly mobile, and/or have a lower socioeconomic status aren't the only demographic to be disproportionately affected by the sudden closure of school buildings. Many administrators have been scrambling to provide continued support to students with special education needs, as required under federal education law.

However, a PBS NewsHour segment from March noted that the U.S. Department of Education has advised districts “not [to] let concerns over how to reach students with disabilities stop them from offering distance learning.” Instead, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos encouraged schools to be “creative and flexible,” and a fact sheet put together by her office suggested educators use audio and video recordings to facilitate teacher-student engagement.

According to another Department of Education mandate, schools that are completely closed due to COVID-19 do not have to offer special education services, but those continuing to provide instruction in any format must take all students’ needs into account. A brief video produced by the department’s Office of Civil Rights presented a framework for the latter, which included a reminder to allow for the use of assistive technology for students with mobility or other issues. As PBS NewsHour noted, schools must also consider how to provide services such as occupational or speech therapy over the phone or via video.

English language learners

In addition to students who are homeless or highly mobile, have a lower socioeconomic status, and/or have special education needs, English language learners compose another vulnerable demographic. The website Colorin Colorado—a resource for English learners (ELs) and their instructors—provides a helpful overview for parents and educators that zeroes in on the need to support students and families through this difficult time by first determining whether their basic needs are being met.

More specifically, Colorin Colorado contributor Lydia Breiseth advised districts to partner with school- and community-based resources to ensure families have access to the latest COVID-19 updates, health care services, essential nutrition, and more. Breiseth’s post also included a wealth of ideas for how to help ELs keep up with schoolwork during the shutdown, such as delivering learning packets for those without internet access and making sure families have teachers' contact information.

The bottom line 

While the general consensus seems to be that learning can and should go on for students, schools and districts will need to follow the Secretary of Education's recommendation to be flexible and creative as they work to promote inclusion, engagement, and student-centered problem-solving under less than ideal circumstances.


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