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3 Key Equity Considerations for Distance Learning From Education Leaders

Existing inequities have been brought into sharper focus—and even exacerbated—while students learn from home. Many students still lack access to technology and reliable, high-speed Internet. School closures also pose unique challenges for English learners (ELs) and students with disabilities who need specialized instruction.

In planning for fall 2020, districts are grappling with how to design quality distance learning experiences. The imperative is clear: Equity for students and their families needs to be top of mind whether the fall holds a phased re-entry, a hybrid learning model, or something else.

As Tracey Benson, assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and author of Unconscious Bias in Schools, put it:

“We have to recognize that we are all novice (and involuntary) virtual learners and teachers. Teachers have to learn to be virtual instructors on the fly and find ways to engage students remotely, with few options for professional development. Students are more tech savvy, but homes are not designed for schooling. As a result, students, parents, and teachers are all stressed.”

During a recent webinar (watch the recording here), we sat down with a panel of education leaders to learn how districts are developing virtual learning plans with an emphasis on equity.

Here are their key equity considerations, including examples of how districts are creating an equitable response to distance learning through student and family surveys.

Download the new Panorama Distance Learning Surveys to understand student, staff, and family experiences during school closures.

Turn equity from vision into action with data

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Diane Filardo, Director of Research Accountability, Norwalk Public Schools (CT)

What gets measured, gets done. That is truly what Norwalk is about, and that is how our district has been able to turn a focus on equity from just a vision into action over these past five years.

In our district—with almost 12,000 students across 21 schools and with 67 percent of students classified as “high needs” by the state of Connecticut—we recognize the importance of social-emotional learning and the connection between SEL and success. We look to Panorama as a way to measure this for all of our stakeholders.

Surveys — and the data they produce — can drive conversations as well as changes in instructional practice. They allow us to collect data on both student, educator and family voice, which allows us to prioritize these stakeholders’ needs. [Tweet This]

One example: we administered a Distance Learning Survey to assess if students had access to devices and internet, basic needs, and a safe learning environment while schools are closed. A burning question on everyone’s mind during school closures is whether or not students have high-speed internet access and the right devices to participate in distance learning. Our district was able to quickly respond to this need. In a short amount of time, we were able to get wireless hotspots and 1:1 decides to all students. This was not the case in lower grades prior to school closures; distance learning has forced us to provide equitable access to students in ways that we were not previously. 


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Tracey Benson, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and author of Unconscious Bias in Schools

One recommendation for delivering equitable virtual education is to administer surveys to parents. This can help us better understand what the home situation is like for our students and if there are additional supports that students need. Districts can then provide professional development that focuses on how to adjust instruction to meet the needs of families.

Feedback from surveys can then be used to differentiate virtual instruction. Instead of delivering the same content to all students virtually, we have to start thinking about how to differentiate our distance learning approach to best serve students based on their individual needs. [Tweet This]

Define "equity" and be clear about what an equitable virtual learning classroom includes

circle-cropped (6)Tracey Benson, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and author of Unconscious Bias in Schools

The ethos of education equity is that all students can learn at high levels if provided with appropriate support in an environment of high expectations. What this means is that if students are not performing up to standards, it is the responsibility of the school to do what’s necessary to provide them with the resources to be successful.

When thinking about equity in virtual learning environments, some key components for educators include: 

  • Create space for every student to participate: Ensure all students speak up during discussions and engage regularly.
  • Use positive reinforcement. Take special care to avoid put-downs and give praise to all students equally. Use positivity to call students into engagement.
  • Equally value contributions by gender and race during class. Racial and gender bias can be even more stark virtually.
  • Accommodate individual learning differences and prioritize accessibility. If feedback reveals that some students cannot complete certain assignments or participate in projects, it is important to rapidly adjust to meet their needs.

Examine data with an equity lens

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Sandra Faioes, Director of School Improvement, Norwalk Public Schools (CT)

We revisit the topic of equity every time we talk about or interact with data, and we don’t hide behind the fact that there are inequities. We want to be as transparent with our data as possible, especially in terms of sharing it with different stakeholders and making sure they understand what it means.

By disaggregating survey results, we can look at SEL data with an equity lens and better understand what students in different groups are telling us. We can look at participation rates by student group, or examine whether our educator demographic reflects the student body. 

This helps us elevate conversations based on the data and ask those hard questions about internal gaps. It’s only through considering the difficult questions that we can start to examine the true conditions for students. [Tweet This]

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Tracey Benson, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and author of Unconscious Bias in Schools

Start with collecting data and identifying the gaps. Then, create strategies that incorporate awareness-raising to support and change that data, with the goal of influencing instructional practice. Once we change practice, we can change hearts and minds.

When we return to school buildings, it will be important to focus on building independent learners from day one. This means building classrooms with technology at the center and giving students more control over their own learning. How can we use technology in a way that engages students and empowers them to own their own learning?

Explore more resources on supporting your community's well-being during distance learning:

Topic(s): Equity

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