Equity in Distance Learning

Education experts share how to reach all learners during COVID-19

School-aged girl doing homework on a computer.

by Clara Galán

posted on 04-09-2020

While we transition to distance learning in light of COVID-19, we must face the reality that not all students’ home learning environments are equal. In fact, many students don’t have the basic tools, like internet access, devices, or software, to join a virtual classroom.

According to the 2019 report from the Federal Communications Commission, 21 million people in the United States don’t have at-home access to broadband. While administrators and educators strategize how to best reach students, here are some resources to help.

Overcoming the distance: social and emotional

When we do not see our students in person, it’s easy to feel distant. Educators who teach live virtual classes have the opportunity to check-in only with the students that have access. We might ask these students, How are you feeling? How are things at home? What do you need help with from yesterday’s lesson? This live virtual connection guides direction for instructional pacing and creates emotional support for the class.

But what about those students who couldn’t access the video call and didn’t show up? Did they understand the new content? Is everything ok at home? Did they even eat breakfast? Questions like these haunt us, as we know that students who don’t have access and a supportive home environment aren’t being reached at all.

Don’t give up. High school educator Susan Scott from The International School of Ho Chi Minh City shares, “We know the axiom: Each one Teach one. But these days, make it Reach one.” Sending a personal letter of encouragement, even to that one hard-to-reach student, can make a huge impact. While a great deal is out of our control, we as educators can take time to reflect on teaching practice in this challenging environment and remember what we are doing and why we are doing it.

Reaching every student

From WiFi buses that serve student meals in Arizona to teacher parades in Alabama, school districts are finding creative ways to be present in students’ lives and show support. To understand how districts can provide further access to ensure equity, I sat down with digital learning specialists Natasha Rachell and Felisa Ford from Atlanta Public Schools (APS). They shared some key issues of equity in distance learning and some specific steps to overcome them. Their insights are based on years of experience addressing digital learning challenges and navigating the education challenges the pandemic has presented.

1. What are some of the most common issues facing your district?

Some of the most common issues facing our district are the same issues facing districts across the nation: how to make sure that all students have all the resources they need to meet the demands required by 21st Century Learners. For us, this primarily means making sure that our students have the technology (tablets, laptops, Chromebooks) and access to Wifi needed when they leave school. In our research of what our students needed, we found that there was definitely a homework gap, meaning many students didn’t have access to either a device, wifi, or both at home.

2. What were the main steps/programs you implemented to provide access (internet, devices, etc.) for the students in your district?

The program that we implemented in Atlanta Public Schools is called the “APS Digital Bridge” because our goal is to be a bridge from school to home by providing students with a device and/or hotspot when needed.

High School Program

In our efforts to address the homework gap in our district, we searched for grants that targeted K-12 school districts by providing funds for devices and data for students who needed access at home. Through the Sprint 1 Million Foundation Grant, Atlanta Public Schools was awarded 25,000 devices (smartphones, tablets, and hotspots) over a five-year period, all with 10 GB of monthly data for high school students (9-12).

This school year, the third year of the program, we specifically wanted to provide all 9th grade students with a hotspot and a Chromebook. COVID-19 forced our school district to close unexpectedly, and our plan shifted from 9th graders to any K-12 student. We’ve also pushed devices from our school’s in-class Chromebook carts and distributed them to students in the district that still need devices. Now that students are participating in remote learning full-time, Sprint has increased the monthly data plan to 20GB per month and has made it available to students K-12. Students K-8 are provided with 2 years of monthly service.

Middle School Program

Through the T-Mobile EmpowerED Grant, we were able to target our middle school students (grades 6-8) and were provided a $200 credit towards any device, plus a hotspot for any student. There was a monthly bill that our Information Technology Team was able to cover from Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds. With T-Mobile, we gave all of our middle school students a Winbook and hotspot if needed. We chose the Winbook because we wanted our middle school students to have access to a Windows 10 device that allowed them to run Minecraft Education Edition.

The Elementary Program

The vision of Tablet2Read, funded by SPLOST, is to support literacy instruction for Atlanta Public School’s first and second grade students by providing a take-home tablet which will support literacy instruction and reading skill remediation. Tablets have been loaded with almost 40 apps, 19 of which do not require WiFi access. Goals of the Tablet2Read program are to implement a multiple year literacy program to support English Language Arts (ELA) instruction for APS first and second graders in order to provide greater access to a digital device and literacy resources. WiFi across the city of Atlanta has also been made available for free from Comcast, T-Mobile and Xfinity.

3. For educators, what are some instructional resources and strategies they can implement for helping students with varying levels of access?

It is important to choose programs and resources that are accessible from all types of devices. Research the availability of tools your district already has access to, in addition to free/low-cost WiFi in your area. All major providers are now supporting education in some manner with the remote learning initiatives. Some of our favorite resources are:

Join us on Thursday, April 9th at 12:30pm PT for a livestream episode with Felisa Ford and Natasha Rachell on the Adobe for Education Facebook and Twitter channels. Ask questions live and share additional distance learning resources with the global community of educators using the #AdobeEduCreative!

For ongoing Distance Learning resources and virtual events, please see our Distance Learning page, updated weekly.

Topics: Education, COVID-19

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