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How Schools Can Narrow Equity Gaps During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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The coronavirus pandemic has imposed an overwhelming set of challenges on educators who were already contending with plenty of difficulty. The Education Trust and Digital Promise have put together a guide to some of the biggest challenges around the broad category of equity, complete with steps for identifying issues and taking concrete steps to address them.

The guide opens with a warning to schools that remote learning may continue to be necessary during the summer and into next school year. It also urges districts to start thinking about ways to combat the loss of learning that many students, particularly those in vulnerable demographic groups, are experiencing during the extended shutdowns this spring.

"There isn't yet research and data on best practices for ensuring continuity of learning during a global pandemic," the guide says. "A key role for advocates and district leaders is to monitor how the challenges posed by school closures are being addressed and to urge transparency about the impact of these efforts on all students in their communities."

Here are some key takeways from the guide:

It's possible to narrow the digital divide.

Millions of U.S. students don't have access at home to the digital devices or broadband Internet service they need to complete required schoolwork. But fewer students are in that predicament now, thanks to the creativity of school districts purchasing hotspots, setting up community Wi-Fi programs, and distributing hundreds of thousands of laptops.

For districts struggling to reach students, the guide recommends conducting a survey or contacting families in the district to take stock of technology needs. The challenges don't end once devices are in hand, though; districts need to be prepared that some devices won't work as expected. IT staff at Rock Hill Public Schools in South Carolina, for instance, have been operating computer drop-off sites at school buildings for families that need technical support.

Vulnerable populations need personalized support whenever possible.

Students with disabilities need more individualized support than many schools are prepared to provide at a distance. The guide recommends that districts provide resources and training opportunities for families who will need to use unfamiliar technology products and might not be well-versed in the privacy risks of videoconference platforms like Zoom and Google Meet.

English-language learners, meanwhile, would be well-served by documents available in multiple languages, and by connections to school staff members who have interpreter training. Students with undocumented status will be looking for extra privacy protections from schools, such as a ban on virtually sharing photos or videos of those students.

It's not just students and their families who need support, though. The teachers and school staff members helping these populations may also be struggling with fresh challenges and a massive workload. The guide recommends, once again, that districts survey teachers on their needs, maintain or expand instructional coaching programs, and establish designated portals for resources to ease the transition to remote learning.

Schools are in a position to provide emotional stability to students and families who desperately need it.

The guide emphasizes that "schools must work even harder to maintain regular communication with students and families, especially the most vulnerable, to ensure that their needs are being met during these uncertain and trying times."

That could mean developing a communication plan, like a centralized website with updates for families, or a list of tech platforms on which students should expect correspondences from teachers. It could also mean checking in regularly with students, or incorporating check-ins into lesson plans, or building in time during "classroom" work for students to connect emotionally with teachers and peers.

Students who were poised to graduate this year are particularly in need of support tailored to the uncertainty they're feeling about the futures. The guide highlights the importance of posting a "postsecondary transition plan" and offering summer dual enrollment possibilities in partnership with local two-year colleges as much as possible.

"It is critical that districts have a plan for how to ensure that the pandemic does not derail the aspirations and achievements of this generation of students," the guide says.

Image: E+ and DigitalVision Vectors


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