Remote Learning is an Educational Access Nightmare
Teachers across America have spent countless hours designing thoughtful online instruction in the last three weeks. In low-income districts, it’s only reaching a fraction of our students.
Remote Learning. Distance learning. Online instruction. Whatever your district is calling school-away-from-school, it’s likely a combination of teacher-created materials, live or recorded instruction, and skill-building sites and apps students can use to complete assignments while parents and teachers track progress.
For many students however, there is no progress to track because they’re unable to do the work. And while the specific circumstances are many and varied, they all lead back to the inequality of educational access in low income communities. While some students can easily log in and spend an hour or two at a time on assigned tasks, others lack access to everything most essential to engagement in authentic, sucessful learning experiences.
Internet Access and Devices
New York State has had one of the most comprehensive responses to the coronavirus threat in the country, due in no small part to its status as the hotbed of infections and deaths, with Governor Andrew Cuomo ordering all schools closed early on in the crisis. A recent Newsweek report shows that somewhere around 18% of New York City students do not have high speed internet access at home, while 15% do not have computers. The need for laptops to bridge this gap numbers close to 300,000 according to Chalkbeat, while the NYC Department of Education anticipated distribution of only 25,000 devices during the first week of remote learning. Even if they succeeded, over 80% of the students missing the technology necessary to participate in their schools’ instruction are no closer to getting “back on track” with their curricula today. While districts are encouraging teachers to generate lessons and assignments that integrate all of the research-based technology available to them, there are students who are unable to access even the most basic of online resources to assist them with paper versions of the assigned work.
A Quiet Place
Whether or not students have an internet capable device or service with which to connect it, many of them are without an adequate learning environment at home. Shared spaces mean that privacy may be at a premium, while younger siblings or other family members may create distractions that students cannot prevent or control. Because public meeting spaces are closed, going to the library or a cafe is off limits even for older kids who could potentially have used it as an outlet during the regular school year.
During a typical school year, it may be challenging to maintain a mutually supportive relationship between parents or guardians and school staff in a low-income district. Demanding jobs with little security (sometimes multiple jobs), childcare concerns, unstable housing situations, and language barriers are just a few of the myriad obstacles that may prevent students’ caretakers from participating in communication, conferences, workshops and initiatives with the school—leaving the responsibility of extended learning in the home sphere squarely and solely on the students through no fault of their own. Quarantine has only pressurized these complications. Parents deemed essential workers must continue to report regardless of childcare scarcity and the risk to their families. Those affected by the record layoffs in the last three weeks may be struggling to find alternative means of income, not knowing whether they’ll be able to maintain their housing when this crisis has finally concluded. For those whose immigration status is undocumented or in question, the relief legislation is little help. With such dire concerns weighing heavily in the community consciousness, it’s more than understandable that so many are unable to spend time each day assisting their children with classwork that may be unfamiliar, untranslated and time-consuming.
Students with IEPs have some of the greatest challenges to overcome with distance learning, and without the ability to provide accomodations uniformly, schools are unable to meet many of their needs during this critical time. While students with internet access and support devices may continue to thrive, those whose services are dependent upon interaction, clarification and repitition are at a distinct disadvantage. Without these supports, even modified assignments pose a greater challenge to a child with a disability than to a mainstream student.
Creating remote learning content on an ongoing basis is uncharted territory for most American teachers. It’s painstaking, creatively exhaustive and has so far yielded inconsistent and unexpected results. Our frustration is matched by that of many of our students, who feel unequipped to learn new material or even review past lessons without our guidance and careful lesson orchestration. Now more than ever, the value of the connections we make and the relationships we foster with our students is apparent—they need superhuman focus and willpower to keep themselves on task and making progress with the weight of this crisis and their own academic success weighing on them.
For every teacher who has perfect attendance at a Zoom meeting or Google Hangout, there are a handful of others who see zero assignments completed on their platform of choice or whose phone calls and emails go unanswered. If even one student wants to complete the work during the closure but is unable for any reason, our schema for grading is invalidated. What can we do to level the remote learning landscape for kids who fall under one or more of these categories?
Provide Print Alternatives
Whenever you can, develop print materials that closely correspond with online lessons. Include carefully organized written directions and support documents like outline templates and step by step checklists. Add visuals, and include optional supplements like additional reading or analog activities that you can easily replicate without having to generate the additional text on your own. While distribution is the responsbility of building or district level administration, creating these materials is the first step in getting them to your students and their families.
Capitalize on Social Media
Many districts have relaxed restrictions on methods of communication with students and their families. If cleared to use social media as part of online instruction and ongoing engagement, create a dedicated account for your class and target your students where they are already logging in the most. Where permissible, post assignments that involve social media tools — reading responses, dramatic interpretations, and group projects can all be adapted for many of the most popular platforms.
Use Peer Communication
If all else fails, enlist the students you’ve made contact with to get in touch with their classmates. Ask them to pass along your preferred contact information and the website where assignments and directions can be found, or to relay if they need paper assignments instead.
In the coming weeks, we will develop and troubleshoot our remote learning practices. We’ll find new and better ways to communicate with families and meet evolving needs during this unprecedented time. But without responsive attention to the increased challenges that students in our most disadvantaged districts experience, we cannot level the playing field at home for those whom this crisis is hitting hardest.