After a summer of preparation unlike any other, teachers and students are learning together again: online, in the classroom, or in a form of blended learning that involves a combination of both. But while schools have engaged in heroic efforts to make sure students have access to their learning materials this school year, they’re facing an additional challenge: ensuring the content itself is equitable and accessible to all students.
This is especially important because the pandemic has shown us which student populations are most at risk for learning loss during distance learning, from students with disabilities to those who face socioeconomic disadvantages. We need to understand the daily hurdles these students face—and from there, consider how instructional content that’s flexible and accessible can play a role in alleviating them.
For Students with Disabilities or Special Needs, Battling Distractions Is a Full-time Job
The transition to distance learning brought challenges for everyone, but for students with disabilities, learning in a home environment is especially difficult. Many special needs students have individualized education programs (also known as IEPs) at school, and these come with a variety of special education instructors and support staff. At home, the burden of supervision falls on parents or older siblings—and they, more likely than not, have jobs or classes of their own demanding their attention.
A recent article by Kaiser Health News describes how for students with special needs, having a parent or caretaker who can supervise their learning full-time is the difference between a difficult (but doable) situation, and a completely untenable one. Having a dedicated learning space that’s free from distractions is also essential—and painfully hard to create in busy households where everyone is juggling responsibilities at home.
Traditional instructional materials can also present challenges. A therapist who specializes in learning disabilities (who is also the mother of a son with ADHD) shared how for her 10-year-old, even something as seemingly simple as a “pretty PDF that had lots of beautiful illustrations and fonts” would cause him to walk away from his laptop feeling overwhelmed. Students with disabilities need options—and their parents and caretakers increasingly need support.
For English Language Learners, Building Relationships Is Essential
English Language Learners, or ELLs, are another student population for whom distance learning has been especially difficult. While language barriers are an obvious challenge, many schools have also encountered another hurdle: cultural differences in how families view the internet, and anxieties about allowing students to participate in virtual learning.
To make sure ELLs aren’t left behind, teachers and administrators are focusing on strengthening communication with students and their families, from phone calls facilitated by interpreters to tailored strategies to reach parents that might include email, social media, town hall meetings, or partnerships with local radio or TV stations. Another key way to reach ELL students and their parents? Making sure instructional materials are available in their language when possible, and providing differentiated materials at a range of reading levels to ensure accessibility.
For Socioeconomically Disadvantaged Students, Challenges Are Multifaceted
Perhaps the most overwhelming challenge for teachers and schools this year has been trying to address the impact of the pandemic on students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. And the more data that is collected on how students from disadvantaged households are doing during distance learning, the more stark the picture becomes.
In one example from the EdWeek Research Center’s new Coronavirus Learning Loss Index, gaps in learning between households that have at least one family-member who is college-educated and those who don’t are “wide-reaching across all measures.” Research conducted by the Urban Institute reveals additional racial inequities across the country: students who are Black, Latinx, or Native American are more likely than white or Asian students to “lack access to computers and high-speed internet,” or “live in crowded households that make concentrating on schoolwork a challenge.”
Fighting these opportunity gaps isn’t easy, and many schools have turned their attention to trying to close the digital divide by supplying laptops, tablets, wifi hotspots, and other devices to students whose families can’t supply them. But when it comes to reaching these students and preventing further learning loss, the quality and flexibility of the content—not just the device needed to access it—is critical to success.
So how can schools look to their instructional content to support the student populations who are struggling with distance or blended learning? As a starting point, digital platforms should be WCAG AA compliant to support students with disabilities, and they should provide options for offline access and printing to make sure content can be accessed by students without access to the internet or devices. Content should be differentiated so it can be read and understood by students at a variety of learning levels, and options for Spanish-language or audio (like Newsela’s “Read Aloud” mode) are important steps to help ELLs and students with special learning needs.
Lastly, the narratives students engage with need to be inclusive of all the student populations mentioned above. For students grappling with hurdles outside their control, seeing themselves reflected in what they’re reading is an important part of acknowledging their struggle, and reminding them that their challenges are seen, heard, and understood.
Newsela for Access and Equity