The District

Three student populations that need extra support during blended learning

The Newsela Team
Sep 28, 2020

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. 

Related Resources
Newsela for Access and Equity

The Latest from @Newsela

Human traffic to Taipei Zoo may have dropped in 2020 due to COVID-19, but zoo officials have been kept on their toes with an animal baby boom that has just kept coming. 🙉 Will all these new baby animals may draw more visitors?
October 24, 2020, 6:33 PM
Back in June @HeidiHayesJacob told us: “We can’t go back to school. We’re going to have to go forward to a new kind of school.” Now that the school year is underway, she joins us again to share smart strategies to adjust to blended or remote learning.
October 24, 2020, 5:01 PM
The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for developing a process called "CRISPR-Cas9" which can snip a DNA molecule like a tiny pair of scissors. Curious why it's a game changer? Let's explore:
October 24, 2020, 3:35 PM
"Sesame Street" has always pressed for inclusion. Now in the wake of the national reckoning on race, it's going further. It is teaching children to stand up against racism. Here's how:
October 24, 2020, 2:10 PM
This lesson helps students learn the importance of ancient seeds being reunited with their Native American tribes. "To us, seeds are our relatives," said Rowen White, an Indigenous seed keeper and leader of the Seed Savers Exchange board.
October 23, 2020, 10:45 PM
Pandemic-weary folks are flocking to pick-your-own apple and pumpkin farms. 🍎 🎃 Here are a few of the ways orchards are staying prepared for social distancing:
October 23, 2020, 6:35 PM
We've added SEL instructional supports to our most popular collections within Newsela ELA. This makes it even easier for teachers to integrate SEL into core literacy instruction.
October 23, 2020, 5:44 PM
The environment is one of #election2020's key policy issues. This lesson can help students investigate environmental legislation, understand the impacts of climate change, and consider the views of the presidential candidates.
October 23, 2020, 4:58 PM
Confidence is not always bad. But it is a problem when you are wrong and confident. Help students understand and explore the reality of confirmation bias using this article:
October 23, 2020, 3:30 PM
We provide authentic content from the most trusted names at 5 reading levels. So every student can learn together regardless of their reading or learning level.
October 23, 2020, 2:12 PM
To encourage young people to vote in the 2020 election, some politicians have taken to Twitch. 🎮 A record number of viewers tuned in to watch Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar play "Among Us" for a get-out-the-vote effort.
October 23, 2020, 1:17 PM
We've added a brand new, interactive data analysis activity powered by Tuva Labs with polling data from 15,000+ students on how they're feeling about our nation's most pressing issues.
October 23, 2020, 12:30 PM
As the coronavirus spreads through the world, it has pushed into places that use some of the world's most endangered languages. By targeting the elderly, the virus is striking down the last remaining speakers of ancient languages that were already at risk.
October 22, 2020, 11:35 PM
Political statements from artists in 2020 typically have been on the streets with murals and protest signs. However, the humble envelope is the object of this new art project. Get to know the artists using stamps as resistance:
October 22, 2020, 8:07 PM
Debates can be messy, but they also offer a chance to learn. We asked for debate-watching tips from John Koch, debate lecturer at Vanderbilt University. He explains not only how to watch if you're a kid, but also how to make it an interesting experience.
October 22, 2020, 5:02 PM
This Newsela article about the Titanic is a perfect resource for teaching cause and effect while building literacy at the same time. In case you missed it, here's the link 👉
October 22, 2020, 3:36 PM
We know Columbus landed in the Caribbean, but what about the people who were there before him? Let's remember the Taínos – the people who were there first. Their lives mattered 500 years ago, and they matter today.
October 22, 2020, 12:16 AM
When a student approached Stan Tucker before a book fair to say he wouldn't be going because his mom didn't have any money, it broke his heart – and it gave him an idea for a way to get books into kids' hands. Let the kids buy books with acts of kindness:
October 21, 2020, 9:30 PM

The best lessons start with the best content.

Ready to bring great instructional content to your students?

Contact Sales