The covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented, and it has revealed educational gaps that must be addressed now and for the future. Many educational leaders were not prepared to close schools during the covid-19 pandemic and this resulted in slow decisions and inadequate rollout of distance/virtual learning. As educational leaders, it behooves us to be better prepared when a pandemic situation happens again.
Below is an eight-point plan to help educational leaders manage current gaps and be better prepared in the future:
When leaders consider addressing equity in education, we must understand the universe of how societal issues and historical oppressions impact our families. Closing a school and/or school systems often results in children not getting what they need because they are dependent on the school to provide a safe space, guidance, and/or food that they may not have where they live. Additionally, students may not have the supplies required to successfully participate in remote learning (including computer equipment and WiFi access).
To ensure equity, school leaders must first understand, be empathetic to, and address the following:
Understand the demographics, culture, and geographic conditions of your students. If most of your students live in rural areas, you may need to address digital learning differently due to possible issues with WiFi access and limited access to food and supplies. If your families come from mixed areas (suburban, urban, and rural), you may need to address their unique needs. To avoid the inequities based on zip-code (neighborhood wealth), it is critical to specifically focus on the needs of economically challenged zip-codes. Addressing needs separately may be an administrative hassle, but it is worth it to cluster your students (via bus routes or zip codes, etc.) to ensure they are equitably getting what they need to thrive during the distance learning period.
Food & Supplies Insecurities
Many students get well balanced and healthy meals at school. Free breakfast and lunch may be the only meals some students eat every weekday. Many families are working poor, unemployed, or mis/underemployed. Some families may even be homeless, so ensuring that students get meals (even during summer session) when school is closed is critically important. During a pandemic, schools should provide food and supplies and deliver them in a safe manner to avoid transferring a virus. Also, depending on the community, specific items may need to be distributed to address their unique needs (clothes, cleaning materials, school supplies to work remotely, and information on free resources, etc.). Conduct a community needs assessment and virtual townhall meeting to understand and discuss the best ways to help students and their families. Providing for the needs of each student not only supports their comfort and success, but it also helps to ensure healthy extended communities.
Some students experience violence and other forms of abuses at home. Schools may be the only haven for these students to feel safe, secure, cared for, and even loved. Many students suffer in silence and schools are uniquely positioned to bring better awareness regarding emotional and physical abuse and how to help our youth. Of course, we understand that educators are mandatory reporters, but oftentimes students do not exhibit or share their experiences of abuse. Students may not show signs of abuse, but they may live in a home where they may witness domestic emotional and/or physical violence against someone else. We have the responsibility to inform our students about ways to care for themselves, their families, report abuse, and be safe during a school lock-down. Teachers, school administrators, and staff can help provide the needed additional mental support by offering district/school led yoga and meditation sessions to help manage the emotional stress students (& their parents/guardians) may experience. Additionally, ensuring mental health programs, hotlines, and counseling are available to students and their parents are important to the holistic health of the school and community. Recognizing, reporting, and ending abuse are critical to the health and survival of students.
Many children and their parents are uninsured. Schools should consider ways to identify uninsured students and assist in providing resources for those children to receive consistent medical and dental care (even mental health care as needed). When families and their children are uninsured, it presents a risk to the entire community because they do not seek the medical care they need because they can’t afford to see a doctor. This lack of medical care impacts the individual (miss school days, emotional distress, lack of focus/attention, etc.) and school environment (introduction of communicable diseases). Addressing the holistic needs of students (including medical care) is critical to ensuring a healthy school community. Especially during times of a pandemic, ensuring accessibility to quality medical care will help save lives.
Virtual learning requires proper equipment, and this includes a computer or laptop with the appropriate capacity (to download what is needed). Many families do not have a computer nor access to good technology. Some families may consist of multiple children while only having access to one computer. When classes are scheduled at the same time, it is impossible for multiple children to use a single computer.
Educators should conduct an assessment to understand what each student needs in order to successfully work remotely. We must be proactive versus waiting for emergency situations. The assessment should be conducted at the beginning of each school year (we can’t predict these emergencies). Schools should allow students to borrow computers or they should donate a device to each student to ensure they can appropriately participate in remote classwork. Additionally, the computers should be preloaded with the platforms and/or apps necessary for students to successfully engage in virtual learning.
Some families cannot afford to pay for internet service, others simply do not have access to WiFi. Without the ability to connect remotely via the internet, students are not able to participate in online learning. A needs assessment will depict the internet gaps. Schools should work with organizations/companies and elected officials to advocate for and secure free or low cost (consider sliding scale) internet service.
Other ways to ensure educational equity (including ESOL and special education) are noted throughout this document.
2. Training & Development
Teacher training should include preparedness for emergencies such as the covid-19 pandemic. This training should be on-going due to the unpredictable nature of life situations. Teachers and janitors should continually be trained on sanitary classrooms and disinfecting commonly used surfaces to reduce the spread of germs, bacteria, and viruses.
Teachers should be supported in distance learning by administrative leaders assessing their needs, gaps, and ability to teach remotely. Conducting ongoing training for “disaster preparedness” as part of the traditional annual training criteria is critical to ensure teachers are comfortable during emergency situations and know how to implement their learning.
3. Special Education & Students with Disabilities
Distance learning may be difficult for students who have special needs and thus require different teaching techniques and methodologies. Many parents do not have the special education skills required to successfully teach their child in the virtual classroom. In order to equitably educate these students who may also be medically vulnerable, special accommodations need to be made to ensure they receive the same education they would normally get in their classrooms. Many parents are not trained educators and thus should not be expected to provide this same level of education. Some parents may already be overwhelmed with managing the physical care of their child who may be disabled. Students who participate in IEP (Individualized Education Program), will be disadvantaged if their IEP session is not adequately provided via virtual learning. Due to the need for more tactile learning and innovative in-person techniques, to ensure equity, it may require at home visits (at least 30-minute sessions). If limited resources or other factors prohibit the in-person session, schools should consider other virtual methods to teach by actively partnering with parents during the session to help with the tactile learning. Schools should also consider not requiring students to attend classes until all students are able to receive the education they need equitably.
4. ESOL (English as a Second or Foreign Language)
Some districts have families that are more culturally and linguistically diverse. This requires schools to customize communications to ensure all parents/guardians receive the information needed to support their child. Distance learning may present challenges for ESOL students and their families. To ensure education equity for ESOL students, communications (including digital instructions) should include their native language and educators should continue to teach in a virtual environment that is consistent with the usual in-person classroom experience. Additionally, because families may have intersecting needs, communications related to food, safety, and technology should be posted online, mailed, and emailed in the native languages spoken by the families served within the district/school serves.
5. PreK & Kindergarten
It is challenging for parents to work from home and also teach their young child. Preschool, PreK, and Kindergarten students are more dependent on the in-person teacher led experience. As parents try to work remotely, their children also need care, attention, and instruction; this presents challenges and frustrations for many families. In order to best support these families with young dependent learners, lessons must be short, engaging, interactive, and fun. They should also attempt to limit required parental engagement as parents try to manage work, other children, and household duties. Additionally, many parents (especially single parents) may have to go to work and their child(ren) may be with another care provider. This poses challenges for equitable learning if their caretaker does not have the technology and/or time to assist with the student’s online class(es).
6. Parent & Teacher
During the covid-19 pandemic and any other situation, it is important to ensure consistent communication and transparency. Communications should be frequent, concise, and simple. Based on the demographics, communications should be in multiple languages via written and verbal communications (via robo calls & emails). Additionally, when schools are closed, teachers should call or text every student and parent to follow up with how they are doing and to understand the best ways they can be supported.
7. Grading, Assessments, Homework, & Standardized Testing
During a pandemic, standardized testing and assessments are not easy to administer remotely, but testing may be important to determine learning and promotions. Due to challenges of administering tests remotely, they should either be cancelled, postponed, or adjusted to meet the situational needs of the student. Assessments may even be completed during small informal on-line learning sessions. Homework should not be excessive and overwhelming. It should reinforce learning, but not create inequities for students who may have learning challenges and/or other environmental factors that impede successful completion of additional work outside of the virtual classroom.
8. Revolutionary Leadership
Leadership is important, especially during times of crisis. Leaders must be authentic and communicate accurate information as expeditiously as possible. Leading by example is also imperative as we demonstrate our values and dedication to the people we represent and serve (teachers, students, parents, and community). Below are suggestions for educational leaders:
Consistent Communication: Educational leaders must engage with teachers, students, and parents and maintain consistent communications in a variety of ways (email, virtual, group, social media. etc.) to minimize educational disruption and ensure equity.
Training: Virtual learning should be part of the emergency management training similar to how school shooter training Is conducted. This training should consist of preparing and training teachers on how to use virtual tools and effectively administer online learning. Students should also participate in such emergency preparedness training to ensure they understand how to use the platform and their expectations.
Emergency Preparedness Policy & Procedures: The training requirements should be detailed in a disaster preparedness document. This standardized document should include policies and procedures that provide clear and concise information related to the process of rolling out a virtual learning program on short notice and/or during an emergency.
Virus prevention, mitigation, and management: During this pandemic, educational leaders and elected officials should strategically partner to ensure testing for people exhibiting signs of the virus. Testing for a deadly virus like covid-19, helps to decrease the impact on society. It will allow for better quarantines and a reduced infection rate, which will ultimately benefit everyone, allowing a quicker return to school. Additionally, students and teachers should be provided with education related to sanitation and the best ways to wash hands and disinfect items. Schools should send multilingual literature home with students (and via email/social media) to provide current valid data and inform parents/guardians about viruses, prevention, and eradication. This will help to prevent the spread of viruses at home, school, and in the community. Pandemic education will help to prevent the spread of common as well as novel viruses.
Re-entry: Once students and teachers return to school there should be an onboarding process that facilitates the ease back into the culture of the school. The education should include an explanation of the new cultural expectations, information related to self-protection from viruses, cultural sensitivity, and empathy for others. Ongoing programs related to ending racism, biases, discrimination, and microaggressions are also critical to ensuring a positive and healthy school environment.
Facilities: A facilities assessment should also be conducted to determine what is needed to ensure each facility is properly designed to maintain the health of the school (air conditioning, heating, water faucets, open air spaces, natural sunlight, and ventilation, etc.). The facilities should be thoroughly and regularly sanitized and stocked with supplies for teachers and janitors to properly continue disinfecting the school (especially high usage areas like doorknobs, desks, restrooms, and cafeteria seats/tables, etc.).
I realize that many of the suggestions provided go beyond traditional district/school responsibilities, but I strongly believe that in order to ensure educational equity, we must strategically address the societal injustices that directly impact the ability for students to thrive. Student success is not only dependent on highly qualified teachers, high functioning districts, and economically viable neighborhoods, but it is determined based on how we meet the needs of every student. The covid-19 pandemic has revealed gaps and opportunities for school districts and communities to partner with stakeholders. Together we can create equity within our schools (in -person and online), so that all of our students can realize their dreams and grow to give back to the community.
Ensuring underprivileged students and their families get good food, necessary supplies, quality healthcare, and other things benefit society as a whole. Doing this will help our students thrive beyond the classroom and effectively contribute to our nation. If one student is neglected, our school and community suffer. Thus, we do not fully benefit from the talents, gifts, and abilities of that student. The success of schools is directly tied to achieving justice for the student with the greatest need, and that student is connected to the success and educational justice of the entire community, nation, and world.
This document will continue to evolve as the covid-19 pandemic progresses. The suggestions may also be edited to address the specific opportunities presented.