How Can School Districts Support Equitable Distance Learning?

Southern Education Foundation Provides Recommendations for Supporting Students and Teachers

August 13, 2020 (Atlanta, Georgia) — A review of the policies of select school districts across 20 states finds that while most districts implemented distance learning plans that expanded WiFi access and supported students’ social emotional learning and mental health needs this past Spring, most didn’t provide summer learning or support teachers’ mental health needs.

According to the Distance Learning Equity Dashboard (DLED or Dashboard) released today by the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), only one of the 48 districts reviewed has implemented plans that include all 20 indicators associated with effective and equitable distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Charlottesville City Schools in Virginia, met every indicator in the dashboard. Two other districts, Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga and Metro Nashville Public Schools, both in Tennessee, met all but one indicator.

“This Dashboard is intended to serve as a resource and guide for school districts to help them identify and work toward the best ways to implement equitable distance learning that addresses the needs of students, families, faculty, and staff,” said Titilayo Ali, Director of Research for SEF. “Many of the districts that met fewer indicators suffer from a lack of resources. This Dashboard highlights the need for more resource equity and for investments in technologies like universal internet access to ensure all our children get a high-quality education whether in school or at home.”

SEF reviewed plans for 48 school districts across 20 states that reflect the demographic, socioeconomic and geographic diversity of public schools in the South.

Among the key findings:

  • Most school districts made expanding access to WiFi and technology a priority, regardless of available resources. Eighty-one percent of the districts reviewed (39 of 48) had some plan to increase students’ access to WiFi. Almost all those districts worked with internet providers to offer free services to low-income families; the remainder led the efforts themselves. Even among the districts that engaged in public-private partnerships with telecommunications companies many struggled and had to supplement digital learning materials with paper learning packets. The struggle to provide internet access highlights the need for dedicated funding for digital equity.
  • Nearly every school district prioritized social and emotional learning and mental health support for students. This support wasn’t as clearly identifiable for teachers. The majority of school district sites SEF reviewed had clear and helpful social and emotional learning resources for students and families attempting to cope with the mental health side effects of COVID-19, including written resources and virtual hotlines and telehealth services. Similar materials clearly intended for teachers and staff were not as common.
  • Over time, more school districts began sharing plans for summer learning. SEF’s initial scan in April revealed that almost no district had a plan for summer learning but by June, 28 districts (58 percent) had some type of plan. The majority of DLED school districts publicly posted their summer learning plans and accompanying resources. The types of resources and programs offered vary, but nearly all focus on either enrichment, credit recovery, content knowledge, or a combination of each.
  • Rural school districts met fewer indicators than their urban and large suburban counterparts. The disparity between rural and urban school districts in available resources to aid in the transition was evident. The DLED revealed that large urban districts more often consistently update and post resources for students with disabilities, English language learners and students experiencing homelessness, and fulfilled more indicators than small and rural districts.

 The SEF researchers believe that rural districts’ lack of resources is the likely explanation for fewer rural districts meeting the indicators SEF used to determine districts’ readiness to transition to distance learning. Limited capacity and connectivity may have impeded some rural school districts’ efforts to update their websites with the most relevant and up-to-date information regarding their COVID-19 distance learning plans.

 “As state legislatures examine their priorities for funding public education, we ask that they consider the indicators we used in creating our Dashboard, particularly if they hope to advance education equity,” said Raymond Pierce, President and CEO of SEF. “While all the indicators are important, in those states with extremely limited funds, we urge policymakers to focus on expanding internet access, social and emotional learning and mental health supports, and summer learning.”

“This pandemic has made it very clear that persistent underfunding of public schools in Black communities has denied Black students access to high-quality academic opportunities,” Pierce continued. “Without a fast and reliable internet connection distance education is impossible and Black children are less likely than their White peers to have internet access at home. Moreover, while many teachers struggled with transitioning to distance learning, teachers with more experience and higher qualifications struggled less, and those are the teachers Black students and other students of color are less likely to have in their classrooms.”

The SEF research team scanned each district’s website multiple times in April and May to ascertain how they were supporting students’ distance learning and teachers’ ability to provide that learning. The DLED also includes Fall reopening plans for schools in the 20 states included, where it was available. SEF will update the Dashboard on an ongoing basis as states and school districts share their plans for the Fall, and other new information becomes available.

Districts in the DLED were selected because they reflect the demographics of southern school districts and to achieve a mix of rural and urban districts. Thirty-one of the 48 districts in the DLED have executive leaders that are members of SEF’s Racial Equity Leadership Network of district leaders who are working to address persistent disparities in their systems and ensure that race and class are no longer the most reliable predictors of student success. Four of the districts in the Dashboard are located in the Midwest and Northeast. The districts included are:

Alabama:
Bullock County Schools
Mobile County Public Schools

Arkansas:
Fayetteville Public Schools
Springdale School District

Delaware:
Capital School District
Red Clay Consolidated School District

Florida:
Miami-Dade Public Schools
School District of Palm Beach County

Georgia:
Atlanta Public Schools
Bibb County School District
City Schools of Decatur
Clarke County School District
Gwinnett County Public Schools

Illinois:
Oak Park Elementary School District 97

Kentucky:
Jefferson County Public Schools

Louisiana:
Caddo Parish Public Schools
Jefferson Parish Schools
St. Helena Parish School District
St. John The Baptist Parish Public Schools

Maryland:
Baltimore City Public Schools

Mississippi:
Clarksdale Municipal School District
DeSoto County School District
East Jasper Consolidated School District
Hazlehurst City School District
Jackson Public School District

Missouri:
St. Louis Public Schools

New York:
Newburgh Enlarged City School District

North Carolina:
Edgecombe County Public Schools
Kannapolis City Schools
Rowan-Salisbury School System
Wake County Public School System
Washington County School District

Oklahoma:
Oklahoma City Public Schools

Pennsylvania:
Harrisburg School District
School District of Lancaster

South Carolina:
Charleston County School District
Greenville County School District

Tennessee:
Hamilton County Schools
Metro Nashville Public Schools

Texas:
Cedar Hill Independent School District
DeSoto Independent School District
Gainesville Independent School District
Houston Independent School District

Virginia:
Charlottesville City Schools
Chesterfield County Public Schools
Fairfax County Public Schools

West Virginia:
Kanawha County Schools
McDowell County Schools

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Originally founded in 1867 to educate Black children and children from low-income families in the South, the Southern Education Foundation was a pivotal source of research and data to support legislation and litigation aimed at fighting inequity in education during the civil rights era. The organization today conducts leadership development, research, and advocacy to improve educational opportunities for low-income students and students of color and achieve educational equity in the Southern U.S. It is based in Atlanta, Georgia. Find out more at www.southerneducationfoundation.org.