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7 Ways to Make Distance Learning More Equitable

Ensure your most vulnerable students and their families are supported during the school closures.

Victoria Saylor | April 9, 2020

Even as educators take on the challenge of designing quality distance learning experiences, they're coming face-to-face with a range of equity issues in their school communities.

Many students lack internet and technology access at home. High numbers of parents and caregivers are now unemployed and struggling to meet basic needs. For parents and caregivers who work in essential jobs outside the home, older students are sometimes responsible for their younger siblings, making at-home learning a challenge. And teachers, administrators, and families of students with special needs are questioning whether it will be possible to provide students with disabilities equal access to a high-quality education under these circumstances.

Despite these challenges, educators are finding ways to use available tools to reach their students and support families in need. In an episode of our Distance Learning with Common Sense video series, Arcelia Gonzalez, regional family engagement liaison at Oakland Unified School District in California, offers helpful guidance on how to identify communication gaps and reach students with limited tech access. We've collected some of her advice here along with additional tips gathered from conversations with educators across the country.

1. Check in with your students regularly.

More than anything else, personal contact with your students and their families is essential. Maintain an updated contact list and try different modes of communication (phone calls, text messages, texting apps, and emails home). Make sure you have a translator at the ready (or use a tool with translation features), so you can communicate with families that don't speak English. If you can't reach some of your students or their families, try their emergency contacts or team up with other teachers and school staff members.

2. Help your students' families get connected.

Effective distance learning starts with connectivity. Students in households that don't have Wi-Fi won't be able to download work, view online materials, or attend virtual classes. While your district will have a plan in place to help connect all students, you can also advocate for your students and their families to get the access they need.

Are your students connected? Share your story to #ConnectAllStudents, and we'll make sure lawmakers hear your call.

3. Choose tools that are mobile-friendly and/or can be used offline.

Make accommodations for the technical obstacles students and their families are facing, and empower parents to provide learning opportunities for their kids. Even if you or the district are working on getting all students devices and internet connections, it's important to still provide them with printed learning packets or coursework they can pick up or receive in the mail (don't expect families to have printing capabilities). Share a list of high-quality apps that don't require Wi-Fi or data, and check to see whether the tools you're using are mobile-friendly, as some students might only have a phone for the time being.

4. Try to keep online lessons asynchronous vs. synchronous.

Synchronous lessons -- when students meet with the teacher and their classmates online in real time -- are more familiar to us because they mirror how teaching and learning in the physical classroom typically work. Live interactions with teachers and classmates can also help students still feel connected to their learning community and can reassure them that everyone is OK. But it's important to be mindful of the barriers students might face in trying to connect to livestreamed class meetings. By designing asynchronous lessons -- where students can view prerecorded presentations, participate in discussions, or complete learning activities on their own schedules -- students have more flexibility and more chances for success.

5. Double down on project-based learning.

If you've been using project-based learning with your students, keep it up! Student-driven, inquiry-based projects help students feel more invested in their learning, which can counter the feeling of disconnection they might be experiencing right now. Collaborative projects provide an opportunity for kids of all abilities and learning styles to work toward a common goal. Plus, you can use project-based learning to give students who need extra enrichment a chance to go above and beyond or, for students who are struggling to complete assignments, an alternative way to demonstrate learning.

6. Maintain extracurricular communities.

Kids in sports, clubs, or extracurricular activities form tight communities with coaches, leaders, mentors, and fellow students. Coaches and extracurricular leaders should continue to connect with athletes or students, being mindful that for some kids, you are one of their greatest role models. Practices, games, or special events may be canceled for your students, but you can still find ways to remain present from a distance and encourage the work ethic and skills you helped nurture. Create a thoughtful plan for providing closure to the season or school year and brainstorm alternatives for celebrations.

7. Partner with community-based organizations.

Create a team of support from community and school partners. Tag-team if necessary to have a greater impact and to provide the level of support students and families need. Don't try to do it all by yourself. In times like these, allow others to help strengthen existing relationships and build new ones.


Common Sense is calling on Congress to fund devices and broadband service so all students can connect to distance learning this school year. Are your students connected? Share your story to #ConnectAllStudents here, and we'll make sure lawmakers hear your call. Send us a video or tweet at us @CommonSenseEd on Twitter and @commonsenseorg on Instagram.