Distance Learning During COVID-19: 7 Equity Considerations for Schools and Districts

By: Titilayo Tinubu Ali and Mirel Herrera

Government officials are taking swift public health actions to slow the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic. By the end of March, statewide school closures affected 55.1 million K-12 public school students across our country.[1] Over 20 million of these students live within the seventeen states covered by the Southern Education Foundation, and a majority of these students live in poverty.[2] While school closures affect all students, students from underserved communities feel this impact even greater.

Data on digital disparities reveal that nearly 20 percent of African American children ages 3-18 and 21 percent of families earning less than $40,000 per year have no access to the internet at home.[3] The Southern Education Foundation is working to bring awareness to digital equity issues and provide state and district leaders with resources and promising practices as they make quick and difficult decisions to ensure that all students have access to learning opportunities during this crisis.

What is Distance Learning?

Distance or remote learning is often thought to be synonymous with online learning. In fact, they are different. Distance learning may incorporate online learning, but it may also include other components. For example, some school districts have opted to create packets for students and families to pick up which include learning materials and exercises. In other districts, teachers are using online platforms to provide instruction for students and to communicate with students and their families. Districts should keep in mind the needs of their students and families when choosing how to implement distance learning during school closures.

Keeping Learning at the Center

District and school leaders are turning to remote or distance learning in an effort to minimize COVID-19’s disruptions to instruction. While technology is important, providing laptops and materials are not enough to ensure that learning is taking place. Research on the science of learning highlights the importance of collaborative project work, real-world problem solving, and supportive and safe relationships with adults and peers.[4] Schools and districts should keep learning at the center by engaging in developmentally appropriate, project-based learning, and by supporting teachers and families with training and guidance on distance learning practices. Instructors should interact and communicate with students by creating active and collaborative ways to learn that differ from the traditional classroom setting. In addition, schools and districts should be especially mindful of grade transitions during this time and leverage curricular or community resources to provide additional social, emotional and academic support to students who are moving from preschool to elementary school, from elementary to middle school, from middle school to high school, and from high school to college or career.

7 Distance Learning Equity Considerations

We have reviewed publicly available digital learning plans for the seventeen states covered by the Southern Education Foundation to see how schools and districts are meeting the needs of their most vulnerable students and families. They have taken different approaches for distance learning based on the needs of their student populations, grade level, and current technology or infrastructure. To help schools and districts determine what is best for their students and communities, we provide these equity considerations along with examples of how some districts are addressing these issues now.

Read the seven considerations and download the full issue brief below.



About the authors

Titilayo Tinubu Ali is Director of Research and Policy for the Southern Education Foundation.

Mirel Herrera is an Atlanta-based policy, research and strategy consultant.

The authors would like to thank Sujith Cherukumilli, SEF Legislative and Research Analyst, for providing research assistance and the SEF team for providing feedback and insights. This issue brief benefited greatly from the insights of three external practitioner reviewers: Damaris Rau, Superintendent of the School District of Lancaster; Tammie Workman, Ausherman Family Foundation trustee and former Assistant Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools; and April Kuhn, Chief Legal Officer of Rowan-Salisbury Schools. We thank them for the care and attention they gave this issue brief.

[1]  Map: Coronavirus and school closures (2020, March 6). Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/map-coronavirus-and-school-closures.html (accessed 04/03/20).

[2]  Suitts, S. (2015). A new majority research bulletin: Low income students now a majority in the nation’s public schools. Atlanta, GA: Southern Education Foundation. https://www.southerneducation.org/what-we-do/research/newmajorityreportseries/.

[3]  National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Figure 4. Percentage of children ages 3 to 18 with no internet access at home, by selected child and family characteristics: 2010 and 2017. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cch.asp (accessed 04/03/20).

[4]  Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B., & Osher, D. (2019). Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development. Applied Developmental Science. doi: 10.1080/10888691.2018.1537791.