Authors: Titilayo Tinubu Ali, Sujith Cherukumilli and Mirel Herrera

2020 — The Distance Learning Equity Dashboard (DLED or Dashboard) is the product of a thorough scan of 48 school districts in 20 states and provides a snapshot of the academic, nutritional, social and emotional, and professional development services each of those districts offered to students and staff members during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thirty-one of the 48 districts included in the Dashboard are part of SEF’s Racial Equity Leadership Network, while the other 17 were chosen for being either the largest school district in their respective state or a district employing some type of innovative practice for its students, families, and/or staff members.

To create the Dashboard, SEF researchers conducted repeated reviews of states’ and districts’ reopening plans for the fall of 2020. Those reviews were conducted between April and July to provide the most up-to-date and relevant information for policymakers, education professionals, practitioners, and families concerned about maintaining equitable student learning, family engagement, and teacher support during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the key findings are:

1) 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.

2) 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.

3) 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.

4) 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. We also recognize that information available on websites may not fully encompass districts’ efforts. 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.The Dashboard data reveals that the majority of school districts across the South – urban, suburban, and rural – have taken important precautions and measures to provide public education during the pandemic, but resource inequity is preventing many districts from providing students, families, teachers and staff with the full support necessary for safe, healthy and successful reopening during the pandemic.

Read the full analysis of the Distance Learning Equity Dashboard.

Read the accompanying brief on Five Ways to Support Teachers as Schools Reopen.

About the authors

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

Sujith Cherukumilli is Legislative and Research Analyst for the Southern Education Foundation.

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