New brief highlights need to promote equity in distance learning, and what comes next

Gov. Gavin Newsom and state education officials have said that when schools reopen, students and teachers should be prepared for a new normal. It is unlikely that campuses will start the year with children all together in their classrooms, and every way in which students congregate — whether at lunch or recess — will likely need to be overhauled.

With such a shift on the horizon, Advancement Project California is calling on the California Department of Education and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to begin working now to ensure local educational agencies are prepared to educate all students in the coming months.

The equity-centered advocacy organization released a policy brief April 23, “Overcoming the Distance: Promising Practices to Center Equity in Implementing Distance Learning,” with six recommendations to help state education officials better meet the needs of all children — both during this time of widespread distance learning and after the COVID-19 pandemic begins to wind down.

Among the recommendations: establish a taskforce to plan how LEAs can offer students additional learning opportunities to address learning loss due to school closures; provide professional learning communities for teachers to address student academic needs; establish steps for reopening schools to maximize safety and education outcomes; and deliver services that will address the mental health needs of educators, students, parents and administrators.

Thurmond and the CDE on April 29 announced the creation of a committee focused on the achievement gap and the loss of learning, as well as a group to study the possibility of schools reopening in late July or early August. But no matter when in-person classes return, a lot of changes are in the cards.

“What we’re hearing from the county public health officials and from the Governor is that we will probably not look like schools when we reopen,” Los Angeles Unified School District board member Monica Garcia said upon the brief’s release. “We will be more staggered in terms of the days students go to class, perhaps, or we’ll move to just six to eight kids in a classroom at a time. We are predicting that a good portion of instruction will still be distance learning, but now, with much greater connection to the teacher who will meet with students at least several times a week in person at school.”

Garcia noted that LAUSD’s efforts to ensure 100 percent connectivity and access to devices among all students will be beneficial in the coming year. If distance learning must become part of the “new normal,” students will all already be connected at home.

Still, more needs to be done to remove barriers for low-income students, students of color and their teachers to ensure existing achievement gaps are not being exasperated through distance learning. That will take additional support at the state level, Garcia said.

“The Governor and state superintendent of public instruction are engaged and working together on how to move us forward, and certainly the California School Boards Association and the teachers unions are already engaged with the Governor saying that there has to be commitments statewide to make sure that we are taking care of the low-income students, students of color — particularly black students,” Garcia said. “But we need to be making sure that the state is playing a role in guaranteeing that every single student has access to the internet.”

While public–private partnerships have made headway to close the digital divide, the CDE’s latest assessment finds that an additional 400,000 devices and 290,000 internet connections are needed to ensure students can participate in distance-learning opportunities. The efforts and advocacy of CSBA, state leaders and other education organizations have also escalated the digital divide to an additional state-level task force created by Thurmond.

Providing the means for students to continue their education during the extended school closures is an important first step, according to the Advancement Project California brief. Just as vital is state and district follow-through, which should include professional development for teachers now tasked with holding online classes, as well as providing additional support to at-risk student groups.

Karla Pleitéz Howell, managing director of policy and programs for Advancement Project California, said in providing distance learning the state needs to make sure that “we do not ignore historically underserved students, such as black students, English language learners, foster youth and students with special needs.”

And, once students begin attending class in person again, “we need to start preparing now to figure out what we need to do and plan ahead to be ready to offer districts concrete and helpful guidelines for re-opening our schools,” she said.