The Covid-19 pandemic forced educators to get creative. Some school districts became more agile, offering hybrid learning options to accommodate a broad range of family situations.
Now that many schools are back to in-person learning, much of that dynamism could get lost.
Instead of learning from the experiences of the pandemic to bolster distance learning options, some states and school districts have scaled down or dispensed with distance learning altogether, leaving students — especially those who work or who are immuno-compromised — with few good alternatives.
When our country pivoted to virtual learning with no time to prepare, educators valiantly navigated unfamiliar technologies and the maddening system failures that came with them, and many communities responded with heroic efforts to boost Wi-Fi access in historically underserved areas.
However, those efforts are now being rolled back, even though many students continue to face a lack of reliable or affordable internet access.
After the pandemic hit, some colleges did away with weighing applicants’ test scores and began judging prospective students more holistically. And though some colleges have made standardized testing optional for the indefinite future, others are reverting to a system that stacks the deck against students who can’t afford expensive tutors or test-prep classes.
While there is no doubt that the pandemic posed unprecedented challenges for students and educators, it also inspired a long overdue reckoning. It should not have taken a global pandemic for the education system to address the inequities that overwhelmingly disadvantage communities of color, low-income communities, non-English speakers and students with disabilities. Issues of access and curriculums that fail to engage students of diverse experiences burdened our students long before the pandemic, and these recent reversals of changes that lightened those burdens reflect a missed opportunity to build a better path forward.
Engagement among students who are English Language Learners (ELLs), for example, often lags that of other students because of the difficulties associated with communicating in a foreign language.
But many school districts ramped up their outreach to these students during the crisis. The Tulsa Public Schools district in Oklahoma deployed a range of tools to support ELL students, including boosting live translation capabilities and using language simplification software to support reading. Those efforts appear to have paid off. ELL students engaged with virtual schooling at the same rates as other student groups — or higher.
Throughout the pandemic, some resourceful educators devised new methods of instruction that were mindful that students’ sense of well-being is essential to successful learning. For example, the New York City-based New Visions for Public Schools developed a series of routines and resources that supported teachers in developing student-centered virtual classrooms to mitigate the isolation that many students felt.
While there is no doubt that the pandemic posed unprecedented challenges for students and educators, it also inspired a long overdue reckoning.
Within weeks of the transition, New Visions for Public Schools also began working with a pilot group of schools to provide rich data about students’ patterns of engagement with remote learning, requests for remote learning devices and responses to surveys about internet access. Combined, this data allowed schools to identify which students were struggling and start to diagnose why. One educator noted that the data allowed the school to end the school year with a 20 percent improvement in its graduation rate, despite what was going on in the world.
These efforts don’t replace the very real benefits of in-person instruction. But at a time when tech savviness is as crucial for students as algebra or transitive verbs, the adoption of new teaching tools was long overdue.
My organization works to close the gender gap in tech by teaching girls to code. We offer girls and nonbinary students in-person, after-school programming in schools, community centers and libraries, as well as summer immersion programs. All our programs are completely free and designed with the most marginalized students in mind.
Because our programs focus equally on building supportive communities and teaching critical technical skills, in the past we have relied heavily on in-person instruction. But like many educational institutions, we were compelled by the pandemic to go virtual. We tempered our expectations, uncertain if we would be able to build the diverse communities that we are committed to fostering.
Mindful that our students come from a diversity of backgrounds, and that many juggle caregiving responsibilities or work hourly, low-wage but essential jobs, we prioritized accessibility and flexibility to an even greater degree. We devised options for students in our summer immersion program to complete the requirements at their own pace, and we offered more office hours so that students could connect with their mentors on their own schedules.
Enrollment in our programs jumped by more than 200 percent from 2019 to 2021. We reached more students from poor and rural parts of the country. Most of these new enrollees were from low-income communities or communities of color.
However, we also learned that 30 percent of our job-seeking students had an offer rescinded as a result of the pandemic. In response, we introduced an all-virtual hiring summit to directly connect students with potential employers.
The virtual option and flexibility fostered higher attendance by students with responsibilities outside of school and from state schools and community colleges, which are routinely overlooked by top companies that focus on recruitment from Ivy League institutions.
One student shared that she had been able to connect with an employer that would likely never have recruited at her university under normal circumstances.
For all of these reasons, we’ve opted not to revert to our earlier in-person-only model. Instead, we’re offering a hybrid of virtual and in-person programming so that we can bolster our engagement with those students who are too often left behind.
The pandemic forced ingenuity and agility in the effort to ensure that no students got left behind. But traditional teaching practices rooted in racism, classism and ableism were already failing our most marginalized students.
The continued use of virtual and flexible programming, with a focus on access to technology and resources, could begin to even out the disparities experienced by many of our students. While it’s tempting to shut the door on the Zoom-school era and never look back, that would be the real system failure.
This story about distance learning and equity was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.