More than nine million students lack internet access. And at some schools, less than half of students participate in remote learning. These startling statistics reveal just how wide the gaps are in equitable learning experiences for all students. But addressing inequity is about more than ensuring access to the internet and devices. As nearly 75% of superintendents currently plan for some form of distance learning this fall, new designs responding to COVID-19 must have equity baked in from the beginning to have a chance at supporting underserved students well. 

Here are three ways educators can design options for distance learning with equity in mind:

1. Design with families, not for them

When introducing new solutions like online learning to meet students’ critical needs, using a top-down design approach risks missing the mark on what experiences are most important to the families the school serves. However, developing online and blended learning approaches through inclusive design and co-creation (described here by 228 Accelerator’s Caroline Hill) could help ensure that schools are meeting the basic right all families have to high-quality K–12 education. 

More than ever, schools that work with students and families to design online and blended learning options will result in a better fit with what families value and demand. For example, blended learning models can be designed to optimize for small-group or one-on-one instruction, or they could enable teachers to bring in guest speakers from industry or from the community. But before jumping on those opportunities, work with families to understand what problems they’re most urgently trying to solve.  

2. Prioritize for learners in the most challenging circumstances

Online instruction shouldn’t seek to just replicate what would otherwise be happening in brick-and-mortar classrooms. Instead, online and blended learning can unlock flexibilities to better meet students’ individual needs and demands. Students can make meaningful decisions about their own learning path and pace, as well as where and with whom they learn. And online resources for instruction can lighten teachers’ loads when it comes to planning and grading so that teachers can focus on areas where their personal instruction and their person-to-person connections with their students are most needed. 

These advantages can benefit all students, but educators with an eye trained on equity should design blended learning to support students whose circumstances are most challenging. For example, the Enriched Virtual blended-learning model moves students’ academic core online, while reserving precious in-person time for high-value experiences like small-group collaboration, academic coaching, and extracurriculars. Since in-person learning is an extra benefit rather than an essential experience in this model, schools can make equity-focused decisions about how to allocate one-on-one time. Educators should consider reserving extra in-person academic and social support for students who have demanding home responsibilities or who are struggling with the effects of trauma.  

Read more about the advantages of blended learning during COVID-19 here and here.

3. Integrate supports around the most vulnerable students

It may seem like common sense to say that young people need relationships to thrive, but COVID-19 has brought this truth to center stage—especially for students from underinvested communities. The impacts of social distancing can crumble an array of social scaffolds that help students get by and get ahead.

To preserve and build students’ relationships with peers, mentors, coaches, and other caring adults while continuing online learning, my colleagues Julia Freeland Fisher and Mahnaz Charania argue that education systems must deliberately design with relationships in mind. By mapping the relationships in students’ homes and communities, educators can leverage those relationships to ensure students are well-supported in their learning—especially during distance learning. Collecting better data on whom students know and the different sorts of support those connections can offer will be critical to navigating a year of unknowns that will inevitably arise from ongoing shifts in learning environments.

Read Julia’s thoughts on how schools can prioritize social connections here.

Without equity as a critical design component, online and blended-learning experiences may only widen the opportunity gaps that already stand out starkly in our education system. But with equity as the backbone of schools’ reopening plans, educators stand to tell a more encouraging story of the 2020-21 school year.


  • Chelsea Waite
    Chelsea Waite