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How to help all students win at online learning

April Warren
May 18, 2020

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It’s been a difficult few weeks for brick-and-mortar schools as they struggle through the closures and the transition to online learning. Access remains a top challenge for many students and their families. About 1.2 million students in California do not have home access to the internet.

As the head of school for California Virtual Academies, a network of virtual charter schools across the state, I know what it’s like trying to serve the needs of students from a myriad of backgrounds. It’s a battle. But my staff and I are committed to meeting students where they are and personalizing their educational experience -- even those with disabilities and those from underserved communities.

And it’s working. Here are the lessons we have learned from our work and how they can apply in your online learning efforts.

Identify Students’ Barriers

Our first step is to identify the emotional, familial and academic barriers that students may face. Every student’s situation is unique -- a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. So we look for different ways we can accommodate students’ needs, including flexible scheduling and additional support in the classroom. We keep searching until we find a strategy that improves their learning experience.

We’re also mindful that students are under a great deal of pressure right now. We check in regularly and ask what they have going on in their lives. Many families are dealing with lost jobs and incomes, which adds to students’ stress. Flexibility and a safe, welcoming environment helps students manage the pressure and give attention to their schoolwork.

Maintain Open Communication

Now more than ever, teachers and families need to be in close contact. An open line of communication can help both achieve their shared goal of student success.

We encourage parents to be honest about challenges they’re having. They know -- and are up front about -- the issues their child is facing with their lessons. But online learning is new for parents too and they often won’t mention areas where they are struggling. They might be uncomfortable or not know how to articulate what’s wrong. Checking in from time to time can help identify issues and remind parents that you’re there to support them too.

Use a Student-Centered Approach

Learning has to be student-centered. Throw away preconceived ideas about what learning looks like. Evaluate students’ needs and family situation and plan from there.

For example, for the more than 263,000 California students who are homeless, school is critical but an extraordinary challenge. We know the way these students will attend classes and complete schoolwork will be different. We work with the families to help them navigate the experience, providing guidance and support and helping them see the different ways they can do school. Families need to know that just because students are not sitting at a desk does not mean they are not learning.

Provide Online Resources and Flexibility

Many students lack the tools they need at home to do school online, especially now that public libraries and cafes are closed, cutting off access to free wireless.

CAVA provides laptops to students and an internet stipend for all families. Not all school districts can provide this option, but some internet providers are offering free connections for students in need. Directing families to these resources can help.

With some students working online and others working offline, we must be able to pivot and adapt to their needs. California has already mandated that all public schools provide students additional flexibility. This includes extending deadlines or providing alternative assignments for students who are in unique situations. These types of solutions are a great support to students and can help them walk successfully through this period of disruption.

April Warren is the head of school for California Virtual Academies, an online public school serving students statewide in grades K-12.

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