Access and Equity


Access and Equity

As districts and schools prepare to reopen, the COVID-19 pandemic presents a critical opportunity to reimagine how students receive instruction and support services. Explore actions states, districts and schools can take to create new systems and processes that promote and expand access to quality learning experiences and ensure equity for each student.


Expand Access to Quality Learning Experiences and Ensure Equity for Each Student

This spring, districts and schools scrambled to shift instruction online and find new ways to extend services to students and families, only to fall short of reaching many in need. Some emergency learning plans provided only minimal instruction and limited services, exacerbating existing inequities for economically challenged students, special education students and English language learners. As the pandemic continues, these gaps will grow.

Members of SREB’s task force agree that every district and school must apply an access and equity lens to their reopening and instructional plans for 2020-21.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a critical opportunity for districts and schools to capitalize on the waivers and flexibility being offered by federal and state education agencies and reimagine how they provide instruction and supports to students. With careful planning, districts and schools can create new systems and processes to engage the students who are most in need.

SREB offers five recommendations to expand access to quality learning experiences and ensure equity for each child, including special education students and English language learners.

1. Ensure each student has access to high-quality instruction and learning resources.

Many districts and schools are surveying teachers and families to determine who will participate in in-person versus online learning. Teachers and parents are being asked to choose options that fit their individual needs.

As districts make staff placements based on enrollment requests, leaders will need to consider staff members’ content expertise and instructional delivery models. Both are key to meeting Least Restrictive Environment requirements — a component of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which ensure that special education students learn with their peers in a general education setting as much as possible.

Both social distancing requirements and online, blended or hybrid instruction have the potential to impact a student’s least restrictive environment. This year, special needs students likely will be participating in more online direct instruction with their peers. However, some teachers may not be skilled in using online instructional tools or supporting special education students or English language learners. Similarly, teachers with extraordinary technology skills may lack the content knowledge needed to scaffold instruction for struggling students.

How can districts and schools position and support staff to provide quality instruction to all learners, including special needs students? Waivers and greater flexibility may allow districts and schools to create more options for teacher teams to meet students’ needs in any setting.

  • Provide additional time and set expectations for teacher teams to co-plan online lessons and activities. Ask teachers to develop and share videos to support instruction.
  • Designate teacher pairs to co-design and co-deliver instruction in online, blended or hybrid settings, with one teacher acting as content leader and the other as technology leader. Use these collaborations to build up each teacher’s content and technology skills and strategies.
  • Strategically schedule teachers of special education students and English language learners to maximize inclusion. Some platforms and videoconferencing tools support co-teaching strategies in which some students receive whole-group instruction with the teacher of record while a special education or ELL teacher offers breakout room or small-group instruction. Co-teachers can scaffold activities in breakout rooms or small groups during “office hours.”
  • Provide ongoing professional development and just-in-time specialized training for special education and ELL teachers in how to use the same adaptive technology tools that students will use. SREB’s task force recommends teaching the technology first to ensure all teachers who work with special education students and English language learners, including content and subject-area teachers, understand and can use available tech resources.
  • Meaningfully engage students receiving Tier 2 or 3 services. Teachers and school leaders should review schedules to determine when and how tiered services can be provided without limiting students’ participation in general education courses. Determine how students can receive direct services online and in real time using interactive audio and video tools. Review edtech tools and apps like Classkick, Nearpod or Pear Deck through an accessibility lens. Develop a baseline set of best practices for developing asynchronous (anytime) and synchronous (real-time) activities using these resources for students receiving Tier 2 or 3 services. If students cannot participate online, identify low-tech options to support learning, such as print materials combined with weekly phone calls or video lessons.
  • Bring leaders, teachers, parents and students together to establish basic norms and expectations for online learning and share ideas for promoting positive online communities. Ensure that expectations safeguard at-risk students and limit oversharing of the home environment. Economically disadvantaged or homeless students may be reluctant to use cameras. Offer guidance to support students who are videoconferencing at home, such as:
    • Select a room or space free from background noise, family members or pets
    • Use a headset with a mic or headphones, if possible
    • Choose a school-approved background or sit in front of a plain wall
    • Find a table or counter that can accommodate a device plus textbooks or notebooks
    • Ensure there is adequate lighting to read and complete assignments
  • Create online learning norms and protocols for elementary and secondary schools that establish expectations for daily participation and tech use. Allow K-12 teachers to customize norms for their building. Share norms during back-to-school activities and as reminders before each lesson. Consider norms like these for high schools:
    • Mute yourself unless you are speaking
    • Use your camera unless you are on a break or experiencing connectivity issues
    • Set phones on silent and use the chatbox meaningfully
    • Schedule time for activities, breaks and debriefs
    • Take five-minute brain breaks
    • Show respect for other’s opinions
    • Be brief when speaking
    • Use screensharing or whiteboards to support small-group collaboration
    • Take a break to seek help with tech hiccups
  • Ask building leadership teams to create three to five protocols that establish procedures for supporting learning and safeguarding instructional time. Sample items might include:
    • Use online timers and countdown clocks that help students meet time expectations
    • Assign students job duties in breakout rooms
    • “Cold call” students to answer questions or screenshare their work
    • Use reaction buttons or the chatbox to clarify directions
    • Use polling features as a bell ringer and to take attendance

2. Design and maintain a system to monitor the progress of special education students and English language learners.

Before the fall semester begins, districts and schools will need to analyze their evaluation calendars and develop a progress monitoring system to quickly address student needs.

  • Work with district and school special education and English language learner coordinators to review and verify the roster of students receiving services. Work with SPED and ELL teachers to review the roster against documentation of previous evaluations and students’ Individualized Education Programs. Highlight students who did not complete evaluation components or reevaluations due to school closures or who need to receive initial eligibility screenings. For special education students who cannot safely return to school, determine how evaluations and services might be delivered in a safer environment. If social distancing and health and safety guidelines allow, consider conducting home visits to complete evaluations and update plans. Videoconferencing might also be used to complete evaluations. Many states require in-school evaluations of English language learners students. Review state guidelines for flexibility. If in-school screeners are required, set a schedule and location that meets social distancing and safety guidelines. Communicate the schedule and details with students and families in their home language.
  • Update policies to allow parents to meet with teachers and service providers online while taking precautions to safeguard student privacy and confidentiality. Review state guidelines: Many states now allow IEP reviews and updates to be completed virtually. Consider:
    • Announcing and noting all meeting attendees for the district or school and families
    • Allowing families to receive reports or plans through the mail or within a secure student information system
    • Screensharing draft learning goals, outcomes and modifications (but not data reports)
    • Documenting attendance and completion of related plans through electronic signatures or the option to mail back signed forms

For families who cannot or do not prefer to meet online, consider offering structured home visits or school site appointments, provided that district guidelines for social distancing, health and safety can be met by participating students, family members and school staff.

3. Give teachers resources to support modifications and accommodations. 

Teachers need help translating in-person accommodations and modifications to online settings.

  • Assemble a team of teacher leaders, including teachers of special education students and English language learners, to analyze in-person and online instructional practices and determine which can be modified for students with special needs. Start by classifying common accommodations, which allow students to complete the same task as their peers with some change in time, format, location or presentation, and modifications, which may change the instructional level, content and/or performance expectations of a task based on students’ unique abilities.
  • Ask teacher teams to analyze and organize accommodations commonly found in IEPs, 504 plans and plans for English language learners. Consider sorting into one of four categories — accommodations of time, input, output and size. 
Sample Accommodations Table
Category Description In-Person Examples and Strategies Online Examples and Strategies Tech Tools
Time Adapting the time allotted for learning, completing tasks or testing Students complete assignments during an enhancement period Students complete assignments during virtual office hours  
Input Adapting the way instruction is delivered Students read along with provided audio in the classroom Students use an automated reader within the LMS or learning platform Automated screen readers

Teacher-made videos
Output Adapting how a student can respond to instruction Students can complete oral assessments with the teacher Students use the microphone feature in Classkick to record an audio response or upload a video summary they created Voice-to-text tools
Size Adapting the number of items the student is expected to complete Students complete the first 10 problems before receiving the next set of problems in the assignment Students cannot advance to the next problem set in Nearpod until the teacher checks their initial work and provides feedback Classkick


Pear Deck
  • Create resources and quick reference charts that feature exemplar accommodations for each category. Teachers might first discuss strategies commonly used in in-person lessons, then consider how to make accommodations for online instruction. Include commonly used tech tools and apps with recommended strategies. The task force’s play on ensuring equitable access to technology and online or blended instruction can help. Highlight three to five edtech tools that can support accommodations in an online setting.
  • Create similar resources for common modifications, such as:
    • Allowing students to create an outline instead of writing an essay or major project
    • Using alternative books or texts on a topic being studied
    • Offering film or video supplements instead of reading text
    • Rewording questions using simpler language
    • Allowing students to complete projects instead writing reports
    • Modifying the length of assignments or tests
  • Support teachers in creating protocols and procedures for scaffolding content, a major obstacle for many teachers. Use recommendations in the Adapted Curriculum play to develop an ongoing series of scaffolded lessons and exemplar strategies for addressing learning lost during spring school closures.
  • Work with district and school leaders and IT and educational technology specialists to review existing learning management systems or platforms, tech tools and apps to ensure they meet all relevant accessibility requirements. Create an accessibility guide for teachers, students and families that showcases how technology features can be used in real-time or anytime learning. Focus on how accessibility tools can enhance communication for all students. Make connections to the input and output examples and strategies in the sample accommodations table. Use questions like these to analyze tech resources:
    • Do built-in tools include embedded audio, voice-to-text, read-aloud or dictation options?
    • Can students capture pictures, videos or audio to demonstrate their understanding?
    • Do built-in translation features support English language learners?
    • Can visibility be enhanced by increasing font sizes or using zoom features?
  • Support teachers with ongoing professional development and just-in-time training on how to use online accommodations, modifications and accessibility features. Embed sessions on expanding access to quality online learning into the school’s or district’s teacher professional development plan. Provide opportunities for teachers to co-plan lessons using these tools. Encourage teachers to create how-to videos that can be used to support teacher training and as a resource for students and families as well.

4. Create a comprehensive communication plan for students and families.

Access and equity cannot be achieved without focused communications that engage and include the whole community in the school’s commitment to serving each student.

Before the school year begins, district and school leaders, teachers, parents, students and other members of the community should identify what communications tools and strategies worked most effectively during spring school closures and incorporate them in a comprehensive communication plan. Refer to the task force’s plays on online, blended and hybrid instruction and student supports for guidance.

  • Create opportunities to gather student and parent feedback on equitable access to quality learning from a true sampling of the school community. Work with district diversity and equity teams to review communication practices to determine how to engage families who may be disenfranchised and would benefit from a multifaceted approach to communication:
    • Baseline communications should provide general information on services for special education students and English language learners to the whole school community. Tools and strategies can include weekly e-mails, flyers, social media posts, website postings, mailings and automated calls with announcements. Analyze email open rates, website traffic, student information system use, social media post engagements, call logs and other data to ensure that most communications reach their intended recipients.
    • Specialized communications for targeted student groups should include direct communications with students and parents who are receiving special education services, English language learners or members of other at-risk populations. Expand baseline communications to include weekly calls or video check-ins with students and families, more frequent emails, and expectations for family members to respond within the student information system or learning management system. For example, parents might be asked to share their child’s successes and struggles in a Classkick assignment.
    • Advanced communications for students with multiple risk factors should provide the most structured supports for students and families and may involve mental health and counseling providers or special service providers. Communications may include daily calls or video check-ins, home visits and regularly scheduled on-campus visits.

5. Safeguard the privacy of students and families.

Online instruction and communications demand close attention to student data privacy and confidentiality. All districts and schools must clearly communicate expectations and regulations with teachers, students and parents. See the task force’s Technology play for more guidance.

  • Protect student identifiers and limit data-sharing by using district-approved learning management systems and secure districtwide networks to provide instruction, share resources and collect assignments. Limit the number of external applications that require students or parents to create a login or share their names or other personal information. Provide training to teachers on how to connect external technology applications to the LMS using link sharing to avoid students having to enter personal information.
  • Address privacy and security when videoconferencing. Choose a videoconferencing platform that allow educators to create secure virtual classrooms. Districts and schools should support teachers in enabling the security features built into videoconferencing platforms. Security settings should include the use of waiting rooms that give teachers control over who “enters” online classes and the creation of passwords or codes that must be used to enter an online class. Avoid publicly posting links or login information. Districts should consider adopting policies and procedures for the use of video cameras and screensharing. Careful consideration should be given when recording class sessions, as recordings may capture students’ images and names. Consider asking state education agencies to review common videoconferencing tools and learning platforms to ensure they meet requirements for security, privacy and confidentiality.
  • Establish additional privacy and confidentiality measures for special needs students. Teachers must engage students in one-on-one, small-group and whole-group instruction that not only aligns with students’ IEPs, but also meets the privacy and confidentiality requirements outlined in the IDEA and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Review district privacy and confidentiality expectations for special needs students and train all teachers — including content or subject-area teachers who partner with special education teachers — to meet those expectations. Create a production checklist for teachers that includes strategies for closing out student data files and clearing one’s desktop of all materials not directly related to the day’s instruction. This will limit the chance of accidentally sharing sensitive student information or reports while screensharing or videoconferencing.