Ensuring Access: Alternative Learning Environments

June 1, 2020

With nearly all U.S. school buildings closed for the remaining school year, teachers and leaders scrambled to support remote learning and respond to the emerging needs of 57 million elementary and secondary students. As challenging as it is today, it’s time to begin planning for next academic year. The damage the pandemic has already caused, its lingering health concerns, and the potential for the next resurgence make preparation to reopen a complex but urgent affair.

All re-entry scenarios must include remote and online learning options in the event of a resurgence or to support social distancing. These scenarios must consider what supports may be necessary for the individual student, including those with disabilities, to make academic progress in alternative learning environments. Although ensuring student access to internet service with an operational device may be a critical first step when instituting remote learning protocols, it is even more important for districts to establish procedures  for teachers to use to identify student learning needs, especially students at-risk, within unfamiliar learning conditions

It is not enough to simply provide students with devices that include accessibility features. Teachers must be trained to understand how learning may be impacted as environmental and contextual factors shift throughout the school year. By thinking about how these factors impact the learning process, teachers can respond to barriers in ways that do not focus on family or student deficits but instead empower families and children to be active participants in remote and online learning. The following scenarios include strategies teachers and students can use that are designed to considers the context in which the student is expected to learn.

Four strategies to support learning in alternative learning environments: 

Establish/Restore Competence-Thirteen-year-old Thomas has slower cognitive processing skills than his peers, but does like to read. Social distancing protocols in the school require Thomas to read complex digital text alone prior to meeting in his small group for discussion. Thomas teacher helped him establish/restore competence in his critical thinking skills by teaching him how to use digital note taking and information gathering skills so Thomas could capture his thinking while he reads, rather than having to hold it in his mind and recall it afterward.

Modify the Context-Twelve-year old Jaime is eager to learn and has access to the internet, but functionally, she struggles to remember when she is supposed to have class. Currently, Jamie is doing remote learning in her home due increased numbers of COVID in her county. Often Jamie forgets to login but when she does, her teacher notes she is seated on a couch in a room with siblings who are all working on their own learning or watching television. Jamie’s teacher may modify the context through the introduction of digital tools like an electronic sticky note reminder, an alarm on the phone, or an instant message through a “chat” feature to better support attendance and engagement.

Altering the Task- High school teacher, Mr. Mikesell,  modified a course for online delivery and would like to incorporate video clips into the course. This teacher is aware that Sharon cannot access the audio because she has a hearing disability and Sahal cannot access the audio because he is learning English and the language in the videos is very fast. By altering the task, Mr. Mikesell addresses all students’ need to access the information in the video. Mr. Mikesell creates separate audio descriptions for each video clip that narrate what is taking place in the videos. He also selects videos that have captions.

Prevent Future Difficulties-Ms. Stam has six third graders in her resource reading class. When her school shifted to remote learning for the remainder of the year, she surveyed parents and found not all students had the internet at home and at least one parent who was able and willing to assist the child with work. It is important to identify basic communication issues before the absences start to stack up to prevent future difficulties. Also, in times where the whole family might need to use the internet during the day, technology can fail or be slow. How will the school help students who cannot attend due to technical difficulties, illness (of themselves or a family member), or merely forgetting?