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An inclusive online school offers students an equitable and safe place to learn--even in the middle of a global health pandemic

3 essentials for building an inclusive online school


An inclusive online school offers students an equitable and safe place to learn--even in the middle of a global health pandemic

As educators, it is our responsibility to give students hope and inspiration for the future. Amid a global health crisis that’s claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people in the U.S., this is increasingly difficult. But now it’s more important than ever.

Students need something to look forward to. They need someone to show them what’s possible, and how to get there. This is where educators come in. And as an educator for eight years, this is a role I take seriously. But all educators across the country need support to carry out this role.

Related content: 6 tips to strengthen your online learning strategy

I got into education to help improve the school experience for students in my home state. New Mexico is one of the lowest-ranked states in the nation for education and I wanted to help improve the lives of the next generation. Over nearly a decade, I’ve learned first-hand that by improving education, we can improve quality of life.

Then COVID-19 struck. The virus quickly swept across the world and here in New Mexico. From our major cities to tribal lands, no corner has been spared. The pandemic is changing many aspects of our lives. With the number of cases continuing to rise across the state, it is clear we will be dealing with this for a long time.
As COVID-19 upends our world, it’s also completely disrupting our education system. The brick-and-mortar model of students being required to attend a physical building for hours a day is being replaced with online learning accessed from home. School districts must meet students where they are and ensure that every student has access to a high-quality education where they will not fall behind.

To find the right inclusive online school solution we must take into account the needs of all of our students and communities. Here are the three things I am keeping in mind and that other school leaders should consider in order to foster an inclusive online school and learning environment for all.

1. Ensure that the program is open and accessible

For an online school to work, we need to ensure that the program is open and accessible for all. This cannot be limited to those in densely populated, urban areas. Equitable access must be achieved for all, no matter their ZIP code.

We need to work together to get students online. New Mexico is one of the least internet-connected states in the U.S. Districts must come up with unique solutions. Whether that’s partnering with internet providers or providing families with hotspot access or even satellite internet, all options must be explored to get and keep students connected to learning.

For our inaugural school year at Destinations Career Academy of New Mexico we are collaborating with a local telecom provider, Sacred Wind Communications, to expand internet access. By working together to close the digital gap, we can provide families with an option to have a safe, virtual learning environment. For those who do not already have internet access, working to find solutions demonstrates that you want all students to stay connected and prioritize learning.

2. Create a culturally and linguistically responsive curriculum

Once we get students online, we need to provide a curriculum that is culturally and linguistically responsive to the demographics we serve.

In New Mexico, 11 percent of the population is Native American. When students enter their classroom, in-person or online, we need to acknowledge their heritage. They need to know that they are being recognized by their educators, and that their education is designed with all of them in mind.

This includes re-examining our lessons and our approach in the classroom, being mindful of the rich history of our state and the language we use with our colleagues and students. We need to break down barriers to truly form an effective learning environment.

3. Foster connections and build an online community

In the online classroom students and teachers are not meeting in person each day. But that doesn’t mean that relationships cannot be formed. In fact, they are even more important when your school goes virtual.

Through competency and relationship building, teachers can really get to know their students. Just as you would get to know students in the first few weeks of school, having some knowledge and background on their lives and circumstances helps to better serve them in the online classroom, and will help them be the best they can be. Meaningful connections will build an educational community based on trust and respect.

Moving forward

Without access to a high-quality education, students have limited opportunity for growth. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity to reimagine education and remove barriers to make it a more accessible and inclusive online school environment.

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