The Learning Accelerator Blog/Reaching Across the Screen: Fostering Wellness in Virtual Systems

Reaching Across the Screen: Fostering Wellness in Virtual Systems

by Rae Lymer and Beth Holland on May 30 2024

When students and educators primarily interact through screens and chat boxes in fully virtual settings, school and system leaders may feel removed from the broader physical and social-emotional needs of the people in their community. However, the students and educators on each side of the screen are whole people who deserve equitable access to the same level of support they would receive in a brick-and-mortar setting. Few policy areas exemplify this challenge more than the fundamental issues of student nutrition and educator compensation. By attending to these critical needs, leaders of virtual and hybrid systems can further create pathways to equitable access and success.

Nutrition Fuels Student Learning

We know that student nutrition is integral to students’ academic success and overall wellbeing. However, despite this knowledge, there is little conversation about how current policies and funding related to student nutrition largely exclude virtual learners. With the sunsetting of COVID relief funding, previous policies enacted during emergency remote learning no longer support students who continue to learn in fully virtual settings. As a community that understands the importance of student nutrition, we must advocate for strategic shifts to address this challenge.

At The Learning Accelerator (TLA), we researched potential solutions to this core problem and found that they will be highly context-dependent given the varied nature of student enrollment in virtual and hybrid settings. Without a clear, universal solution, we propose leaders focus on three key levers to immediately address nutritional needs alongside broader student wellbeing:

  1. Policy: Review, evaluate, and advocate for policy changes at the local, state, and federal levels.

  2. Community: Engage local community leaders, food banks, brick-and-mortar schools, libraries, or higher education institutions.

  3. Infrastructure: Create additional in-person opportunities to strengthen student learning and sense of belonging while addressing their nutritional needs.

To support leaders and policymakers in tackling the complex task of getting nutrition services to students, we created an insight with actionable strategies. Ensuring access to critical services speaks volumes to students, families, and communities about how they are valued as whole people, an approach that should also be taken to support our educators.

All Educators Deserve to be Valued

While nutrition is fundamental to student success, compensation is foundational for attracting effective educators, enhancing teacher quality, reducing attrition, and advancing a holistic view of educator wellbeing. Unlike in brick-and-mortar settings, educators seek out virtual teaching opportunities for a variety of reasons, from increased flexibility to greater autonomy, making compensation more complex than a simple focus on traditional salaries and benefits.

Given the advantages and challenges of working in a virtual environment, leaders need to approach compensation in a multifaceted way that communicates respect to educators, fosters strong relationships, and enhances the professionalization of the role. In this setting, compensation models should include three key components to ensure educators have the resources they need to thrive: salary and benefits, professional opportunities and growth, and working conditions. Our new policy brief shares learnings and actionable strategies from virtual and hybrid systems that address compensation with the whole educator in mind.

Fully virtual and hybrid learning contexts also present an incredible opportunity to rethink educator compensation as a tool for recruiting and retaining effective, high-quality teachers and responding to a call for greater professionalization in the field. Leaders can accomplish these goals by centering teacher wellbeing, honoring educator expertise, and demonstrating what matters most through compensation models that are responsive and future-leading.

Ensuring Equity in Virtual Settings

While virtual learning models can significantly support equity by expanding access to coursework and learning experiences that may not otherwise be available, policies and structures can unintentionally prohibit learners or educators from experiencing success. Many students who would thrive with virtual learning are barred due to gaps in services, including nutrition. Without both urgent and long-term, sustainable solutions, inequities within virtual learning will continue to hinder the potential of our students.

Likewise, attention needs to be paid to equitably supporting and compensating virtual educators. Holistic approaches to compensation keep educator wellbeing at the center, creating sustainable and equitable pathways for educators to grow and thrive within schools while achieving the system’s vision for learning.

In order for virtual systems to fully realize the opportunity to build equitable learning environments, the needs of the whole person behind the screen must be included throughout every facet of the learning experience. By prioritizing student and educator wellbeing, virtual systems can build equitable, thriving schools while contributing to the narrative that virtual learning is a viable, rigorous option that can support all learners and educators with intention and care.

About the Author

Rae Lymer is a Partner of Research and Measurement at The Learning Accelerator. With experience as an educator, district administrator, and consultant, Rae leverages research to disrupt education inequities and propel systems change. 

Beth Holland is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator and leads the organization's work in research and measurement. She brings both a rigorous academic background and practical experience to the team’s research efforts.