“I can’t wait to go back to normal.” A common phrase I heard amongst my peers in breakout rooms and on FaceTimes during the 2020-2021 virtual school year. “Normal” signified the comfortable, the ways and traditions of past years, and the hallmark of in-person schooling. While in-person learning has resumed in Oregon, should we be so eager to return to the standard of “normal”? Although our past perceptions of “normal” schooling have their benefits, it is difficult to fathom we could enter and exit a global pandemic that completely reworked the way we saw and participated in education and not take anything away from it. While virtual schooling possessed its share of imperfection, it did carry numerous benefits that should not be undersold, especially in its way of addressing the discrepancies neurodivergent students face.
Observing the fundamentals of online school, the first major difference arose from the amount of time available to students. Without having to pack for school, get ready, and travel to and from school, a significant share of morning and afternoon time was freed for students. In addition, during school lunches, breaks, and class, pauses allowed for more time accessible to students’ individual needs that would not have been possible in an in-person setting. This onslaught of extra time allowed students to have more flexibility with their work time and scheduling, meaning they had more time to work when their focus is most optimal. In addition, the spare time gave students extra time to go outside, exercise, and rest, which research proves is beneficial to the performance of students. Studies also showed students were more likely to get involved in an extracurricular, organization, internship, or job opportunity, demonstrating how students not only benefited, but gained new experiences with the alleviated schedule. Through the lens of neurodivergent students, having opportunities for breaks throughout classes allowed for increased focus and time to assess needs or problems that would formally interrupt them during an in-person class. When reflecting on the benefits of freed time due to online learning, administrators should look to incorporate more break periods during the school day to promote focus as well as allocate class time to study or work on a project relevant to a personal interest.
In regards to stress levels, online school combatted many sources of anxiety and worry that are sourced from in-person learning methods. In order to make workloads accessible for students, exams and assignments were adjusted to decrease in content or amount. For many students who feel overcommitted, a lighter workload as well as more flexible deadlines allows them to lower their anxiety levels. Even for teachers, the pressures of needing to hit national requirements for test scores lowered when distance learning accommodations lowered, which ultimately lowered stress for students as the expectations often trickled down. For students who experience anxiety, depression, etc., having a lower expectation and increased empathy from teachers allows for prioritization of personal issues as well as decrease in triggers or getting overwhelmed. Looking at the rigors of the in-person model bring into question whether the expectations of the curriculums of Oregon’s public schools are realistic, as well as the development of classroom policies regarding late work and absences to accommodate for the rising pressure placed on students as well as obstacles faced by neurodivergent students.
Observing the differences in environment is another key element to critically analyzing the upside of online education. Along with time, flexibility is also granted to students to choose their location. Similar to learning style, learning environments are not one size fits all. Noise levels, number of people, even lighting, can all impact studying and productivity. Specifically for neurodivergent students, certain environmental conditions, while conventional, can be triggering towards characteristics such as social anxiety or sensory tolerance. Looking at the school year, teachers should feel motivated to provide variety within their room and class agenda to create different learning spaces or allow students to work in places of their choosing.
While online school proved difficult for many, its pros should not be forgotten as we look towards the school year ahead. Neurodiverse students should not need to conform to the strict format of in-person school and there is something to be said about the flexibility of online learning to accommodate the diverse needs of a diverse student body. After observing some of the positives of online learning, educators and administrators need to reevaluate the downfalls of in-person learning to promote a more inclusive and effective education.
Gabby Dover is a senior at Lakeridge High School and serves as the Empower Director for Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.