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How has Distance Learning Affected Students with Special Needs?

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has run its course on the world and has greatly altered many of the day-to-day aspects of life. One of these aspects is education. Due to the pandemic, about 2 out of 3 public schools in the U.S. are implementing formats with some form of remote learning. This shift to an online school format has drastically impacted many students across the board, but, for students with special needs, online school has been especially detrimental and has forced a whole new scope of difficulties on to them.

Many students with special needs qualify for IEPs, or individual education plans, in which they are provided with specialized accommodations for learning. With distance learning in place, systems to help these students learn falls short and a lack of individualization in the educational plan for each of these students has been exacerbated. Without this individualization, students with special needs are forced into a “one size fits all” system in which they have more difficulty doing well in school.

During the past year, the lack of peer communication has served as harmful for all students, but this absence has proven to be increasingly detrimental for those with special needs. In an online school format, the social aspect of being in a school environment is removed, thus causing damage to their social developmental skills as well as their mental-emotional well beings. This has led to increased feelings of anxiety and isolation, specifically in this community.

Similar to the lack of social aid, the pandemic brings a deprivation of academic and cognitive developmental support. In a regular school year, many students would be provided with aids or assistants, but with the implementation of remote learning these students are not able to receive that 1:1 support that they may need. Students with special needs may face troubles regarding staying focused or working independently, and without the 1:1 support that they would normally get, their education gets put in jeopardy.

Due to this lack of support that comes as a result of distance learning, many parents that have children with special needs have had to take on this role in order to allow their children to thrive academically and developmentally. One parent I spoke with described how she and her student have adapted to distance learning.

“Initially it was difficult as there was no assistant help so all assignments had to be done with the help of a parent,” she said.

Without this help, many of these students are simply left behind. Through the pandemic, families have had to greatly adapt in order to help their children thrive, and at times this becomes hard to manage. Families are forced to take on roles they have never filled before and are left feeling overwhelmed.

For neurodiverse students, it can be difficult to process new concepts. Ideas must be broken down in a way that makes it easier for students with special needs to understand and practice. It becomes very difficult for teachers to do this with the use of a virtual schooling system. While distance learning has proved to have many negative impacts on students with special needs, some teachers have tried to make this process less rocky. Some teachers have been working to implement curriculums that are catered to the needs of neurodiverse students. This has been seen through the implementation of more interactive curriculum. The use of movement and breathing exercises are examples of ways in which teachers have been working to create an environment in which students feel engaged. Teachers have also been working towards making materials more accessible for those with special needs. These materials are crucial in order to allow students with special needs to continue to progress.

With the COVID-19 vaccine coming into play, more and more schools are getting the opportunity to open up and have some form of in-person learning. When asked if transitioning to in-person schooling had been beneficial, one Oregonian parent stated, “Yes it has been with the teacher in the class, as communication is much better with the student. My child feels better when they come home from school.”

Slowly incorporating in-person learning into our education systems is starting to bring hope for students with special needs to receive the support that they need as well as the benefits of being in a school environment.

Arshia Sohal is a sophomore at Lake Oswego High School and a member at Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.

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