The unconventional classroom: How distance learning puts students’ disabilities and mental health at risk
When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that schools will remain closed for the remainder of the school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new approach to learning had to be implemented. Students and teachers at CCHS have had to adjust quickly to the new style and expectations of distance learning. These rapid changes have carried consequences for students’ mental health, especially students with disabilities.
Ellen Roberts, a program specialist for behavior for Broward Schools voiced concern over the effects of distance learning on Exceptional Student Education (ESE) students.
“A lot of these kids don’t have the ability to socialize normally,” Roberts said. “The parents have to be with them all throughout their online sessions.”
Many of these students are involved in year-round instructional programs, such as ESE, which have always been face-to-face. However, due to the pandemic, a lot of added responsibility has been placed on parents. They have to help their child get online and complete their tasks while also providing for their specific needs, not to mention working their own jobs.
Students with disabilities suffer even more from social isolation, so without in-person assistance, they can fall behind. This makes things extra challenging for teachers who have to rapidly adapt to fit the needs of their students.
Parents of students with disabilities are now having to fill the roles of trained specialists. Speech, physical and occupational therapy are inaccessible with schools closed.
Students with disabilities suffer even more from social isolation, so without in-person assistance, they can fall behind.
At home, students are unable to communicate with peers with similar conditions or professionals trained to respond to their specific needs regularly. One-on-one attention, assistance with general education and special needs assistance simply cannot be expected from working parents, especially those in low-income households.
Programs designed for distance learning are challenging to use. Students that are non-verbal, deaf or with severe auditory or speech-related impairments cannot communicate adequately through a Zoom call.
Students may also need help accessing the websites or Canvas courses. Additionally, blind or visually-impaired students that require braille documents or someone to read the material to them are at a disadvantage as these things are incredibly difficult to provide within an online setting.
Students with autism or other cognitive disabilities rely on schedules and routines to function daily, which makes distance learning challenging.
Distance learning does not only impact students with disabilities, but also students’ mental health.
A lack of usual social structure and isolation from friends and classmates can be damaging to students, especially middle and high school students as they begin to formulate their own identities. Without a traditional in-class instruction system, it’s easy for otherwise high-achieving students to fall behind.
Challenge Success, a research organization with Stanford University, surveyed 43,000 American students last year and found that 75% of high schoolers and 50% of middle schoolers are often or always feeling stressed by schoolwork.
Isolation carries a lot of other negative effects on the student body. With school campuses closed, students have very limited access to counseling and peer consultation that are normally readily available.
Stress is already a constant problem for students. Challenge Success, a research organization with Stanford University, surveyed 43,000 American students last year and found that 75% of high schoolers and 50% of middle schoolers are often or always feeling stressed by schoolwork.
Extra stress can also be placed heavily on students who have responsibilities at home, such as caring for a younger sibling or working a job for the family’s income. These obligations are impediments to keeping up with the increased workload involved with distance learning.
Superintendent Robert Runcie announced that schools will be virtual for all students at the beginning of the school year. However, a “pilot effort” to later begin limited in-person instruction for students with disabilities was mentioned.If these programs can be implemented safely and effectively, they will help to relieve the daily burden on parents during the remainder of distance learning.
With COVID-19 cases increasing in Florida, opening schools fully for in-person instruction seems unlikely. However, while distance learning continues, measures need to be taken to safeguard the mental health of students and provide a proper method of instruction for students with disabilities.
Disclaimer: Ellen Roberts is a relative of the reporter.
Photo by The Lariat Photography