ELL and Special Ed students adapt to virtual learning


Online learning can limit the ability to communicate directly.

For students with special needs and English language learners, the unconventional school year has brought challenges but also some silver linings. 

For many Special Education students, the process and environment of online learning has been a struggle.

“We have students who just simply logging on and learning how to submit is a struggle everyday,” said Kristin Northrop, chair of the Special Education Department. “You have kids who just can’t handle it because there’s no social interaction.”

Technology in particular has created a lot of problems. “Technology is a really big barrier for our students,” said Suzanne Biermann, Pioneer’s speech and language pathologist. She described a time when she had her students annotate a certain passage, and 15 minutes later, they were still figuring out how to work the online program. 

“Adults have confused social media participation and text capability with tech savvy and those are not synonymous skills,” she said.

“The ability to do Tik Tok and the ability to do Schoology are very different skills,” Northrop added.

Possibly the biggest challenge for many of these students and teachers is the lack of effective communication.

“Online learning is different, because if there’s an issue and we’re in school, we are sought out and the students find us and they ask us questions and we problem solve right then and there, and we are able to resolve things,” said Northrop. “This morning I got two emails at the start of second hour that students couldn’t log in so emailing to solve that is much more difficult than if they were coming to me to say, ‘Hey I need this help in second hour’ and I can go and help.” 

Online learning has been very beneficial to other special education students, though, for whom being in the building, in person, can be very stressful.

“I have several girls who have severe school anxiety and not being in the physical school setting has been wonderful for them. They’re logging in, they’re participating, their attendance has improved, it’s great,” she said. “You have ones that are thriving because they don’t have to be in a building with 2,000 other students.”  

For some students who have trouble with the noise and chaos of social settings the online environment has been very positive. “Some students who are on the autism spectrum are doing very well because they can just focus on school right now,” said Northrop. “They don’t have to focus on social interactions. Their grades are going up and their participation is going up.”  

But even some of the successful students have experienced drawbacks. “For our students who are on the spectrum they don’t have to deal with other people, which is one of the hardest things they do, but now they aren’t getting to work on the things they are the worst at, which is working with other people…it’s kind of a double edged sword,” said Biermann.

For students with processing disabilities, Biermann added, “the block schedule is working really well. If you have a teacher who is really watching you and figuring out where you are, you have all this time with the teacher to see you, which doesn’t happen in 53 minute classes.” 

Other aspects of online learning have also been helpful.

“Having that Wednesday as a kind of downtime, I think some people are doing well with that schedule,” said Northrop. “Their sleep schedules are better, I’ve been hearing that a lot.”

For English language learners — students whose first language is not English and who are often in the early stages of learning the new language — online school has been incredibly difficult.

“For a lot of EL students this is overwhelming,” said Nicole Macko, Pioneer EL Teacher. “EL students do really well in classrooms where they get to do things hands on. There’s a lot of collaboration. There’s a lot of working together with other students and the teacher…There’s a lot of visual cues and in the virtual world we don’t have as many of those.” 

Technology has also been a big issue for English Language Learners. “Having to learn the tech program along with the content, that has been a learning curve,” said Macko. “Tech has its own language. So if the student directly translates ‘open a new window,’ they’re thinking of the window in their house, they’re not thinking of it for the computer.” 

Yet, the new technology has been put to creative uses for many of these students. “I think there’s a lot of really cool activities that I’ve seen teachers doing. They’re using different technology for collaboration,” said Macko.

The lack of quick and easy communication has been a major problem with online learning. “It’s a lot harder for them to get that help and support. They also can’t come to my office as easily. They can’t just drop in and have a panic and then we can fix it,” said Macko. “Now we’re having to reach out over email or Schoology, so it’s harder. The distance is harder.”

Still, as the school year has progressed students and teachers have been learning more and impressively adapting to the new environment.

“At first we were so overwhelmed we didn’t know how it was going to work,” said Northrop. “Now, we’re settling in, we understand the technology better, we’re being more creative and innovative.”