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As schools reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, students are facing challenges they’ve never imagined. Teen Vogue’s Fear and Learning in America series is exploring what back to school means for students this year, and what they think about learning during the coronavirus crisis.
Distance learning has created a lot of challenges for many students, from lack of internet and technology access to increased isolation. But for students with ADHD and learning disabilities, online classes can prove near impossible. Jessica, 22, learned that the hard way when the COVID-19 pandemic forced her college courses to move online in the spring.
In a video as part of Girl Effect’s Life in Lockdown series, Jessica, who has ADHD, said learning online proved troubling for her as she found herself distracted and not paying attention to her computer screen. “I feel I’m very intelligent, but having to [learn] online really brought me down,” Jessica said in the clip.
“I’m sitting at my desk, doing my work and, five minutes later, I’m distracted doing something else. It’s also very difficult for me to prioritize what things I should do in what order I should do them,” she said. “It really sucks and it makes me sad sometimes because I don’t really know how to help myself.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, ADHD is a neuro-developmental disorder that makes it hard for people to concentrate or control impulses and may make them overly active. It’s most often diagnosed in childhood and can last through adulthood. While ADHD is not considered a learning disability, as many as half of people with the disorder also have a specific learning disability. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in the 2018–2019 school year, 7.1 million students in the United States had a disability; 33% of those had a specific learning disability and 15% had a disability categorized under “other health impairment,” which ADHD often falls under.
A United Nations report cautioned that, for students with disabilities, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely exacerbating their exclusion from education, as they are the least likely to benefit from distance learning. The report (which includes all disabilities, not just learning disabilities) cautions that these students may not have access to in-school resources that help them manage their disability. Not having access to in-person learning could be detrimental to these students’ education, which Jessica experienced firsthand. She said her grades in her online classes suffered, which was upsetting for her.
“When I found out we were going to have to do online schooling for the rest of the year [in the spring], I was like, no, this can’t be. I immediately thought to myself, If this is what it’s like next school year or next semester, I’m not going to go to school because I just cannot learn online,” she said.
On campus, Jessica said she’s better able to focus in class by engaging with her educators.
“The way I would stay engaged on campus and in person was by asking questions to the teacher. As I’m asking questions, the teacher is talking to me specifically,” she said. This strategy, she suspected, helps other students with ADHD by breaking up the learning experience. “Having ADHD is very common — maybe there was another person with ADHD in my class and it was probably helpful for them to not always listen to the teacher and listen to someone else in the class.”
To make sure students with disabilities get the education they deserve, the United Nations said it’s important for educators to center these students, making sure they have any added resources they may need, and that they’re fully included in plans to return to in-person school. Making these programs inclusive and focusing specifically on students with disabilities could make all the difference.