Isaac Richert has always had a hard time focusing on school. Distance learning has made it even harder.
“I have ADHD and dyslexia,” he explained. “Since school’s been online, it’s been really easy for me to look at my laptop across the room, not pick it up and decide that I want to go outside instead.”
Richert, a Hopkins High School senior, said that in-person learning helped motivate him to keep up with his assignments. Now, with only a few days left before graduation, he’s struggling with low motivation. He’s dropped all but three classes — newspaper, chemistry and creative writing — that he needs to pass in order to earn his degree.
“It’s easier to get stuff done at school because you are in a working environment,” he said.
Before statewide COVID-19 restrictions forced all Minnesota schools to move to distance learning, Richert never thought he’d get this close to not finishing high school. It turns out that in-person instruction was that important to keeping him on track: “When I see other people working around me, I feel like I need to start working myself and I get things done. If a teacher is talking to you and telling you to do stuff to your face, it’s a lot more motivating than when they send you an email.”
Distance learning can be a particular challenge for students with learning disabilities, especially students with ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, said Martha Moriarty, executive director of Learning Disabilities Association of Minnesota, a nonprofit providing advocacy, assessment, intervention and outreach for children, adults and families impacted by learning disabilities.
Students with attention deficits may struggle more than others, she said. And even though Minnesota schools will soon let out for the summer, many students will continue to face this challenge as summer education programs continue in distance-learning formats.
“The child with the learning disability is going to be at a lesser advantage in distance-learning situations. A child with ADHD who is already struggling with organizing the work online or focusing and completing those tasks is also going to be further and further behind peers who are able to keep up with the distance learning approach.”
Some young people’s responses to baked-in anxiety of the times can actually mimic the symptoms of ADHD, Moriarty added. “A lot of kids, even those without a diagnosed learning disability, might be struggling in school during this moment in time. When you are under stress, your brain’s executive functions are taxed.” Those executive functions can include those that tell the brain how to plan and organize tasks, she explained: “A classic stress response often looks like ADHD.”
When hands-on feels essential
Isaac Richert’s older brother Joe Richert also has ADHD. After high school, he chose to study auto mechanics at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis because he felt that the school’s style of teaching would best match his interests and learning needs.
“I go to Dunwoody because it’s hands-on,” Joe Richert said. “That’s the entire reason.”
When the college announced in late March that all classes would be going online, Joe Richert said even though he wasn’t surprised by the news, he still felt disappointed and skeptical that a technical college could teach classes like “Transmissions” or “Small-Engine Repair” remotely.
“I’m not going to lie,” Joe Richert said. “I think most of the instructors are doing their best, but it’s frankly kind of insulting to try to talk like this approach really works. It doesn’t.”
Joe Richert was signed up for three courses during quarantine. One is a required humanities course, and the other two are auto mechanics classes. He said he had grown accustomed to being able to actually work on cars during his auto mechanics classes. Being able to get his hands dirty and learn firsthand how to fix vehicles made the school feel like a perfect match for his distinct learning needs.
“I always had an issue with school in general,” Joe Richert said. “I’ve never done particularly well. Dunwoody has been a nice fit for me because I understand the concepts and work just fine when I can do hands-on work. It gives me a much deeper understanding than a lecture. It keeps me focused. That’s the entire reason I go to Dunwoody. Without that it is a waste of time.”
Lonny Lunn is Joe Richert’s auto mechanics instructor. He explained that when Dunwoody decided to move all classes online, instructors and administrators held “a bunch of meetings,” trying to figure out how best to make the more experience-based college work in a remote setting.
“At the beginning it was all the unknown,” Lunn said. “Every student who comes to Dunwoody for automotive wants that hands-on learning. It threw a curve for everybody.”
The term was just beginning when the school went virtual, Lunn said. “This group of 15 students I had, I’d never worked with them before. The very first time we met was online. I didn’t get to see who they’re hanging with, who they are talking to, to understand their style.”
Because of this limitation, Lunn said he made a point early on to get to know each student, even if he had to do it remotely. During Zoom meetings, he tries to draw students out, asking them to talk about something everyone in class doesn’t know about them.
The answers vary. One student might say, Lunn explained, “‘I love cats.’ Another might say, ‘I love Camaros and I have a ‘98 Camaro.’ I try to bring that personal into my teaching, and right now, when we’re remote, it’s even more important.”
To make the teaching experience seem as hands-on as possible, Lunn brought an old transmission back to his home workshop. Using a GoPro camera purchased with funds provided by Dunwoody, he filmed himself taking the transmission apart and putting it back together, explaining the process as he went. These classes and lectures are available online, so students can watch them at any time and repeat them if they’d like. He also goes out of his way to make sure students know that he is available for support and assistance.
This approach isn’t lost on Joe Richert. While he said that the more detached approach to teaching forced by distance learning is “a very different dynamic where I am not able to get that kind of hands-on learning that I specifically need to work with my ADHD,” he appreciates the fact that Lunn is going out of his way to help students.
“[He] has been amazing about it and extremely helpful,” Joe Richert said. “He’s been understanding to anyone who’s not been able to make the Zoom meetings. He’ll reach out to the students if he thinks they need help. I’ve had very good luck with him.”
Schools face unique challenges
Switching from in-person instruction to remote was a major undertaking. Most Minnesota schools had to completely rehaul their instruction plans and approaches in less than two weeks. While her organization has raised some concerns about the effectiveness of remote learning for students with learning disabilities, Moriarty said that she also has to give educators credit for making so many changes in such a short period of time.
“What we’ve heard from the field is the first few weeks of distance learning was mostly special education teachers preparing,” Moriarty said. “Nothing was happening.” Parents who had concerns about whether their children’s unique educational needs were being met told her that they were having a hard time scheduling appointments with special education staff. But after a few weeks, the system cleared up.
“By late April, early May we were hearing that families were meeting, kids were meeting with their special educators online,” Moriarty said. “There was time being given to one-on-one support, and interventions being delivered.”
In Hopkins Public Schools, special education teachers had to scramble to make sure that their students were getting the type of instruction they needed to succeed, said Fhonda Contreras, Hopkins School District’s director of special services.
“Our teachers worked hard to make sure that each child received appropriate instruction. Sometimes this meant scheduling individual daily online meetings and arranging for special assignments and projects. For many parents, it also means a lot of extra time helping their children navigate the computer and complete tasks.”
For a number of reasons, including work schedules, technology limitations or communication hiccups, some children and families miss scheduled Zoom meetings with special education teachers, Contreras said. “In those cases, teachers make an extra effort to reconnect with the student. It’s a tough situation for everyone, and we’re all realizing that we have to be understanding that things won’t always go smoothly.”
When students like Joe Richert explain how they are struggling with this distanced style of education, Lunn said he talks to them about how they’re not alone in their concerns. Many Dunwoody students say they chose the college for that same reason. Over the years, Lunn explained, a number have told him that they have been diagnosed with ADHD.
“We do get a lot of students that feel like they can work better in a lab situation. A lot of students at Dunwoody are hands-on learners and learn best that way. They say, ‘I don’t like this online stuff. I like the lab stuff at Dunwoody.’ I say we all like to work that way but right now we’re trying to make it work the best we can.”
Isaac Richert said he understands that his struggles with distance learning aren’t a universal experience for all students with learning disabilities at Hopkins High. Some of his friends actually tell him they preferred this style of learning.
“They say it’s not hard for them to get their work done this way,” Isaac Richert said. “I guess it is different for every person. For me, it turns out that it’s really hard to finish school stuff when I’m out here on my own.”
At the finish line
As the school year winds to a close, Isaac Richert is happy to report that he will earn his high school diploma. Earlier in the term, he met online with all of his teachers and worked out clear plans for what he needs to do to earn a passing grade.
“I did OK in chemistry,” he said. “I had a C, so it’s not a concern. With creative writing, the teacher broke down the assignments and told me what I needed to do in order to get my grade up. It came down to completing a few assignments. There isn’t a ton of work to do, so I’m not worried at all.”
Isaac Richert hasn’t decided what he wants to do after high school. He hasn’t applied to college or trade school. He’s thinking about taking a year off, working and figuring out what he wants to do with his future.
Pre-COVID, Isaac Richert had a job at a nearby Starbucks. When the pandemic hit, the shop closed, because it didn’t offer drive-through service. Then he got a job at a friend’s aunt’s landscaping service. Since school went virtual, most days he’s been working outside with the landscaping crew. When he thought about school, he did it after work.
“Every other or every three days,” he said, “I’d pick up my laptop and try to get something done for school.”
In an attempt to address equity issues, some state school districts have moved to a credit/no credit model for student grading. While the credit/no-credit option might help Isaac Richert, he said he’s chosen not to go for that option.
“I don’t think I have a reason to do that,” he said. “I think I mostly did OK in my classes, and I’m basically just ready to finally be done with school.”
Moriarty said that while the credit/no-credit model may disincentivize some high-performing students, it can be a helpful tool for young people whose learning disabilities are not well served by a distance-learning model. “For a lot of kids like those who are struggling to really keep up and are just getting by, this approach to grading could be beneficial. We really believe every child can excel with the right tools and interventions and accommodations.”
Moriarty has two children of her own. She knows firsthand just how much of a slog distance learning can be for every member of a family.
“I think just about everybody in the state is looking for the finish line here,” she said. “Can we just make it through? It’s all been so very overwhelming for families.” And since some learning disabilities like ADHD can run in families, parents may be facing many of the same struggles as their children. “This is an overwhelming situation for the family unit, keeping up with work at home and keeping up with their children’s assignments. It’s exhausting — and many of us are just ready to finally be done.”