SETSS up for Success: Learning Differences During Remote Learning

A dive into how students with learning differences have been dealing with remote learning differently from other students.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Remote learning has been challenging for all Stuyvesant students, but dealing with a learning difference on top of other pandemic pains can make COVID-19 schooling even more taxing. However, despite the extenuating circumstances, these students have made the best out of their situation, and continue to remain hopeful and optimistic about pandemic-era learning.

One student, who wished to remain anonymous, explains that their learning differences haven’t made much of an impact on their remote learning experience, and the only real difference lies in their experience in remote Special Education Teacher Support Services (SETSS) class in comparison to pre-pandemic SETSS classes. “Class periods [pre-pandemic] were normally spent on laid-back conversations about what was going on in the world and in our lives,” they explained. The student further excitedly recounted that they even got to leave their spring session of SETSS with a new guitar hobby. However, in a remote setting, the class has become more structured, with planned lessons, videos, and discussion questions in place of free flowing conversation. The anonymous student couldn’t help but miss in-person SETSS class: “By far the most useful aspect of SETSS inside the school was access to a room in which students could work quietly and productively, and unsurprisingly, we no longer had access to that room when Stuyvesant closed,” they explained.

Another anonymous student, Student B, admitted that their remote learning experience has been more of a challenge, underscoring the difference in signals and communication from in-person to remote environments. In regular classes, students might be able to give their teachers non-verbal cues, like a cough when the teacher is going too fast. However, in Zoom classes it is nearly impossible to judge these same cues from students. Moreover, Student B explained, “It’s also harder to have the same ‘flow’ of discussion as you can in real life.”

It is not only the flow of discussions that has been interrupted. There has also been a disruption to social flow. Student C, a freshman, described in an email interview that one of the greatest challenges of remote learning has been the cultivation of friendships. “Probably the worst part of remote learning is the lack of meeting new people, so only your friends from middle school are reachable,” they said. This is an issue that countless freshmen, not just those with learning differences, experienced this year. Many ninth graders did not know anyone when they entered Stuyvesant, leading to intense isolation. Although the Student Union and Big Sibs have made tremendous efforts to increase socialization by hosting “speed-friending nights” and “homeroom mix and matches,” making friends on Zoom is simply not the same as meeting people in person.

Benjamin Ho, a junior on the autism spectrum, also mentioned how his relationships evolved due to remote learning. Since he was rarely able to see his friends outside of school during in-person classes, Ho didn’t feel that there was much of a difference when he switched to quarantine. However, he found that he has been redefining some of his friendships during quarantine, saying in an email interview that “Some have been really supportive during these hard times, while others have revealed themselves to be ‘fair-weather friends.’” Ho explained that his remote learning experience has generally been positive because of the support and understanding that he receives from his teachers and guidance counselor. In addition, Ho has found that he doesn't have a difficult time concentrating on his work regardless of the fact that he has to sit in front of a computer all day long. Ho reinforced the fact that autism is a huge spectrum, and that he can’t speak to anybody’s experience but his own. “Each person with autism will react differently to a situation, including the one we are all in right now,” he explained. “So while I am doing well with remote learning, another person with autism in Stuy may be having a really bad time.”

In this vein, an anonymous junior with a learning difference reported that she was facing immense difficulties in the virtual classroom. She described how, during in-school lessons, she was able to stay concentrated and interested in her classes because she took medication in the mornings. However, getting homework done after school was always a struggle. And now that so much of school is homework––work done at home––learning has become a struggle. She explained, “Without structure, I have a hard time getting things done. I always do well while I’m in class. I pay attention, I participate, I enjoy working, but I have struggled with homework.” In addition to the difficulties of staying motivated and on top of the assigned work, a few of her teachers have been less than understanding about her learning differences, claiming that she shouldn’t get accommodations, such as getting extra time for tests, because the teachers believe that they give enough time for all students to complete their work.

Fortunately, there are also some teachers who are supportive and accommodating. Among them is Michael Waxman, the teacher of the SETSS class. Waxman strives to assist his students as much as possible, and finds it rewarding to see their progress over the years. One girl, whom he had taught for the past four years, recently asked him for a recommendation letter. “When I asked her why she asked me, for example, she alluded to the fact that I know her best since I have continuously worked with her throughout her high school years,” Waxman said. “Just one example. There are many others.”

Many students with learning difficulties are fortunately seeking out the good in remote learning, and continuing to take steps to better their learning experiences. However, it is equally important to acknowledge the challenges of going through the COVID-19 pandemic with a learning difference, and help other students and teachers become aware of these struggles. One can never be sure if a peer has an added challenge, so it is imperative to support everyone in the Stuyvesant community. As Waxman reminds us, assisting students with learning differences may not only change theirlives, but also be incredibly rewarding for the supporter.