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As Many Parents Fret Over Remote Learning, Some Find Their Kids Are Thriving

Jessie Casson
Getty Images

Bobby is a sixth grader at North Brookfield Elementary School in western Massachusetts. He's crazy about the Loch Ness monster. He's into math and Minecraft. And he likes online learning.

"It's a lot easier to focus," he says. "I can be in my room and be a lot more comfortable doing stuff."

President Biden has said that his goal is to have the majority of K-8 schools operating in-person by the end of his first 100 days in office.

That's a welcome goal for the many parents who worry about their children falling behind while learning virtually during the coronavirus pandemic. But some are realizing that their children do better in online school. By most accounts, it's the case for students who focus better when they are not around classmates.

Bobby has ADHD and sometimes gets seizures. (NPR isn't using last names to protect students' privacy.) This means that the 11-year-old often needs to take breaks from class, whether it is because of a seizure or just because he wants to walk around the room to get some of his energy out. Even though he already had some accommodations when school was in-person, online learning makes it easier for him to accommodate his own needs.

Another benefit for Bobby is that all his assignments, readings and instructions are laid out on his computer. His mother, Tashena Holmes, says that's because Bobby used to get into trouble for missing assignments.

"Whereas with remote school, they usually send videos, so he can rewind it as much as he wants and all the information's right there so he can reread it," she says.

Andrea Parrish, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and the director of development and learning systems at the IDEALS institute, says some parents of children with autism have reported that their children also do well online.

"The social component is actually sort of taken out in a lot of ways," says Parrish, who works with students from vulnerable communities. "There's not that expectation for face-to-face communication, so a lot of children enjoy it. They prefer it."

Parrish also says that for children to succeed in online school, they usually need to be able to recognize their needs and self-regulate, such as Bobby knowing he needs to get up and walk around every so often.

Some school districts are thinking about ways to accommodate such students when they return to in-person learning.

The Sioux City Community School District in Iowa is starting a permanent online learning program in the fall, and up to 1,000 children — 1 in 15 students — are expected to sign up for the first semester.

"There's a great deal of excitement about this as a new option, a new possibility, for learning," says the district's superintendent, Paul Gausman.

Ava, 16, will be a senior next year and is one of the students signed up for the program. Like Bobby, she has ADHD and does better academically without the distractions of in-person schooling.

"Before virtual, when I was in-person, I had almost all F's, but now since virtual I have all A's," she says.

Ava does miss her friends, but she and her family decided that her education is more important right now. And her family is incredibly proud of her.

"She's just flying, soaring above what we had even imagined was possible," says her mother, Candas Mackie.

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Eva Tesfaye is a 2020 Kroc Fellow. She started in October 2020 and will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR.