Kareem Neal, a 24-year veteran educator, noticed something surprising when his school went all virtual last year: Not only did most of the students in his self-contained, special education class navigate the change better than he expected, three of them blossomed academically. All three are on the autism spectrum and have a tough time navigating the social aspects of school. But during virtual instruction, “they were fine with just hours of academic instruction happening at home,” said Neal, who works at Maryvale High School in Phoenix and was an Arizona teacher of the year in 2019. “All of those other things were off their plates, and there was just their work, and they loved it.”
Most students didn’t make much progress—or flailed—in online learning during the pandemic. But a subset who may have struggled with in-person learning in the past—like Neal’s trio of kids—actually thrived. Now many of those students, some of whom have learning and thinking differences or mental health conditions like social anxiety, must return to the traditional classroom, an environment that did not work for them before COVID.