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October 1, 2021

How Lost School Time Impacts Students With Learning Differences

With so much in-person schooling lost amid the pandemic, the concern over learning loss is at the top of every educator’s mind. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences found that even with remote learning, students made little to no learning progress over the past year. It’s a disturbing thought…but the truth is, it’s something that has plagued students with learning differences for years.

In an article by the Hechinger Report last spring, Sarah Butrymowicz wrote:

[In 2020], millions of students have had their schooling curtailed, prompting serious discussions about the effects of lost learning time. But a subset of students in special education has been quietly plagued with this problem for decades, often with devastating consequences. Shortening the school day for students with disabilities as punishment for their behavior is illegal, experts say. Instead, schools must support and address these issues in the classroom.

Butrymowicz’s article followed two students who were given shorter school days as a result of their learning differences. Because of her behavior issues, Delilah McBride’s parents were told that they would need to pick her up early every day despite their attempts to have her placed in an IEP. Logan Pearson’s IEP had shorter school days written into it thanks to his autism. This is illegal for school districts, but not often very well enforced, and the effects on students with learning differences have been damaging, sometimes irreparable.

As many schools still struggle to find their footing on what education should look like during the pandemic, it’s the students with learning differences who will struggle the most.

Understanding the Learning Differences Timeline

Fortunately, as we move through 2021 and into 2022, we’re beginning to find our stride with remote learning and even hybrid classrooms. There are still challenges when it comes to managing IEP services, but it’s important not to let students with learning differences fall behind, especially when external factors can impact students’ mental health as well.

That’s why it’s important for educators to be able to recognize the signs of learning differences at each stage of development. Knowing these signs will give educators a foundation for filling in instructional gaps and keep students from falling behind.

According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, parents and teachers can expect to see these learning challenges at roughly these ages:


  • Pronunciation problems
  • Finding the right word
  • Making rhymes
  • Learning numbers, the alphabet, days of the week, colors, and shapes
  • Concentrating
  • Interacting with peers
  • Following directions or learning routines
  • Controlling pencils, crayons, and scissors
  • Buttoning, zipping, and tying skills

Grades K–4

  • Learning the connection between letters and sounds
  • Confusing basic words (e.g., run, eat, want)
  • Making consistent reading and spelling errors, such as letter reversals (b/d), inversions (m/w), transpositions (felt/left), and substitutions (house/home)
  • Learning basic math concepts
  • Learning about time
  • Remembering facts

Grades 5–8

  • Reading comprehension or math skills
  • Letter sequences (e.g., soiled for solid, left for felt)
  • Prefixes, suffixes, root words, and other spelling strategies
  • Keeping personal space, notebooks, papers, and desks organized
  • Keeping up with papers or assignments
  • Handwriting
  • Time management
  • Understanding oral discussions and expressing thoughts aloud

High School and Adults

  • Spelling the same word differently in a single document
  • Taking on reading or writing tasks
  • Open-ended questions on tests
  • Memory skills
  • Adapting skills from one setting to another
  • Slow work pace
  • Grasping abstract concepts
  • Focusing on details
  • Misreading information

Understanding the DOE’s COVID Response

Because of the fast-spreading nature of COVID-19, the DOE was quick to recommend remote learning for schools in 2020. However, a national survey from May of 2020 showed that 85% of districts expected less than 4 hours of instructional time under remote learning during the pandemic. Of those 4 hours of instructional time, 17% showed that the lessons were not to teach new material but to review old material.

It’s understandable that the uncertainty and chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown school districts into a bit of confusion as they try to determine how to safely and effectively educate students in this time. In 2021, improvements were shown, with 31% of school districts offering 5 hours or more a day of instruction and, by fall of 2021, 88% of school districts operating in person in some capacity. But between the logistics of the new frontier of education and ongoing staffing crises across the country, many schools are still struggling to meet the needs of their students, especially those with learning differences.

The pandemic has unfortunately only widened the disparity for students of color, students from lower income households, and students with learning differences. In many cases, IEPs and in-person resources like occupational or physical therapy were suspended entirely during COVID-19, despite laws meant to protect the rights of students with learning differences.

According to a report by the DOE Office of Civil Rights:

For many elementary and secondary school students with disabilities, COVID-19 significantly disrupted the education and related aids and services needed to support their academic progress and prevent regression—and may have exacerbated long standing disparities in their academic achievement. The public health restrictions that shuttered schools last spring also seriously disrupted individualized services for many students with disabilities—a difficulty for school districts and teachers. As the Government Accountability Office detailed in fall 2020, the school districts they surveyed reported encountering “a variety of logistical and instructional factors [that] made it more difficult to deliver special education services during distance learning.” And for students whose needs require hands-on, face-to-face interaction—like occupational or physical therapy—COVID-19, in some cases, brought services to a stand-still.

This is a complex issue that has to be solved through improvements from the DOE and local governments, as school districts seek to more rigorously protect the rights of students with learning differences. Until then, it’s up to educators on the ground to continue identifying learning differences and advocating for students to receive the best education possible despite the present circumstances.


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