Oliver’s Story: When School itself is the Barrier to Learning


7 min read

by Jennifer Parks

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a major disruption of the educational system and its ripple effects have stretched far and wide. In March of 2020, we were suddenly thrust into the uncharted territory of Zooming and navigating the unfamiliar waters of online teaching and learning. Teachers and students alike were relieved to see the school year come to an end, with hopes we would be coming back in-person in the fall.  But, by August 2020 when things were clearly not returning to “normal,” some families chose the full-time remote learning option. With little time for preparation for families or teachers, we were concerned about how students with differing learning needs would be impacted by these unprecedented circumstances. 

Our district, located in rural southeastern Vermont, joined a collective of teachers from multiple districts across the state. Online learning for our school was a blend of synchronous and asynchronous instruction anchored by an online learning management system. The synchronous time was class time or 1:1 time with a teacher over Zoom. The asynchronous time is when students work on their modules at a time that is convenient for them. My role as a special educator was to provide academic services to students on individualized education plans ensuring students have access to and make meaningful progress in the general education curriculum. I also supported their families in developing routines, solving problems, and communicating progress. Some students and parents realized online learning was not a match, but others found unexpected benefits. 

This is Oliver’s story. 

Oliver, as I see him on Zoom three times per week, is a well-groomed ninth grade student with jet-black hair, brown eyes, and a distinctive voice.  He wears glasses and is always right on time. Oliver is diagnosed with autism and is one of the 14 - 30% of students from the divergent community who are enrolled in public schools across the nation. Prior to this year, his only experience with online learning was when all schools closed in March through June 2020 and all students finished the year remotely. This was my ninth year teaching, but my first year teaching fully online, and my first year with Oliver. 

We would begin our sessions with a brief check-in. Oliver would tell me about his work at the dairy farm and at the stable where he takes horseback lessons, and then we were ready to work. On Mondays we would preview the math objective for the week. Oliver would read from the online textbook, as I pointed out key ideas, and together we would try the practice items. On Fridays, we focused on spelling and writing. Although Oliver had no problem reading multisyllabic words and comprehending grade-level text, he struggled with spelling basic words. This made it difficult for him to take notes, respond in the group chat box, and write without the aid of spell-check. His two lovebirds would chirp in the background as Oliver and I worked on the weekly lesson. It was a peaceful, focused, and consistent routine. On Wednesdays, I would Zoom with Oliver and his parents, Anna and Chad, for weekly case management. We would review Oliver’s progress and check in on how the week went. Oliver appreciated the check-in and that we would also talk about other things, have conversations, tell stories, and laugh. This became an important time together, and I began to learn more about Oliver.  

Oliver’s early educational experiences were marked by social and academic difficulties in school, misunderstandings, and tense relationships. The problems all started in kindergarten when he had sensory issues and communication deficits that contributed to behavior problems in school. When Anna met with his teachers to gain more services for her child, all the focus was on his failures, The only options available would exclude Oliver from his general education peers.  Anna remembers asking “Why do you need to take him out of class for this instruction?” At which point she was told his instruction would be a ‘distraction’ in the regular classroom.

In upper elementary, Oliver recalls being placed in a low reading group with younger students with disabilities and some with severe learning challenges. Oliver felt that when he was in the reading groups, he was not being challenged. Rather he began to recognize he was labeled with a disability and felt confused by being required to leave the classroom for “one size fits all” services. He was rarely given the opportunity to engage with his peers in the regular classroom.  Due to his Autism, it was difficult for Oliver to speak out. This began to impact Oliver’s emotional health and contributed to feelings of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. It seemed that no one recognized his strengths and abilities to engage in the general education classroom. He felt defined by his divergent neurology. Anna and Chad needed to provide supplemental experiences themselves. They read countless social stories and tried many therapeutic exercises to increase Oliver’s performance in school. Yet it always seemed there were unexpected and painful barriers to including Oliver in any meaningful way. 

Hot Chocolate and Cookies

As we talked about this Oliver’s father, Chad became very animated, “Here’s a story about hot cocoa and cookies.” He described how Oliver was excited to participate in the after-school ski program. The organizers said Oliver could only participate if he had 1:1 support due to his diagnosis and perceived support needs. So Chad offered to ski with them and provide support. He went on to describe how he was able to use a donated corporate pass to get on the mountain, so they were excited for the first day. After a day of skiing together -- father and son -- they returned to the lodge where the  coordinator set out hot cocoa and cookies for all the kids from the school. Chad was excited. This would provide an opportunity for Oliver to mingle socially with his peers. However, when Oliver went to get some refreshment, the other chaperones told him he could not have any hot cocoa because he wasn’t, “part of the ski program.” “I was angry and embarrassed,” Chad remembered. “So, for the rest of the season, we used the corporate passes to enjoy french fries and soda and have a weekly father/son bonding adventure, but I will never forget how the school made Oliver feel that day.”

Substitute Teaching

Next, Anna recalled a period of time when she was a substitute paraeducator in Oliver’s school. The school felt it would be a conflict of interest for Anna to provide para services to her own child, so she had to watch other paras struggle and fail to engage him.  She recollected how painful it was to watch Oliver receive mediocre service or be ignored altogether. She noticed that Oliver’s work was reduced and overly modified. He was not being challenged academically, possibly due to assumptions about his diagnosis. The disappointment is still visible in Anna’s eyes. “It’s the school’s responsibility to adequately provide both a learning environment and specialized instruction so the child can make progress. The school is supposed to be accountable to Oliver, but they failed.” Anna’s intense and determined gaze reached through the computer screen. “We do not fail Oliver,” she declared, “I will not fail my child. And I will make sure no one else does, either.” 

As a special educator, it was difficult for me to hear about these experiences. I apologized to Oliver, Chad, and Anna for the hurt they felt in the past, and I made a vow that Oliver’s high school experience would be different. We agreed that teachers need to educate themselves about students with divergent neurology. They need to understand that no one person diagnosed with autism is the same as another. 

Oliver explained it like this, “There are an infinite number of subdivisions of behavior and preferences, strengths and weaknesses. So, every student with autism is different.” Oliver continued, “This means if a student needs specific support for behavior, sensory experiences, or academics, it should be provided in a way so that services don’t make them feel like there’s something wrong with them.”   

When the pandemic hit, the family knew online learning was the only option to keep Oliver safe. Work schedules were adjusted to build a consistent routine for Oliver’s studies.  In this model, Anna was able to be the attentive paraeducator she knew Oliver needed to do his best work and achieve his highest potential. “No one else was going to give that to my child,” Anna asserts. Anna is quick to point out that she doesn’t do the work for Oliver. She supports him by taking notes, so he can devote his attention to class instruction and participation. Anna and Oliver read the weekly units together and plan the week’s work. Many neurotypical students and their parents can be overwhelmed by the sheer number of emails coming from the automated learning platform and from teachers, so Anna helped Oliver manage these communications and due dates. Oliver’s math teacher recorded and posted each lesson so it could be reviewed at any time. Furthermore, students could retake the quizzes if they didn’t perform as well as they wanted. 

Over the year, online learning revealed important information about how Oliver engages with written expression. Oliver’s thinking and writing processes require movement. He would begin by walking around the dining room table, pulling out each chair before pushing them back in. He would pace in the living room as he worked out a starting sentence in his mind. Anna would wait silently at the computer until Oliver was ready to dictate. Suddenly Oliver would lecture for 30 minutes. It was as if the floodgates opened. Anna described how sometimes Oliver was speaking so quickly that Anna had to ask him to repeat himself to capture every word. Using this strategy, Oliver has written some of his best paragraphs of the year. Anna remains convinced that he never would have had this level of freedom to move and think in the traditional classroom, and I have to agree. 

In the online environment, Oliver’s services were incorporated seamlessly into his schedule. He received targeted help without being removed from the classroom and worrying that he’s miss something. He attended a variety of 1:1 appointments to work with his teachers on required skills in each content area, received direct services in math, reading, and writing, as well as communication. 

By working online, Oliver began regularly turning in grade level work and he was visibly proud of it. In earlier years, his work was always modified but he still struggled, particularly in math.  Often Oliver’s work looked different from other students’ work undermining his sense of accomplishment. This past year, Oliver’s work looked the same as every other students. The online platform provided digital textbooks for each of his classes. Some lessons were shorter than others, but some were as long as 12 pages. But this was no problem for Oliver. If he needed a break, he could take one at any time. By the end of the year, Oliver did not require any modifications and regularly earned high scores. Furthermore, for the first time, Oliver became a fully included classmate, blending in with his peers. No one knew that there was anything different about him.  

In the online classroom, Oliver felt confident to raise his hand and speak up frequently. In a discreet observation by the speech-language pathologist, the report said that he was the second most engaged student in the class. At this, Anna and Oliver shared a smile. “In fact,” Anna remembered, “The teacher has to say, ‘I’m looking for others who haven’t answered!’ “     

Over the past few months, I’ve had many discussions with Oliver and Anna during our weekly case management sessions. Reflecting on what made this year so successful, we found specific aspects of remote learning that seem to have made the difference:

  1. He was able to focus on one subject per day, at his own pace and in his own way.
  2. He had the entire week to complete challenging modules.
  3. He had access to one-to-one services over Zoom.  


Anna explained that online learning has been the silver lining of the pandemic. Not being in the school setting gave Oliver the chance to truly engage with grade level material for the first time in years.

“We plan to enroll online again next year. And I’m not sure we’re ever going back into the classroom.”     

Anna’s statement brings up mixed emotions for me. On the one hand, like her, I feel protective of Oliver. I can see how well he responds to the routines of his online learning experience, and his performance- nothing below an 89- speaks for itself. Given his intellectual engagement, I can envision Oliver taking increasingly advanced online courses, becoming a more independent student, and possibly charting a path to college. On the other hand, I want Oliver to have the opportunity to come into the building to learn in person and make friends. Then I immediately worry about the constraints of the bell schedule and instructional minutes lost to classroom disorganization, the barrage of sounds and smells, social pressures, and the intensity of engaging with so many people. Oliver would need to adapt to a vastly different environment than the remote experience. He would need to adapt to the environment because the environment is not willing or able to adapt to him. What would an educational system that fully understands, supports, and champions divergent students look like?      

According to the law, schools must provide a continuum of services that constitute a “least restrictive environment” for students with learning challenges. For too long neurodivergent students have struggled in unyielding and unresponsive classroom environments and systems where compliance is the priority; individualization is seen as an inconvenience. Special ed services are something that happens to them for years without explanation. Sometimes students are removed from classes, given modified work, or shuffled into special programs, suggesting these students aren't valued members of the learning community. This can contribute to a lingering feeling of separation from the norm and a qualitatively different educational experience. This can have long-lasting impact a student’s self-perception and willingness to take risks. This outcome is simply unacceptable. 

Thankfully, flexible options such as online learning and customized schedules are now available to better meet the needs of students like Oliver. With the support of special educators, improved systems of communication, and professional development in Universal Design, teachers in the general education setting are adjusting their practices to improve accountability and instruction to the full spectrum of students who appear in their classes. Still, there is much work to be done to reform educational practices so that the gifts and capabilities of students with divergent profiles can be fully realized. The time is now and there is not a minute to spare. 

Oliver’s story is still being written and will unfold in unique and beautiful ways. While he chose online learning again for 10th grade, he is open to attending in-person classes in his junior and senior years. I have no doubt that Oliver will be successful, and I am grateful to be a part of his journey.