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Online Schools Pros and Cons: How to tell if online school is right for your child with special needs

When looking at an online school’s pros and cons, there’s a lot to consider. No two families will come to the same decision after all, since every child and situation is unique. However, there are a number of universal truths about online school. As a public school teacher who just finished the weirdest semester of my career, let me give you the inside scoop.

Online Schools Pros and Cons: How to tell if online school is right for your child with special needs

Online schools pros and cons- The Pros:

Fewer social distractions

One of the most challenging parts of school for many kids is trying to focus on work. While you’ll never be able to eliminate all distractions (especially for kids who can be distracted by a crack in the floor) online school dramatically helps.

I had a student this past semester who literally had the worst grades in my class before COVID-19. She certainly struggled to perform executive functions, but the poor grades were mostly because of social distractions. After distance learning started, both the quality and quantity of her work skyrocketed. By the end of the year, she had outperformed every other student in my room. After that taste of success and achievement, she said she wants to do online school forever!

Motor breaks

For many parents of children with special needs, motor breaks are essential to a successful day. But even if they’re built into a child’s IEP, sometimes what they get in a classroom doesn’t seem to be enough.

Online school, however, gives you the power to (mostly) control when and how long to use a motor break. You also can prioritize outdoor play over indoor alternatives, or use specific aids like yoga balls or trampolines.

Less exposure to pathogens

Obviously, most parents are at least somewhat concerned with their child contracting COVID at school, or carrying it home to vulnerable family members. This is even more of a concern for parents with medically fragile children. Never mind that in a normal school year, children pick up strep, the flu, stomach bugs, and everything in between.

One major pro of doing school online is not being exposed to all those germs floating around campus. You can’t catch what you haven’t come across, after all!

Calmer morning routines

One comment I repeatedly heard from parents and students alike during spring distance learning was how nice mornings were. Gone were the rushed wake-ups, scarfed down breakfasts, and mad dashes in the minivan, carpool, or bus. Instead, families could wake up more gently, eat better breakfasts, and even stay in their PJs to learn. Some schools also pushed back start times of virtual classes to allow students to sleep in more.

I know one common struggle I see, especially in the upper grades, is sleep-deprived students. If not sleep deprived, many students arrive at school already stressed out from rushed mornings. You should definitely see calm mornings as a huge “PRO” when weighing online schools pros and cons.

Online Schools Pros and Cons: Does Online Learning Work?

Online schools pros and cons- The Cons:

More reliance on parent as teacher

I know online school teachers are teaching live classes a few hours a day or week, plus they’re available by email or text. But sometimes it isn’t enough. Your child is doing her math homework now and doesn’t understand fractions now, and the only adult around is you.

If you found yourself in this predicament in the spring and want to avoid it in the 2020-2021 school year, there are two suggestions I have:

First, do work just before the teacher hosts ‘office hours’ or teaches a class. This way, material (and questions!) will be fresh in your child’s mind.

And secondly, find local tutors. Maybe the teacher doesn’t show up on time, or maybe they struggle with distance learning more than you are. Definitely send a message to their superior, but then find a local tutor. This could be a college student, former teacher, or another parent who’s just better at a certain subject than you. You also can check websites like care.com to hunt for professional tutors.

Finding, transporting to, and paying specialists

If your child receives special education services, this might weigh heaviest on your mind when looking at online schools pros and cons. While obtaining services might get more challenging, there are a few things you can try.

First, try and coordinate with public schools. They’re legally required to follow your child’s IEP and provide them with all required services unless you withdraw from the district completely. Give their case manager a call and ask to set up private appointments with the district’s occupational, physical, speech, or other therapists.

If that won’t best meet your family’s needs, look for private specialists covered by your insurance. Ask other parents of students in your child’s class if they have recommendations. Join local social media groups for parents of children with special needs if there are any rockstar therapists nearby. Plug into the local network and you might be surprised by the solutions other parents are coming up with!

Fewer social connections

Recently, many students miss playing with other children their age on the playground, whispering together in the halls, and eating lunch in a group. After all, adults working from home reported the same sense of isolation without water cooler talk time and office camaraderie.

To help offset the very real consequences of social isolation and loneliness, try and schedule social-distance playdates for your kids. This could mean buddying up with one other family and getting together for “recess” once a week. You could also create online school co-ops with a local family or two. The kids don’t have to be in the same class or even the same age, just willing to spend time sitting nearby and working together.

Also, visit libraries, zoos, and museums (as available due to restrictions). This will help them keep up their social skills and get some enrichment, too!

Loss of school habits

Social habits and manners are only earned after long hours of practice and reteaching for some students. Without in-person school to reinforce them, parents worry about their children sliding back.

To offset that slide, practice hand-raising, standing in line, and other habits for everything at home. Depending on your child’s needs, maybe emphasize this over other academic skills. Also, keep a regular school schedule complete with deadlines and routines at home. Create this with your child’s therapist to make sure it’s appropriate and likely to succeed.

Increased screen time

This is the biggest complaint I’ve heard from parents who are agonizing over online schools pros and cons. We’ve all heard the reported dangers to our children if we give them a screen too often. There are ways to minimize that screen time, however.

First, see if you can print out assignments instead of completing them on the screen. Writing out answers with an actual pencil will be good for them. Then, scan finished copies over to the teacher for grading.

You also can avoid that slack-jawed, empty look on your child’s face when using an iPad. Require them to watch instruction or play educational games standing up, or while otherwise moving. As a bonus the motor break should help keep them even more focused and engaged.

Online Schools Pros and Cons: Is Online Learning Right for My Child?

As I parent myself, I get it. Thinking about online school pros and cons makes me want to chuck a brick at my computer and wish COVID never came to us. But I just want to say this: if you’re honestly trying to do what’s best for your child, I salute you. We’re all working with limited information and with a tight deadline.  And if it’s something you need to hear, I’ll let you in on a secret.

You’re not a bad parent for choosing online school.

In fact, it might end up being one of the best decisions you’ve ever made.


For a comprehensive guide to secular online & traditional homeschool resources. See our 2020 Curriculum Guide.

About the Author

Hillary is a former teacher who went rogue and became a freelance writer. When not offering support and advice to homeschooling families, she tends to her own garden, family, and cat. You can connect with her on her website, homegrownhillary.com.