Scary start

Scary start

Advocate fearful special needs students will be left behind in virtual learning environment

Senior staff reporter

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

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WITH the virtual start of the new school year less than a week away, there are concerns that students with special learning needs will be among those left out in the cold.

Autism and disabilities advocate and founder of the Maia Chung Autism and Disabilities Foundation, Maia Chung argues that, in the best of times, students with neurological intellectual disabilities have been left behind or have received less than adequate attention in the education system. She now fears that this will be aggravated in a new reality which relies heavily on digital access.

“It is my assessment, with evidentiary support that can be provided by my foundation and our partners, that we are nowhere near – even under ordinary, best-case scenarios – able to deliver online learning to the special needs cohort across the board, starting from kindergarten to [the] tertiary [level]. We don't have the capacity...I have no confidence in the ability of the existing education system to navigate that for the special needs, educable children, teens and young adults,” she told the Jamaica Observer yesterday.

Chung said she is of this view based on the evidence shown in the 12 years since her organisation has been working nationally, regionally and globally, dealing with complex issues surrounding training and education in special needs, and the deficits in those areas in Jamaica.

She said, based on the deficiencies in the provisions in the education system for neurotypical or normal students, there are serious concerns.

Last week, Education Minister Fayval Williams announced that schools would be “considered” officially reopened on October 5 by way of virtual and electronic platforms, instead of a physical reopening as was planned. There was no outline of specific provisions for those with learning or intellectual disabilities.

“You can't leave this populace behind, they have already been left [behind] during normal times so there has to be some fast-tracking of these issues,” Chung told the Observer.

According to the autism and disabilities advocate, there are internal issues facing the cohort and their support systems, with donor funding drying up as the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of speech pathologists and specialists are reporting loss of income, even having to close their practices to get more stable jobs in other areas, as parents are not willing to send children...our operations have been downsized, people have lost jobs so they can't donate anymore,” she said.

Chung stressed that individuals must take every care at this time to protect those who need special attention.

“If there are places [schools or institutions] taking them, parents should be quite cautious – it is not advisable. These are young people who are having difficulties navigating normal circumstances; the complexity of staying two metres or six feet away from another person is too much to add to that scenario. Keep your children safe, your special needs family members – the teenagers, the young adults – they already have enough of a hard time,” she cautioned.

Furthermore, she said the policymakers should consider a special conference, involving the parliamentary Opposition as well as special interest groups, to iron out the challenges and devise a suitable policy for this segment of the education sector.

“This should be a front agenda item. If you take my foundation, for example…autism has been [a] pandemic from 10 years ago,” Chung stated.

The Government said, in consultation with stakeholders, it took the decision to apply a combination of approaches to resume classes. The approaches include virtual classes through an online learning management system established by the Ministry of Education, as well as access to lessons through 24-hour free-to-air television, and the delivery of printed material.

Insufficient Internet coverage across the island and affordability concerns for poor families and parents remain worrisome impediments for many. Although the education ministry has indicated that it is pushing to effect increased Internet access through community centres and churches, there are fears that this is not enough.

“I challenge somebody to show us all this infrastructure which will take care of the educable special needs cohort, from primary to tertiary, online, so that they will not be left behind. And, if it is not there, why are they not being considered?” Chung questioned.

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