Special needs students grappling with online modalitySunday, September 12, 2021
BY BRITTNY HUTCHINSON
With the restart of virtual classes for the new academic year, students with special needs are among those who continue to grapple with learning challenges.
The concern was raised by the educators of special needs children at St Christopher's School for the Deaf in Brown's Town, St Ann, and Salvation Army School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in St Andrew.
The educators explained that they have been enduring an exacting task to facilitate the students who require a lot of attention and special resources to function effectively in online classes, the modality that schools were forced to adopt in an effort to limit spread of the novel coronavirus.
However, they committed to improving the learning process as best as possible this year and are seeking funds to purchase data for teachers and students to use their electronic devices.
At the school for the blind and visually impaired, which has 127 students on register, Guidance Counsellor Sean Harvey said students who have difficulty accessing online lessons and those who use Braille as their primary mode of learning are the ones most affected.
“It is difficult to measure the exact extent of learning loss, as some students are still not fully available for assessment. It must be noted that with special education, a child who is blind or visually impaired may start formal education later than their peers and are more likely to be behind in learning by an average of two years. This may have compounded the learning gaps being experienced during the novel coronavirus pandemic,” Harvey told the Jamaica Observer.
Pointing out some of the challenges, Harvey said that there is a significant decrease in Braille literacy skills due to the online modality for classes, limited Braille materials and machines, lack of peer support for students who recently lost their sight, and inadequate changes to standardised tests to accommodate students such as a lack of tactile graphics and audio components.
Harvey also said students with visual impairment are more likely to be at risk for COVID-19 than their peers, as they heavily rely on tactile communication and travelling to learn.
According to the guidance counsellor, the students require a more individualised educational programme.
“Students have different eye conditions and must be catered to based on their eye conditions, their learning styles and their abilities. Making learning materials for students must be in different formats, for example, in Braille, in large print, tactile, and audio. Just writing on the chalkboard or using textbooks would not be enough to cater to the needs of all the students within the class,” he explained.
However, Harvey said that the school has been using a number of strategies to enhance students' learning abilities which include conducting assistive technology classes and participation of students in the Ministry of Education's summer programme that took place between July and August.
Commenting on students' performance during the online classes, he said, “Only a few students responded more positively. The majority of the students had challenges that hindered the process of teaching and learning. Factors such as lack of proper home supervision, poor Internet connection, and insufficient data impacted the students' ability to fully participate or remain consistent with online classes. As a result, some students performed poorly, became greatly frustrated with their progress, and became demotivated to participate in online classes, while a few more students with strong parental support maximised the opportunity in an online class.”
At St Christopher's School for the Deaf, which is one of seven institutions operated by Jamaica Association for the Deaf (JAD), Principal Donna Harris explained that online classes require more effort, as instructions and assignments have to be associated with videos for students who use Jamaican Sign Language.
“This can be very time consuming [especially since] most parents are unable to communicate with their child. If the teacher was able to communicate with the parents and the parents in turn inform their child, in some ways the tasks of video creation would be less, but with most parents/family members unable to do sign language, it is very challenging,” said Harris.
“Online school has caused us to work with and try to include the parents in school. Parents are now more aware of the day-to day subject teaching because on most occasions we have to engage them in activities to make it more successful. We also tend to have shorter sessions than regular school time. It is hard on the eyes of deaf and hard of hearing students and teachers to look for a long period at someone signing on screen. Therefore, we tend to have eye breaks after every 15 minutes,” she added, noting that printed material has also helped to facilitate the learning.
Noting that there are 26 students are enrolled at the school, Harris said the older students who would be in grades four, five, and six have adapted well to the online modality when compared to the younger students in grades one, two, and three who are highly dependent on their parents to access classes.
“If the parents are at home and have the time and the patience they will sit with the child, help him or her to attend to the teacher or the work online. However, this is seldom true as most parents are busy [cleaning, washing, shopping] and either take the child with them, leave him/her with grandparents who know nothing about technology or spouse who just does not have the interest to help the child academically,” she said.
Harris added that students with multiple disabilities and autism are at a grave disadvantage, as oftentimes the parents do not have the patience or skills to assist them, causing them to be absent from online classes.
“Students with special needs tend to do better in face-to-face environment where they can be tangibly rewarded — a touch on the shoulder, a smile, a pat on the back, a sticker — and motivated. Those who are autistic do not make eye contact and will not sit to look at their teacher on a computer screen for long,” she said.
Students across the island resumed classes last Monday at the start of the new school year.
In an address to the nation last Sunday, Minister of Education Fayval Williams said the ministry has added audio learning apps that can be downloaded onto smart devices to the existing modalities of online instruction, audiovisual (television and radio) and the printed learning packages or kits to facilitate the teaching and learning process this year.
Additionally, she said two 24-hour television channels have been launched — one for primary students and the other for secondary schools.
Williams also said the ministry will intensify its efforts to reach students who were not engaged in classes last academic year.