Reopen schools for special needs students: Experts

Reopen schools for special needs students: Experts

The journey to school, borrowing a friend’s water bottle or compass box and the bonding over lunch are among the countless stimuli that benefit children, particularly special kids. After being deprived of these for around two years, experts say, authorities must reopen physical classes for differently abled children, who have suffered stunted developmental growth which, in some cases, may be irreversible.

Experts say these children are showing an increase in maladaptive behaviours and regression in their functional skills. 

“Due to the pandemic, schools have been closed since March 2020 and its consequences for students have been far reaching. Children with disabilities (CwDs) are best served by in-person instruction,” said Archana Chandra, CEO of Jai Vakeel Foundation, which has been working with children and adults with intellectual developmental disability (IDD).

Huge challenges

Chandra said online schooling poses huge challenges for special needs educators as these children need experiential or activity-based learning. “Online school is an inadequate substitute for physical schooling. Certain strategies that enable teachers to better engage with children can’t be used across a screen. We have seen social isolation take its toll and witnessed children showing increase in maladaptive behaviours and regression in their functional skills. Somatisation, regression and loss of speech are just some of the consequences for CwDs,” Chandra stated.

A survey conducted by the foundation found that 29 per cent of the children regressed in some functional skill/adaptive behaviour. “In data that we collected across schools in Maharashtra, we saw that only 26 per cent were conducting online classes. The rest were being taught via phone calls, WhatsApp and infrequent home visits, not conducive to meeting the requirements of special needs students,” said Chandra. Around 34.2 per cent of students showed an increase in one or more areas of maladaptive behaviours.

She said the closure of the special schools has amplified the caregiving burden. “A severe burnout is observed as the caregivers balance between managing their child’s disability and domestic duties. The families are also grappling with personal loss and reduced incomes. The closure of schools has deprived them of the comfort of social support systems,” said Chandra.

Ankita Rane, mother of a 7-year-old boy with autism, said with other schools opening and life getting back to normal, special schools too should open. “My son’s growth period has been affected with absence of physical schooling as one-on-one physical interactions are not happening and all therapies are at halt. My son, being hyperactive, won’t even sit for online classes,” she said.

Sejal Murkar, mother of a 13-year-old boy with autism, said it was difficult to provide the environment that the special school has at home. “Physical schooling for specially abled children plays a key role as through play and interaction with other children, they build language and communication skills. My son has become hyperactive and it is difficult to make him sit for online classes. His therapy sessions have also got affected,” she said.

‘Kids can be trained’

Dr Samir Dalwai, consultant developmental-behavioural paediatrician, Nanavati Max Hospital, said children with special needs can be reasonably trained to adapt to following COVID protocols. 

“In any case, the special school staff is always trained on how to handle these children. The staff should be sensitised towards helping children with special needs to follow COVID-appropriate behaviour,” he said.