Spectrum of experiences: Children with special needs face up to distance learning demands

The past few months have not been easy for anyone. The threat of COVID-19 has forced many to stay at home or distance themselves from others, upending the status quo.

Many parents have had to make critical decisions to protect the well-being of their children—even if it means having to temporarily pull their children out of school or opt to hire a private tutor instead.

The situation today isn’t ideal, especially for some of the most vulnerable members of society, especially those with special needs. With distance learning being a challenge for millions of students across the country, special education (SPED) teachers and students have to make even more adjustments and face more challenges. 

Special needs parenting in a pandemic

Since the start of quarantine, Liziel Villavicencio-Cosgayon and her 10-year-old son Pawie have been spending their days engaging in activities such as biking, gardening and other recreational pursuits to help stimulate Pawie’s cognition. In between his playtime, Pawie undergoes tele therapy to help him with his speech therapy needs. 

Pawie had been diagnosed with autism when he was only 18 months old. The early intervention he received made it easier for him to transition from a SPED school to a regular school. However, with distance learning requiring students to spend long hours in front of their computers, Liziel had to make the difficult decision of stopping her son from participating in his SPED classes. 

“We explained to him that he will not be able to see his friends and teachers, and we enrolled him in online tutorial classes for advanced lessons so that he can already adjust,” she explains. These lessons don’t necessarily require Pawie to sit in front of the computer as frequently, as his advisers already deliver weekly lesson plans to his house. 

Though Pawie is a “digital native” who is more accustomed to online platforms, Liziel says the shift to distance learning still hasn’t been easy for him. As a parent, it was a decision that she had to make to protect her child from anything that might cause him distress.

Jane Santuyo, on the other hand, has been spending the quarantine with her 16-year-old son AJ, who was diagnosed with Intellectual Disability Disorder when he was six years old. The distance created by the quarantine hasn’t been easy for them as well, with Jane stuck in Cavite while her son is in their hometown province. Nonetheless, they are still able to keep in touch through video calls.

Currently, AJ is not enrolled in any online schooling program. These days, his learning comes from daily experiences—doing household chores, maintaining a basic self-care routine, and lending a helping hand to their family business. While Jane believes that schools can offer online classes for students with special needs, she has made the decision to help her child continue learning through a different approach. 

“SPED students are fast learners,” she remarks, “but they have a special way of learning.”  

Guiding hand

Teachers in SPED, too, have had to make several adjustments for online learning. Finding herself in an unprecedented situation in her field, Patti Mae Clerigo, a SPED educator for seven years, shares that preparation for online classes required thorough research, participation in webinars, and consultations with colleagues abroad. She remarks that online classes are more “challenging”, because they entail a “new set of rules and guidelines to follow, [and a] new set of routines to follow.”

Guided by her school’s training and seminars, Janiel Jaculba, a SPED teacher from Children of Isaac Learning Academy in Cavite, modified her learning materials to be “simple yet engaging”. Aside from contending with the technical difficulties that online classes bring, special needs educators also have to take into consideration the screen time that their learning materials would entail, as Patti notes that her students “have the tendency to lose their focus.”

Although all schools have to adjust to the new online environment, SPED teachers also have to face another set of challenges. Patti explains that online classes severely limit her capability to reach out as she usually would in a classroom setup. “We cannot talk to them face-to-face,” she points out “We cannot console or calm them down, especially if they have tantrums.”

Liziel similarly notes that “online learning and too much [computer] exposure” is not conducive for a smooth learning experience for Pawie. 

Jane is also not particularly happy with the government’s decision to implement online classes. Raising questions of accessibility, she remarks that SPED students do not all have a similar capability in adapting to online classes nor do they all have the necessary devices to transition to online learning. 

Hope for the future

At the end of the day, the education of a special needs child is a collective effort. “It takes a village to raise a child; it takes more than a village to raise a special needs child,” says Liziel. Specifically, it takes considerate government policies to make special education accessible. “I only wish for our country to have more program[s] related to SPED, like having more schools that [would] cater to kids with special needs,” Janiel comments. 

With regard to the current state of SPED in the country, Patti hopes that the government would create more programs and opportunities that cater to students with special needs. “There [should be] establishments, wherein those with disability can freely apply in order to make a living,” she proposes, hoping that in these kinds of settings, those with special needs will not face discrimination and bullying. 

In aiming to build a nation that empowers its citizens with special needs, it is crucial to have programs, policies, and systems in which each of their needs are met. Only when we create this accepting environment can we ensure them a better future.

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