Covid-19’s forgotten learners

The Department of Basic Education has been unable to support pupils with different learning needs during the lockdown, leaving parents concerned that their children are being left behind.

With schools closed following the announcement of a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, many classes and lessons have been moved to virtual platforms. But, says Tebogo Mokobane, the father of four-year-old Phahamo Ntintili, who has mixed cerebral palsy, children like her are “always an afterthought” and have not been accommodated in this plan.

“Special-needs schools have an adaptive curriculum to deal with different types of children … They [pupils with a disability] have been put aside, which is very hurtful,” said Mokobane. Phahamo’s mixed cerebral palsy is a combination of at least two forms of the disorder, which is the result of abnormal brain development. 

Her mother, Thenjiwe Ntintili, says the lessons are unhelpful because they have no benefit for children with a disability. She says the responsibility to teach these children is therefore shifted to their parents.

Related article:

Edward Msimango, the father of 12-year-old Siphesihle Dlamini, who has a different form of cerebral palsy, said: “Learners with special needs aren’t accommodated at all during the lockdown. There’s no new study material offered from their respective schools and also not from the media platforms, TV and radio [on which lessons are broadcast].”

Msimango says there is no new learning happening at home and he and Siphesihle are just repeating what she learned before schools closed. “Honestly, I do have concerns with my child being at home and not learning. It holds her back, making her slowly lose grasp of what she had already learned this year.”

He says Siphesihle longs for computer lessons with “specific programmes used at school to help children with disabilities to be independent in everyday life”.

Both Phahamo and Siphesihle attend schools for children with disabilities.

No support provided

According to Jace Nair, the CEO of Blind SA, the not-for-profit organisation is unaware of any plans put in place for blind and partially sighted pupils to continue with their schoolwork from home. “Blind SA has provided a few links where visually impaired learners can link into, but we do not know whether it will help. We do not know how visual these lessons are because it was received from a private school,” said Nair.

“The learners in rural areas will have a greater disadvantage because many of them will not have internet. Also, many parents are from the lower economic groups and parents will be faced with the care and stay of these learners during the lockdown. We are not aware of special arrangements being made by the Department of Education or the schools to support parents financially or with food and essential packs.

“Most lessons have to be adapted for visually impaired learners. A majority of parents and learners do not have the technology – laptops, computers and assistive devices and data – for online tuition or for making notes and doing assignments,” said Nair. 

Related article:

The department acknowledges that Covid-19 caught it off-guard. Although it has put measures in place to ensure that learning continues remotely, far more could still be done, especially to cater for the needs of pupils with a disability.

“It would not be feasible to have given braille textbooks and workbooks for visually impaired learners to take these books home, as they are too big. One workbook in braille is equivalent to the size of two encyclopaedias,” said spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga.

“The department is preparing audio files that can be downloaded or played on the radio. Master copies of all textbooks for the visually impaired have been formatted to be uploaded on digital readers where learners have these devices. The department is in discussion with provinces to reach these learners remotely to ensure teaching and learning continues.”

Government woefully unprepared

Nair says parents also need support but questions the department’s ability to provide it, given that the government could not even supply digital readers to schools. “We must also remember the parents of these learners will most probably not be able to help with assistive devices and accessible material because they did not have the training,” he said.

Related article:

“Covid-19 has thrown a huge challenge at us, which found us unprepared to provide education outside school premises,” said Mhlanga. “It is impossible for the department to render its services outside its physical infrastructure. We have been forced to work with other organisations to use their platforms to reach our learners. The department does not have its platforms outside schools to deliver curriculum, monitor it, assess learners and determine their competence.”

Nair is unequivocal in condemning the situation: “There is no doubt that the basic human rights of blind learners have been violated.”

The department is aware that there cannot be a “one-size-fits-all approach for learners with special educational needs”, said Mhlanga. He added that a carefully designed programme needs to be created for these children, but it has been logistically challenging because of the lockdown and restrictions on freedom of movement. 

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.