While the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns were hard on everyone, it particularly affected children with special needs. For children with intellectual disabilities and learning difficulties, going to school was integral to maintaining their physical and mental well-being. While Chennai’s special schools remained shut, the students suffered setbacks as a result.
Despite months of resumption of physical classes, students still struggle to acclimate to their surroundings. Persistent staffing and funding issues in special schools across Chennai have also added to their woes.
Chennai’s special schools during lockdown
Intellectual disability comprises conditions characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour. Children may have varying degrees of difficulty with language and learning, spatial skills, social skills and daily activities. Children with Cerebral Palsy, Downs Syndrome and Autism are some who fall under this category and require constant monitoring from both parents and educators.
Educators say that the impact of the pandemic has been felt acutely by such students of special schools, both those who require one on teaching and those who learn through guided group lessons.
The lockdowns prevented teachers from being able to engage with the children. Then began online classes as a means of continuing their schooling. “The first challenge was that many parents were from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. They could not afford a smartphone. Even those who had a smartphone had to divide their usage time between multiple children in the household. Besides, there were also instances where both parents were working,” noted R Saranya, a special educator.
Once the online classes began, the children had issues with attention span. “It was very hard to make them sit in front of a screen for a certain period. For the first few days, we observed the children through video calls for some 40 minutes and noted down their behavioural changes and needs,” said B Siva Prakash, one of the trustees of Avvai Kapagam a special school in the city.
Based on what they could do independently, the children were assigned home-based activities that would enhance their gross motor skills and fine motor skills. “When activities like chopping vegetables would be done only for some 20 minutes in a classroom atmosphere, the children were able to see the daily life application of such activities at home. This turned such activities into hobbies for them rather than a mere classroom activity,” he added.
He also noted that though the online classes were not as effective as classroom teachings, the teachers were able to gather some information on the children’s behaviour that they could not have otherwise done so in a classroom setting.
A few special schools in Chennai also sent their teachers to the houses of those who could not afford online classes to provide orientation for parents. However, it was not sustainable as the lockdown period lasted for over a year and the schools only had limited resources.
Resumption of in-person learning
But the real challenge came after the schools reopened at the start of this year. “Discipline is key to education. While parents cannot be strict with the children all the time, the teachers were able to ensure that they were well-behaved. Complaints on behaviour, discipline and tantrums were common among the children when they were back in school after the lockdowns,” Saranya said.
Educators also found that many children who were previously on set schedules had changes in sleeping patterns and issues with weight during the lockdown. They had also been deprived of socialisation during this period. “It was difficult for many children to mingle with their peers during the initial days when classes resumed. We planned more outdoor activities for the first few months to help them relax,” she added.
Academics were also a challenging aspect, said Francis Abraham, yet another special educator. “Most of the children had forgotten the academic lessons taught during the previous years. Their writing skills had also deteriorated. We have realised that a holistic assessment on their current level of functioning has to be conducted before framing the lesson plans for the coming academic year,” he added.
He also noted that at least three to five children from economically weaker backgrounds, who earlier attended the school, had dropped out during the pandemic. While few of the children moved from Chennai to other cities, the school has also been unable to reach some other children to find out their reason for dropping out.
Funding and staffing issues in Chennai’s special schools
Special schools in the city are also grappling with staffing and funding issues, especially in recent years. This has been a challenge in managing the changing needs of the children in light of the effects of the pandemic.
The recommended ratio of special educators (those certified by the Rehabilitation Council of India) to children with disabilities in special schools is 1:8. However, not many schools are able to meet this demand. Despite the availability of qualified special educators, schools being unable to pay competitive salaries has in part been a reason for this issue to persist.
Kalaiselvi (name changed), a special educator who finished a Master’s degree in Education, specialising in special education, has not been able to find a suitable job two years after graduation.
She outlined a few reasons for this. The pay scale is traditionally low in the profession. Salary for freshers with B.Ed qualification is Rs 8,000 even in tier 1 cities like Chennai. The highest salary an experienced special educator would get is not more than Rs 30,000.
Besides, few schools, which have residential campuses prefer male candidates over female candidates as it is also easy to accommodate a male staff, while safety concerns are more when it comes to accommodating female staff. “This also leads to differences in terms of opportunities and pay scale between male and female candidates,” she noted.
“The course I graduated in is seen as a course that is tailor-made for parents of children with disabilities. Not many individuals who have no previous connection with such children are seen to be opting for this course. Even when one has a passion for this stream of studies the opportunities are not abundant,” she said.
Commenting on the poor pay scale in the field, Siva Prakash said that the primary reason was that there were no government-run institutions for special children across the State. Most of those who run the special schools had started it out of a service mindset. Since many parents are from economically weaker sections, the institutions do not demand high fees from them. “We charge Rs 350 per month for a child less than 8 years old and Rs 500 per month for a child between 8 and 15 years old. With this income, how will we be able to run an institution that could pay a handsome salary for special educators and therapists?” he asked.
Finding experienced special educators has also been an issue for the schools. “Many individuals opt for the course initially but would practice only for a few years, as the pay is very low. This leads us to employ normal teachers, commonly called subject teachers, who are later trained by senior special educators. In many cases, we recommend the parents of children with disabilities finish a course in special education. This would not only help them handle their child better but would also help in educating other children,” he added.
Jeyapal A of Bethshan Special School said that a recognised institution with required staff and infrastructure should function for a minimum of five years to get government grants. “The State government provides a consolidated pay of Rs 18,000 for two special educators and one physiotherapist per institution. This grant gets sanctioned only at the end of a financial year leaving the institutions to bear the brunt of all staff salaries throughout the year,” he said, adding that the government should provide a time-based scale pay for such staff rather than consolidated pay.
Lack of government involvement in special schools
There were nearly 40 to 50 recognised special schools for children with disabilities in the city over a decade ago. Despite the increasing population, the number of recognized special schools has only come down over the years. The gaps in government oversight also contribute to declining standards among special schools. While the inspections paid attention to infrastructure, there is scarcely any focus on the syllabus or vocational training for the children.
“There are larger issues plaguing the system. There is no prescribed textbook or syllabus for children with intellectual disabilities. Every institution frames its syllabus. There is neither a separate classification for children with intellectual disability in the social welfare department nor is there an exclusive job wing for these children,” said Siva Prakash, pointing out the areas the government should focus on more.
Financial support is another area that the stakeholders call for greater involvement by the government. The lack of government-run special schools, particularly for children with intellectual disabilities, has left the parents with no option but to opt for private institutions.
R Ramani, a parent turned special educator, said that there was no support from the government except for the incentive of Rs 1,500 per month. “The therapy centres in government hospitals like Stanley would usually be crowded and the session would not last for more than 15 minutes. It will hardly have any impact on the child. Whereas a private therapist would charge from Rs 350 to Rs 500 per session. Many parents cannot afford private therapy,” she said.
Siva Prakash added that even when they were ready to pay Rs 30,000 per month, there were not many therapists forthcoming to work in special schools.
How can the situation improve for Chennai’s special schools?
During the early intervention period, when children are below seven years of age, many parents tend to spend lakhs of rupees hoping to cure their child. When they begin accepting the modified lifestyle that is required for the child, they already find themselves in debt.
The gaps in the system that have been outlined show that a large-scale systemic change is required in the field of special education. Greater support for parents, government-run schools and aid to special schools are a small part of easing the load on the system and enhancing the level of care available to the children.
Experts also call for a disability census to be taken across the state to aid in planning interventions. The setting up of at least one government school and therapy centre per district for children with intellectual disabilities will also bridge a crucial gap that currently exists even in Chennai.
Increasing grants for special schools and extending benefits applicable to special educators will help schools tide over staffing issues and skilled educators secure decent pay in the field. Additionally, focusing on vocational education, job skills and creating avenues for employment for children with special needs is also a crucial requirement that must be undertaken by the social welfare department.
While the spotlight on learning gaps due to COVID has fallen on schooling as a whole, the problems that face special schools have been long-standing and only made worse by the pandemic. Timely action is necessary to ensure that the progress made by the children is not lost.