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State must accommodate learners with special-education needs during lockdown

On Thursday last week, I watched Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga provide an update of the sector’s plans since the 21-day lockdown announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on March 23

The lockdown, which is due to last until April 16, effectively means that schools will no longer be opened on April 14 as originally announced, and Motshekga has since said that no one knows when schools will reopen. 

For now, Motshekga has outlined measures that her department and provincial departments of education have taken to ensure that learners continue learning while at home. They include e-learning, and lessons being broadcast on radio and television.

Motshekga was frank in admitting that these interventions are unlikely to reach all learners. She acknowledged the limitations when it comes to online learning and broadcasts. She gave the example that in some homes there are eight school-going children. This would mean that those learners must take turns listening to the broadcasts of their specific lessons, which might not be practical. 

Motshekga said the measures she had announced were not “something we can guarantee will work effectively”, because they have many shortcomings. “But we are saying we are not going to hopelessly say everything will not work … These are just extras we are looking at and saying children who can access these resources [should do so].”

Of course, no one prepared any of us for where we are now. None of us have ever encountered such a situation before. And, as I wrote in this column last week, our government has been doing its best through constant communication and making sure that our new normal is as bearable as possible. 

It has, however, been disappointing to notice that in all these plans by the national and provincial departments of education, children with special-education needs have not been catered for.  

I might be wrong or have missed it, but it does not appear that anyone thought of including resources for special-needs children when they were in the planning phase of providing resources for learners during this lockdown.

In fact, on Thursday last week, Motshekga mumbled something about special-needs children in her speech, but it was not clear if there are plans to assist learners with special-education needs or not . “We urge those who raise or look after children with special-educational needs to get in touch with the department should the need arise. We have been getting lots of calls from them and we would not want to prejudice the wellbeing of children with special needs, but we would also not want to be the ones who are encouraging people to move around and say we are looking after children with special needs.” 

This is what Motshekga said. I do not know what this means. But I do know it does not address the fact that there are no resources that caregivers of children with special needs can use to ensure that their children do not regress during this time. 

Of course, children with special needs are not all the same. In some instances, they follow a different curriculum than that of mainstream schools, meaning it could be a little  cumbersome to co-ordinate and provide for all the needs of the different children. 

However, this is the department of basic education — it serves all children and not only a certain group. It should not be a problem to plan — just like it has planned for other learners — for how children with special needs can receive their lessons during this time of Covid-19. 

After all, the national and provincial departments of education have special-education-needs units, which should have provided expertise about how to cater for special-needs learners. 

The posture taken by these departments also subtly implies that when they think about the economic development and the future of this country, special-needs children are not included in that vision. How else do you explain that the sector has completely excluded special-needs children from their lockdown plans? 

I have previously written in this column that it seems as if children with special needs matter only when they are being paraded on TV after beating all odds to pass matric. Other than that, they are not really a priority.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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