Children with special needs possibly suffered a much more severe blow to their academic arcs than others, as the classroom space moved to an online platform from a physical one.

“Since many of them are unable to carry out class instructions independently, nearly the entire teaching process has to be conducted through the parents,” says Tanuka Mitra, special educator at the Blooming Dale International Academy School, Kolkata. “The parents even help us prompt the students to repeat after us through the computer.”

She explains how “there are some more nuanced issues with children with low-functioning autism that cannot be addressed adequately, even with the parents’ cooperation. They require personal and patient attention to hold their pens and books correctly for instance. We are unable to bridge some of these gaps in our online classes.”

To make the classes easier, Mitra indicates parts of the text to the parents and the teaching tools she will use in her classes, like reading cards, physical cues etc., and hopes that the parents can carry them out in the homes. The parents of students with special needs have to attend the classes with the children.

The teachers send the marked-up materials to the parents in advance. “The special needs children cannot study an entire chapter of 10 pages from a textbook by themselves. So we highlight in bright colours so that they are able to distinguish those parts of the text from the rest. The parents have to download these or print them out.”

Tanuka Mitra has been in this profession for about 14 years now, and deals with children within the age group of four to fourteen years. She has students with autism, with Down’s syndrome, and learning difficulties. “Most of my students are academic, since ours is an inclusive school. Not many of them are severely autistic.”

She divides up her classes into three or four students to a group, divided up in terms of the students’ academic level and not necessarily their age. Students’ learning curves are different and therefore they need to be taught differently. “The parents have been given full freedom to contact us even outside of school hours, if they face issues when trying to teach the children,” she explains.

With the shift online, “Children are also missing out on the social interactions that happen in schools - like sharing their tiffin with one another, learning to wait for their turn.”

Sometimes, to trigger communication amongst the students during class, Mitra has them bring in their favourite biscuits or food items with their lunch and plays a memory game - asking the kids to identify each other’s favourites, and match the friend with their favourite food.

“I don’t know how far this is helping, but this food game was always a hit in our classes. Even now I see them paying close attention to their screens when we do this exercise.”

She is unsure when regular classes will resume.

“Since none of these children are vaccinated, being of the younger age group, it is unclear when normal classes will start again. These children are also often more vulnerable to such diseases due to a weaker immune system,” she tells The Citizen.

Sulekha Sarkar, also a special educator at the Blooming Dale International School, has a ten year old son with autism. Her students range from children five to ten years old. “They are not very capable of sitting still and paying attention to classes by themselves. So a mother’s support during the class has become crucial.”

Sarkar says that when there is something the student is unable to communicate through the screen, the parent steps in to fill the gap. “Concentration is one of the main problems.. some things are just not possible to communicate to them in a Zoom class,” she says.

The follow up questions do not apply to all the students identically, says Sarkar, just one of the many reasons why “it is impossible to teach these classes now without the support of the parents.”

Sarkar takes the example of a hyperactive child. “I won’t even be able to make them sit still! Had it been in a physical classroom, you can still force them, or put them in a high child locked chair until they calm down. But for online classes, the mothers are our only hope.”

For children with speech problems, the teachers use cue cards and other props to help them interact in class - tools that are not always available in every household. Sarkar explains that for special needs children of this age group, without consistent hand-holding it is very difficult for them to follow instructions or even comprehend them.

For Montessori level special needs children with speech difficulties, the parent, most often the mother, has to act as a constant buffer, conveying the teacher’s instruction to their child, and then reporting back in real time the child’s response to that instruction.

Additionally, conversations between the teachers and parents have to happen outside of class hours. These are student specific too.

Sarkar’s own son is a student at the school where she teaches. “My classes are scheduled specifically so that my class timings do not clash with my son’s classes. This is how I am able to make myself available to conduct classes, and also be present with my son when has to attend classes. I truly can understand what the parents are going through, because I can see both sides.”

She also brings up a contrary perspective, saying that many students with special needs are in fact benefiting from the shift to online classes. Some parents are thankful for the virtual classroom because earlier their children were unable to fully recount what happened in school, making it difficult for the parents to reinforce the classroom teachings at home.

But now, since the guardians are privy to the instructions and teaching methods straight from the teacher’s mouth, they are able to help their children better at home. “So for some parents, the teachers and guardians merging into the same space has actually been an improvement. Some parents have said that they would prefer that the classes remain online,” says Sarkar.

“Normally we would have parent-teacher meetings for these students once a month. But these day-by-day directions would not be possible.”

However, with the parents being this involved with the schooling process now, pulling students back from this space of dependency will be an issue later. Schools are trying their best to replicate a classroom environment by inventing new teaching tools or making all the materials simplified and available to the parents.

According to a survey done by Adapt, formerly the Spastic Society of India, the number of children with special needs is roughly at 20 million in India. Merry Barua, founder of Action for Autism, a veteran in the field who started her career 25 years ago when her son was diagnosed with autism, estimates the number at around 14 million.

It has been long agreed by experts in the field that special schools in India do not provide enough and adequate aids for the students to progress at their optimum capabilities. This problem has become more pronounced with online classes.

Jyoti Sharma started her career as a special educator in Kolkata, and in 2002 shifted to New Zealand, soon to resume teaching at the Arohanui Special School in Auckland. She points out some differences in the school system for special children in India and in New Zealand during the pandemic.

Sharma says the Arohanui Special School is providing parents with nearly all the equipment needed, but that teacher-student interaction in real time has suffered drastically. Where she taught a class of six along with three teaching aides, that level of interaction is no longer an option.

Rather than holding daily Zoom meetings, Sharma records herself teaching the class and uploads the video so the parents of the students can use it to teach their children. She teaches children aged 13 to 17 years, and has been in the profession for over two decades now.

“Many of my students also have severe physical disabilities in addition to learning difficulties. Some of them are epileptic, some are not able to eat orally - so attempting to conduct classes with them and engaging them online is quite impossible.”

In her physical classroom, Sharma is joined by three teaching aides. Without this assistance, the entire onus is upon the parents. She does not see Zoom interactive classes as a future for her students, and anyway in New Zealand they are only eight weeks into their second lockdown. “We are very confident that this will not be continuing for too long.”

The school has provided sensory packs, learning tools and equipment like walkers to the students’ homes. Most special needs schools have also had vaccination drives for students and their families, says Sharma.

She notes that while many Indian special schools are not accounting for the various therapies, Arohanui has been meticulous with music, health, physical exercise, key competency therapies, etcetera.

Having been a special educator for primary school, intermediate students and high school students, she points out that the social aspect of schooling has been entirely lost, which hampers the progress of children with special needs much more significantly than those without.

It is a similar experience for Sulekha Sarkar. “From what I can see with my son, as well as my students, their power of communication is possibly deteriorating. They are not able to go out and meet their friends. They are stuck only interacting with their mothers for the better part of their day.”

She points out that the students get irritable very quickly and are becoming overly dependent on the support of their mothers. “It’s almost as though the only thing they are aware of in their lives is their mother. They are needing the mom’s help for everything. This is how present the parent is becoming in their daily lives.”

Speaking of her son, “It may be that he is not facing any particular problems when understanding a subject. But it is important to note that outside of a physical classroom environment I am having to help him through the entire thing personally.”

Sarkar also brings up the point that later, children with special needs may find it a greater task to reacclimatise themselves to a physical classroom. “These kids are all growing up. My son for instance is in the fourth standard now. How will he socialise with everyone and sit through a class independently after this gap?”

“Every special child is bound to face this problem when rehabituating themselves when schools reopen,” she says. The social conditioning that is also a very big part of their classroom experience has become reversed, and has to be inculcated afresh when physical classes resume. “I imagine the process will take three months at the very least, for special students to get used to an actual classroom again.”

Getting back into the routine of waking up in the mornings early, eating breakfast and actually travelling to school will also take a significant amount of getting used to. “As a parent of a special child I am able to see very clearly what the problems are and what problems we will imminently face.. My son is calling on me for every little thing now. I am worried if he will even be able to go and attend school for four hours at a stretch.”

“If I send my son to school today, I know he will not be able to cope.. Simply owing to the change in environment he may not be able to solve simple addition, even though he is completely capable of doing so. He may not be able to perform independently without my constant focused assistance,” says Sarkar.

She elaborates that many children with special needs have developed irritable and aggressive habits, exacerbated by the lack of trained support. “With regular school they used to get different kinds of therapy in addition to subject classes, but even those have stopped now.”

“If they do not burn all of their energy in some way, they become hyper. If the children are stuck indoors all day, how are they to burn their energy and overcome the hyperactivity?” She says hyperactivity is a behavioural issue common to most special needs students of this age group.

As such students take some more time to familiarise themselves with new people, getting used to an entirely new atmosphere is a huge leap.

According to Sarkar, finding a balance between behavioural conditioning and academic focus at these points in the students’ careers will be a serious challenge for teachers.

Irrespective of whether they have special needs, a student’s academic arc of what to focus on at specific ages is mapped from the start of their school career. With online classes abruptly thrust onto students and teachers alike, this mapping will have to start again, depending on how far each student has slid back.

“In my personal opinion, the reshaping of their social behaviour needs to come first. If that is not reconditioned first, focusing on academics will be moot. If we cannot correct their behaviour and they are not able to lead their daily lives, what good are academics?”

She adds that if academics is given greater importance, it is likely their behaviour will suffer further. “If a regular student takes three days to get used to normal classes again, it might take a child with special needs three months,” she emphasises.

“We had rulebooks and guidelines for how to go about navigating academics of children with special needs,” says Kavita Gandhi*, a special educator based in West Bengal. “I am constantly anxious that my students will come back to school and not feel safe in my presence. I remember how long it took for them to become comfortable with me. It is a very involved process.”

Gandhi says that all of the physical or tactile clues she used will become obsolete to her students. “For example, they were familiar with what I look like when I admonished them for something. Or the way I rewarded them in class is specific to me as their teacher - these practices have vanished from their daily lives.”

“It is hard to imagine the confusion they will face if their teacher has changed in the time we were distanced from each other, and they have to come back and reacquaint themselves with entirely different rules, and responses from an altogether new person. My scoldings would most likely be different from the next teacher’s. The unexpected leap will be a lot of emotional work for them,” Gandhi explains.

“The tone that I use to simply say ‘Pay attention!’ is something my students took time to get used to when they came to my class, and we as teachers are very aware of that.” She continues that the parents are very likely to take a different tone with the children, simply on instinct.

“I doubt any special educator was prepared for online classes, but I am even more apprehensive of how we will as a community handle the shift back from online to physical. It is an entirely unprecedented challenge, and I do not think we can prepare for it until it is upon us,” says Gandhi.